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Traveling in Big Cities Where Tires Fear to Tread

June 26, 1988|SAM TEAFORD | Teaford is copy chief of The Times' foreign desk .

"Should I take my car to Boston?" my friend asked.

I hesitated. "Well, maybe, if you want to drive across the country and see the country."

But then I thought about trying to drive in downtown Boston and shuddered. "No, don't take your car," I said. "Traffic is too jammed."

"Worse than L.A.?" She seemed surprised.

I thought of Boston's paved-over cow paths jammed with oxcarts and mule-powered freight wagons. (Truthfully, there are no oxcarts or mules; it just seems that congested.) In Los Angeles, during the off-hours at least, it is still possible to get around efficiently, to find clear sailing some of the time on some of the freeways.

"Worse than L.A.," I assured her. "Everything is concentrated downtown. In the big cities in the East, everything is packed into downtown."

My friend, who was heading to Boston for a summer program at Harvard, seemed impressed.

Leave Driving to Them

In the East, I told her, they have public transportation, and people actually use it. It's so easy to get around in a big city that you wouldn't want to bother with a car. In Boston especially, I said, the subways and buses are great.

"I won't take my car," she decided.

On my most recent visit to Boston, I did in fact drive into the city, but only to the hotel. My wife and I put the car in the hotel garage at the Prudential Center and left it there until we were ready to leave town. Like Paul Revere, we kept our horse in the stable until we were ready to ride out to Lexington and Concord.

The subway, we found, stopped right at the Prudential Center. In five minutes we were downtown. A transfer to the Red Line, and it was another short trip out to Harvard. A car? Don't be ridiculous.

Boston, like other Eastern cities, also is a good town for walking. A pleasant stroll from the Prudential Center takes you to the Charles River and, if you wish, you can jog back and pretend you are finishing the Boston Marathon. (The course ends at the Prudential Center.)

Hotels at Copley Square are closer to downtown, but it's also possible to walk there from the Prudential Center, as my wife and I did on a sunny day, crossing Boston Common on our way to lunch at "the cradle of liberty," Faneuil Hall.

It should be kept in mind that in the big cities of America, walking and subway riding are best done in the light of day, in areas known to be relatively safe. Visitors should use caution in venturing into unfamiliar territory.

For many non-urbanites, however, going into a city on public transportation is unthinkable, unsafe at any speed. If they can't drive there and park there, they don't want to go. And the thought of going down into a subway? Forget it.

When I visited New York with Connecticut relatives a couple of years ago I dashed ahead to the subway station to buy a pocketful of tokens, enough to accommodate all hands. My relatives, to my surprise, were hurt and angry--momentarily terrified that I was leaving them in the deepest Bronx, never to be seen again except for their pictures on milk cartons.

Public transportation that day--the Fourth of July--was virtually the only means of getting into the city. Manhattan was blocked off to vehicular traffic, so we drove into the Riverdale section of the Bronx and caught the west side (IRT) subway at the end of the line. That took us out of the Bronx and across the river into upper Manhattan.

After a hearty sandwich and a glass of beer at the West End Cafe, Columbia University's popular haunt, our relatives' nerves were becalmed and we strolled down through Riverside Park and across the West Side Highway (which was closed for the day) to the edge of the Hudson, where we joined the crowd watching the parade of the Tall Ships.

Later we returned to the same subway and resumed our ride to the other end of the line, at Battery Park, opposite the great statue and the center of much of the day's activity.

After the fireworks we retraced our subway route, retrieved our car from a well-lighted public parking area and made good our escape to Connecticut (a trip that, on Westchester County's narrow freeways, seemed a good deal more dangerous than the subway).

One problem that a visitor to the East frequently encounters is rain, and that can restrict the traveler's enthusiasm for waiting at a bus stop or walking five blocks to the nearest subway station.

Rainy Departure

On my most recent encounter with the moist East, in late May for a college graduation in Philadelphia, a group of nine of us had planned to take the subway down Broad Street to the Spectrum, scene of the ceremonies. But at departure time, buckets of rain were pouring down, enough to soak anyone within three steps out the door.

Fortunately our doorman at the Barclay on Rittenhouse Square was able to summon a cab, and we were on our way reasonably dry, while others in our party followed in a second cab.

The commencement concluded, and it was a different story. This time there seemed to be no cabs to hail.

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