When I think about Boston’s MBTA, my soul shrivels. Having enjoyed far more efficient and pleasant transit in other countries, its squeaky trains, delayed buses and cumbersome kiosks grate on me. Yet, in avoiding it I’ve constrained myself. Driving into the city and finding parking is stressful and costly. Using Uber adds up. Since I had an opportunity to attend a food and travel event in town yesterday afternoon, I decided to reframe my aversion. Could I treat the experience as an adventure, not an annoyance? Still, since I don’t trust the MBTA, I stuck my portable phone charger in my purse in case mass transit failed and I needed extra juice to map my way out of a mishap or use a ride hailing service.
After a brief online search, I discovered I could walk 10 minutes to catch an express bus that would drop me off fairly close to my destination. Not bad! The bus would leave at 4:37pm, and I’d arrive to my event at 5pm, when it started. I showed up at the stop several minutes early. No bus. Had the information been incorrect, or was the bus late? No idea. I checked my phone. It indicated that the next bus would appear in 20 minutes. I decided to wait. If it did not arrive, I would turn around, change clothes, and head for the woods. Surprisingly, the bus appeared. I boarded and fed a $5 bill into the payment slot. Despite traffic, I made it to the event by 5:30pm. Already in full swing, the food (one of the draws!) was quickly disappearing. I jumped in line to grab a light dinner catered by Dig Inn.
The event’s official ending was 8pm. The night before, I checked logistics for my return. I could hop on a different bus around 7:30pm or 8pm with a 30-minute door-to-door travel time. Not being a regular rider, I assumed it ran every half hour. But at 6:30pm the gathering began to dissipate and, after chatting with a few folks, I decided to leave. I stopped at an Au Bon Pain to break a $20 to get exact change for the fare. I bought a banana. With a wad of small bills and my Au Bon Banana, I was ready for anything!
I found the stop for the bus ride back. I checked my phone and discovered I’d need to wait more than an hour to catch that particular bus, or run to catch the commuter rail (assuming I could find it in time). I didn’t know why the 7:30pm bus no longer appeared as an option; such is the mystery of the MBTA. As my battery level dropped, I downloaded Lyft to check fares: at $20, a bit much. Since I was not in a rush, I decided to take the trolley, exit as close to my destination as possible and use Lyft for the final three miles. I muttered the mantra “ADVENTURE!!” as I stuffed, one at a time, a trio of dollar bills into the fare machine and received one quarter and a paper ticket in return. I tried not to inhale the clammy, suffocating air on the platform. Could I imagine I was in an exotic subtropical environment? (well, no) Eventually the trolley showed up. After a few stops, I got a seat.
Exiting about 20 minutes later, a yellow and green Lime Bike parked on the sidewalk caught my eye. I stopped and looked at it. I had seen them around but wasn’t sure what they were. A sign on the bike said the first ride was free. As I pondered the possibility of riding, a young and slender Asian woman came up behind me and asked if I would be taking the bike.
“Yes,” I said.
It was one of those moments when what emerged from my own mouth startled me, when my true desires managed to escape the thicket of social conditioning that suggested I let the woman, clearly prepared, use it instead. Apparently I was going to ride that bike, no matter what, even though I had not installed the app, had no clue how it worked, wasn’t dressed to sweat and didn’t have a helmet. The woman very graciously gave me pointers about downloading the app and setting up an account. I did both, and scanned the QR code on the bike to unlock it. I watched the Lime icon spin on my screen before it indicated that the bike had been unlocked. Except the lock had not budged. I fiddled with it to no avail. Even though I dislike talking on the phone, even more so when I am tired, frustrated or anxious, I called customer support. They kindly pointed out that I had not entered a payment method, required to set up an account, although I swear I did not see that prompt. I took out my wallet, removed a credit card, entered the information and put $10 (roughly what I would have paid for Lyft) on my balance. Still, the bicycle did not unlock. I called support again. They informed me the bike was out of commission.
Meanwhile, a curious onlooker mentioned he had seen other Lime bikes at either end of the street. This older man with a slightly twisted mouth and wearing baggy jeans and a loose t-shirt led me to one of them. I tried unlocking it as he first observed and then (without my asking him to) tried to troubleshoot. Eventually he backed off. Strike two! I dialed support. The agent explained that this bike, too, must be broken. She gave me some ride credits for my bizarre and disappointing experience and offered to stay on the line while I tried to unlock bike #3, a block away. Since the app thought I was riding bike #2, I had to log out. Yet, I could not log in! The agent told me that the “sign in” area for members was at the bottom of the screen. She suggested I reduce the size of the text on my phone so it would all fit. Leaving aside the app’s flawed design, shrinking text seemed like a strange thing to do with the sky darkening and my less than perfect vision. By this point, nearly 30 minutes had elapsed since my first call to Lime. I considered giving up and getting a Lyft. However, I reminded myself to pretend I was abroad, about to have a once in a lifetime opportunity. I changed the text size on my phone, logged into Lime, scanned the QR code and….
Abracadabra! The lock clicked as it slid open. I felt like Indiana Jones.
I put my purse in the front basket, adjusted the seat and pedaled into the now quickly dimming evening. A few streetlights buzzed overhead as they switched on for the night. That the bike is not built for speed meant I traveled at a more leisurely pace, something I find hard to do on my own bicycle. With no helmet to interfere, I could I feel the air on my scalp and forehead. That delicious and almost indescribable sensation obliterated all the hassles. It reminded me how free I felt when I rented a bicycle in Amsterdam many years ago and rode bare headed to my heart’s content, even in the fog, rain and darkness, with no worries about safety. Yesterday, as I cruised along, I spotted a skunk who began crossing the road but changed plans and scurried into someone’s yard. It was a welcome wildlife sighting.
Lime doesn’t have docking stations so you can leave the bike anywhere. I parked and locked it at the end of the street so more people could see it. That gave me a chance to cool off as I walked the rest of the way. In the end, what might have been an uneventful 30-minute bus trip ($5) turned into a 2+ hour multi-modal app-enabled adventure ($13.92 including the Au Bon Banana). I am not sure I would want to repeat this experience exactly, but the unexpected chain of events put me in touch with the profound pleasure of casual cycling. In a fast moving world rife with distractions and novelty, I can easily forget that what’s simple can be satisfying and that even tiny, unplanned adventures can make a big difference. Perhaps I can thank the MBTA’s service gaps for reminding me.