They seem to be everywhere—on highways, country roads, and especially city streets. They force pedestrians to flee in terror. They chase Porsches down cul-de-sacs. They treat red lights like they treat parking tickets: laughed at and disappearing in the rear-view mirror.
“Boston drivers:” aggressive auto-pilots with hatred in their hearts and blood on their bumpers. You’ve heard the rumors. You know the stories. You might’ve even used it as a curse yourself when someone cut you off. Boston has a reputation for baked beans, banning books, and bad driving habits.
But this myth doesn’t quite reflect reality. We should know. We spent our formative years learning to drive there. “Boston drivers,” we are happy to report, aren’t born without proper control of their motor reflexes or good judgment. No, they are regular people forced into an unnatural and dangerous environment: the streets of Boston.
You’d think driving in Boston, where “Boston drivers” form a demented majority, would thrust you—if not into a fetal position—at least into near-fatal or flashback-inducing circumstances. Sometimes it does. Boston drivers heed the creed that “he who hesitates is lost.” If you don’t know where you’re going, then get the hell out of the way. Boston drivers obey the unwritten rule that the crappiest car always has the right of way, regardless of what other traffic rules may seem to apply. After all, a Lexus driver has more to lose in a collision.
But there’s more to it than simple philosophies. As Boston drivers themselves will tell you: it’s a matter of survival. Not yours, theirs.
Boston is a city that grew up without the automobile. In its infancy, Bostonians relied on the horse and buggy (basically, a narrow box on wheels). As a result, many of Boston’s inner-city streets can barely accommodate a Cooper Mini. Moreover, Boston’s streets wind around hills with nary a straightaway in sight. No one cared back then, and it was easier for the horses. No one had yet heard of “city planning,” which even today sounds vaguely Socialist.
But that’s not why Boston is such a perilous place to drive. Other early American cities have narrow, winding streets, but aren’t noted for the Death Race that characterizes Boston’s daily traffic. What’s the real story?
As you drive around the city, trying to find the right exit or a certain address, you will notice a few things … or the lack thereof. Street signs, for example, or accurate highway markers. Missing, poorly placed, and badly labeled signs are so prevalent in the Boston area that natives have learned to pretty much ignore any sign by the side of the road, including speed limit signs.
If you’re driving in Boston, you best know where you’re going before you start. If you’re lost, you’re going to stay lost. If you think you can just circle the block to return to where you were, you’re mistaken. One-way streets and hidden curves will direct you instead farther away from your destination. A friend once called from a pay phone to get directions to a party in a northern suburb. “I don’t know where I am,” he said, “but the area code is 401.” That’s Rhode Island for you folks from Boise.
Boston drivers, in their own skewed way, are as predictable as the next driver. During one year commuting from Malden to Cambridge, we saw a car go through a red light every single day. It became so nerve-wracking, we began stopping at yellow lights. The strategy backfired. Cars swerved around us, honking madly, to zip through the red light anyway.
The streets of Boston favor a mad, hell-bent attitude—survival of the foolish. At least Boston drivers exhibit very little of the road rage common to the highways of LA. That’s a good thing—you could argue that fewer southern California drivers might help the gene pool, whereas Massachusetts drivers might be Harvard students, MIT graduates, or Berkeley School of Music dropouts: in other words, the cream of humanity. Instead of shoot-outs, Boston drivers take their frustration out in different ways, like aiming for critters in the road, pretending pedestrians are fair game, and challenging the laws of physics. Be warned: it’s a mindset that becomes infectious after a mere month of experience.
Lessons Learned: The next time you see someone driving an old beater like he owns the road, get out of the way. Don’t get mad, take pity. If he’s really from Boston, think of where the poor bastard had to learn to drive. That kind of experience will scar anyone. Boston drivers? There but by the grace of God (and geography) go any one of us.
How We Saw It
Communication Breakdown: 4
Customer Dis-service: 1
Discomfort Level: 4
Grunge Factor: 2
Inactivity Guide: 2
Spontaneous Consumption: 1
Fun Fraction: 1/5
Vibe-Rating: 3, if you enjoy danger
If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: Boston Logan International Airport
Native Population: 591,000 (city only)
Normal Attractions: History, architecture, museums, Fenway Park, colleges, nightlife, Boston Common, fine dining, Quincy Market and Faneuil Hall, live music, and Cambridge.
Final Point of Interest: Boston’s nicknames include: Beantown, The Hub (of the Universe), The Cradle of Liberty, City on the Hill, and Athens of America. We prefer “Bawstin.”