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Out and About in Boston: Befriending Charlie

Christine Koh
Oct. 25, 2007

My husband is pursuing a graduate degree while working, and the demands of his program meant that he was away doing intensive coursework for one third of our weekends this past summer. Not surprisingly, he felt pretty guilty. As he tried to line up childcare for our daughter during some of those weekends, a much-anticipated visit from my mother-in-law literally broke down due to her paralysis over the prospect of negotiating Boston's transit system. It may seem drastic, particularly given that she had no problem negotiating Amtrak to get to South Station, but the idea of ending up like Charlie on the MTA really seemed to be an issue for her.

Public transportation in Boston

While my mother-in-law is no wimp--she's a social worker for underserved populations and she cut her commuting teeth in New York City--apparently, the T can get the best of people, whether it's merely trying to envision the process (as with my mother-in-law), or whether you are among the befuddled herds surrounding the T's fare vending machines. This step-by-step guide--with direct links to help you get to the information you need quickly--serves to demystify the T, so that the logistics of the system don't discourage Beantown's parents, kids, and seniors from heading out to enjoy all that this fabulous city has to offer.


Knowing about access is particularly critical for parents with strollers and seniors or anyone else with mobility limitations. The majority of T buses now offer level boarding, meaning that the bus is at about the same height as the curb, which makes it easier to board with a stroller or wheelchair. The remainder of T busses are equipped with lifts to accommodate wheelchairs or strollers. The T's subway and commuter rail maps indicate which train stations are wheelchair accessible and offer parking. Status information for elevators, escalators, and wheelchair lifts is available online or via phone HIDDEN, HIDDEN press 6, or TTY HIDDEN).

Line transfers (e.g., Red Line to Green Line) can be challenging for wheeled users searching for the right elevator to connect them to their desired train platform. T personnel can provide assistance, as can this guide by Adaptive Environments.

Another access component that may apply to some seniors is THE RIDE program, which provides door-to-door transportation within the T service district for those who cannot use general public transportation due to a physical, cognitive, or mental disability. An approved application is required to take part in this service.


For those familiar with which T route/line they wish to travel, it's easy to view specific route schedules and maps for commuter rail, subway, bus, or boat. However, if you need help figuring out how to get from point A to B, use the T's excellent online trip planner. Specify start and end points based on address, intersection, landmarks, or subway/commuter rail stations. And if you wish, narrow the search further by including time/date, transfer type, services, walking distance, and accessibility preferences. Detailed itineraries provide distance, timing, total travel time, and regular vs. senior/disabled fare information.


One of the confusing elements for transit novices involves the different card and payment options. A breakdown of the similaries and differences between the plastic CharlieCard vs. paper CharlieTicket/cash are listed below. In essence, the CharlieCard (plastic) is best for frequent users of the system while CharlieTickets (paper) are good for the occasional rider.

How the cards are the SAME:

  • Mode of transport: Bus and subway access requires either card (commuter rail and boat use is forthcoming).
  • Reuse: Both cards are reusable and rechargeable. Add value via cash, credit or debit cards, or old T-tokens at station fare vending machines, T ticket offices, and external sales locations (online fare value addition is forthcoming).

How the cards are DIFFERENT:

  • Fare value: The CharlieCard allows you to store value for single or multiple rides and/or a T-pass, whereas the CharlieTicket only stores value for one or the other.
  • Cost: CharlieCards are less expensive per ride and include free transfers; in comparison, CharlieTicket/cash fares are assessed a surcharge, making the fees higher per ride (with the exception of storing a T-pass on a CharlieTicket; see comparison fares).
  • Where to buy them: CharlieCards are available at specific retail locations, whereas CharlieTickets are available at those same retail locations, as well as at in-station fare vending machines. The T website offers a terrific search engine to find out where to buy passes based on town/location, including in-station locations and alternative retail locations (e.g., Shaw's Supermarket, 7 Eleven).

Follow these links for CharlieCard vs. CharlieTicket/cash rates for single rides and multiple use passes: bus, subway, commuter rail, boat, THE RIDE. Reduced fare programs allow seniors and persons with disabilities to apply for discounts of 50% or more off of standard transit fares (application required). Kids 11 and under ride free when accompanied by a paying adult.

Options for tech-savvy families

Finally, for tech savvy families, avoid waiting out in the cold by downloading T schedules to your PDA. Mobile MBTA is available for web-enabled cell phones, Blackberrys, Treos, Pocket PCs, and iPhones.

Christine Koh is a music and brain scientist turned publisher, designer, and freelance writer/editor. She is the editor of BostonMamas.com and the artist behind PoshPeacock.com.

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