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City Places for City People
Boston: America's Walking City

by Gloria Fallon

America's Walking City is a wonderful place to live--that is, if you are the one doing the walking. During the five years I lived in Boston, four of them were spent blissfully car-free. It took me a while to realize that the pedestrian rules in Boston, and once I caught on, I sold my car, bought a pair of Nikes, and hit the cobblestones.

I don't think Boston is called "America's Walking City" to attract tourists, but instead to encourage locals to sell their cars and free up parking spaces.My little Dodge Spirit was indispensable in New York, but after spending only six months as one of Boston's tortured drivers--crawling down the Mass Pike at five miles an hour, getting hopelessly lost on my way home because of Big Dig detours, and circling the block for an hour looking for a parking spot--I couldn't wait to be rid of it. My car was a hindrance, a nuisance, and it wasn't welcomed in Beantown. When I would tell people that I owned a car, I would get that sympathetic, tilted-head look, and an "Oh…you do? What do you do with it?" as if it were a circus elephant or a space ship.

Driving in Boston is pretty similar to living on Long Island--unless you've grown up doing it, it really doesn't make much sense. Out-of-state drivers coming to Boston should be warned that Beantown has its own set of traffic laws that defy anything taught in Driver's Ed. Lane markers, for instance, are regarded as something painted on the highway for decoration. Not only can you ignore lane markers in Boston, but signaling before veering into someone else's lane is also unnecessary. Pedestrians are allowed to stop traffic whenever they feel like it, since the color of the traffic light is entirely up to their interpretation--they can wait at the curb and respect your green light, or run out in front of you if they feel like it should have been a red light.

As a New Yorker, I was used to a fair amount of lunacy on the road, but even I couldn't adjust to the kamikaze merging and pedestrian rule. Braking every ten feet to stop for an insane person with an apparent death wish was extremely difficult for me. It started to take a great deal of willpower to get my foot off the gas pedal. I used to blare my horn, scream obscenities out my window, and point at the green light, which I had always understood to mean the vehicle has the right of way. In New York, this would have worked--and though the pedestrian may flip you the bird on their way across the street, they'd hustle over to the sidewalk, knowing they're at fault. It was all useless in Boston, however; I realized that as a driver I was the underdog, the low man on the totem pole in this Walking City.

After selling my car, walking actually became one of my favorite physical activities in Boston--more interesting than the treadmill at the gym, and less strenuous than running. Watching kids run through sprinklers at Boston Common's Frog Pond on the walk home from work was better than sitting in rush-hour traffic on Storrow Drive any day. I could avoid expensive cab fares by walking, and also avoid the masses that cram into the T, Boston's subway system, during Red Sox season. I walked everywhere: to work, to the supermarket, to restaurants, and to the theatre. The only two things that made me cab it were weather and special occasions (girls be warned: high heels and cobblestones don't mix).

Without my car for four years, I became something of a bionic walker--thinking nothing of a mere three-mile jaunt to the hairdresser's. A real shopping trip for me consisted of hitting Filene's Basement and all the bargains in Downtown Crossing, zipping through the Boston Common, and heading up Boylston Street, making stop-offs at Neiman's, Saks, and Lord and Taylor, and then making a final tour down Newbury Street, ending the trip with a lovely stroll through the Public Garden. Few friends could keep up with this, and they usually sought permanent refuge at the first Dunkin Donuts we'd come across.

I wore out visiting relatives by accident, taking them on a whirlwind See-All-of-Boston walking tour in one afternoon. After my uncle nearly collapsed in the North End (after cappuccinos and cannoli at Mike's Pastry, he said that was all he wanted to see), and my mom refused to walk any further than Beacon Hill (calling it a day after having a drink at Cheers), I realized that I needed to tailor my tour for car-dependent people. The rest of my visitors saw Boston by Duck Tour, which I would still recommend for anyone, bionic walkers or not.

Without the burden of my car in Boston, I also became a bit cavalier in my newfound status as a pedestrian. I could be seen around town, sauntering smack down the middle of the streets in Beacon Hill, only moving to the sidewalk to let a car pass, and strolling into the Pedestrian Crossing Zone as if it were a red carpet thrown across the street. I was also known to laugh out loud as infuriated businessmen, and teenagers from Revere cursed me out as I crossed in front of their cars. Having been there, and done that, I understood what they were going through, but, hey, Boston's not called "America's Walking City" for nothing.

Gloria Fallon