Boston Driving Tips

Driving survival tips for Boston visitors

Saturday afternoon traffic on Tremont Street in Boston's Theatre District / Boston Driving Tips - www.boston-discovery-guide.com

Driving in Boston is not for the faint-hearted. 

If you're planning to visit and drive in the city, use these Boston driving tips to get a flavor of the city's driving and pedestrian culture.  You'll have a safer, saner, and and pleasanter experience! 

Streets in the oldest parts of Boston were laid out during Colonial times. 

You may be tempted to believe that the streets follow random cow paths from the old days - but that's not totally true. 

Puritans carved out lanes around rocky outcroppings, hilly areas, and coves as they drove their cattle from the "common" - what we now know as Boston Common - to the town spring located near the intersections of current-day Water Street, Devonshire Street, and Spring Lane.

Their descendents hauled away the rocks, leveled the hills, and filled the coves - but the narrow, winding streets remain. 

And then there's the congestion.  Central Boston is small and compact - great when you're walking, but a nightmare when filled with cars, bicycles, and pedestrians, all vying for the same space while going in different directions. 

Ah, the pedestrians . . . Boston is full of them, since walking is usually the easiest and fastest way of getting around.  

Boston pedestrians embrace a culture of jaywalking - sometimes rather aggressively.  If you're driving, you must anticipate that we will step out right in front of your car - and expect you not to hit us!

You need to watch out for bicycles and bike lanes as well. 

Boston streets can be hazardous for bicycle riders, in part because many streets don't have bike lanes - they're already too narrow.  Where bike lanes do exist, some car drivers pull into them to make right hand turns, others double park in them, and still others use them as very narrow driving lanes.   

With the recent arrival of Hubway, we now have even more bicycle riders.

Also, be aware that pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers routinely disregard traffic signals.  This is normal in Boston, and if you're visiting, you need to get used to it.  If you're from a place where drivers, walkers, and bike riders obey traffic signals and cross streets only at corners, you may find the anarchy here a little unnerving. 

Planning a visit to Boston and worried about getting home alive?  Read on as I share my favorite Boston driving safety tips . . . all 14 of them.



Boston driving tips and survival guide
Pedestrians walk in front of on-coming cars on their way to pubs on Union Street
Top Boston Driving Tip:  Never get between a pedestrian and a pub

 

14 Tips for Safer Driving in Boston ???

Yes, 14 safe driving tips for Boston does sound excessive - but trust me, you'll need them.

Boston driving tip #1:  Don't

That's right - don't drive in Boston if you can possibly avoid it.  Seriously!   You'll avoid stress as well as hefty parking fees.  It's also better for the environment.

Walk or use Boston public transportation instead, especially if you're planning to visit our enticing bars or clubs.  (Note - we do have some really great sports bars.)  You'll be much happier taking the subway or a cab than calling a Boston DUI attorney.

Boston driving tip #2:  If you're planning a visit here and absolutely need a car, don't risk smashing up your own

Rent a car, and sign up for all the rental car insurance you think you might possibly need (of course, first check your own insurance coverage for rental cars to make sure you're not paying double). 

Boston streets are narrow, parking spaces are small, and streets spend the winter developing enormous potholes that usually don't get fixed before late fall.  Why risk wrecking your own car?  

Zipcar savings in Boston

Boston driving tip #3:  Get the smallest rental car possible

Remember the narrow streets and small parking spaces?  You'll be happier with a smaller car.  Much, much happier.  And you'll save money.

Boston driving tip #4:  Rent a car for the shortest time possible

Here's another way to save money on a car rental and parking while you're in Boston (assuming that you absolutely must have a car):  unless you need a car for your entire visit, rent one for just the days or hours you'll need it.

Check our tips on where to find the best short term car rentals, including a couple of options you may not know about.

Boston driving tip #5:  Park your car outside of the city

If you're driving to Boston but won't actually need a car while you're here, you can save a ton of money and avoid the hassle and potential liabilities of driving in Boston by parking your car at one of the Boston subway stations that allow overnight parking (go to the MBTA's website and click on "parking" to find a list). 

Park your car in the lot, grab your suitcase, and ride the T (Boston's subway) to your hotel.  Overnight parking costs about $8 at most of the stations where it's allowed - much, much better than the $44+ that some Boston hotels are now charging.  (Actually, I've heard $50+ but don't want to believe it.) 

Plus, taking the subway or a Boston water taxi to your hotel is usually easier and faster than driving in the city.

Boston driving tip #6:  If someone gives you directions, be aware that they may use names that no longer appear on maps . . . and maybe never did

For example, if someone mentions "Prison Point Bridge" when telling you how to drive from Cambridge to Charlestown, you've just heard the historical name for the overpass where Land Boulevard (usually called "Memorial Drive," the name of the road along the north side of the Charles River before it morphs into Land Boulevard) near Route 28 (locally called "O'Brien Highway") and Route 93.  Famed Boston architect Charles Bulfinch designed a prison built near here in the early 1800s - now long gone.

Similarly, someone may give you directions that involve crossing the Charles River on the "Saht and Peppa Bridge" (said without a Boston accent, that would be the Salt and Pepper Bridge).  This is actually the Longfellow Bridge (Route 3, a.k.a. Cambridge Street), originally called the "West Boston Bridge," but "Salt and Pepper" is the colloquial name because its towers resemble salt and pepper shakers.

Longfellow Bridge between Boston and Cambridge
The Longfellow (aka "Salt and Pepper") Bridge between Boston and Cambridge

Think you'll rely on GPS?   LOL.  GPS is not always accurate for Boston.  Hmm, come to think of it, in certain situations, it's usually not accurate.  Read on . . .

Boston driving tip #7:  Don't expect your GPS to be accurate

GPS can be a huge help for most driving situations...but not always in Boston.  Sure, GPS will help you get to Boston and will usually get you to the general vicinity you're trying go, but it can lead you seriously astray just as you think you're about to reach your destination.

Why? 

The biggest headaches involve one-way streets.  GPS often doesn't detect them.  That means that if you follow the GPS directions, you'll be going the wrong way - always dicey.

Closely related are places where you can't turn left, or right, sometimes because the street is one-way in the opposite direction but other times simply for mysterious reasons known only to the Boston Road Gods.  Since GPS can't read the mind of a BRG, you'll be told to turn.  GPS also fails to detect the police officer who will pull you over after you've made the turn.

Then there are all the other stump-the-GPS Boston road conditions...multiple streets with almost the same name, streets bisected by a park or building that fails to show up on the GPS (like you're supposed to drive straight through it), and streets that change names every block or two. 

I could continue - but you get the idea.  Don't expect GPS to be accurate, especially for the "last mile," - and don't make turns (or do anything) that the GPS tells you to do without also checking signs.  And preferably a real map.

Boston driving tip #8:  Traffic signals are just a suggestion

A red traffic light has a universal meaning, right?  Other drivers and pedestrians stop when they see it?  Ditto for stop signs?

Um . . . wrong.  Not in Boston.  Some drivers do stop, while others speed up.  Still others will be too busy texting or shaving to notice the traffic signal.   

In order to leave Boston alive, you must always drive defensivelyEXPECT THE WORST.

Boston driving tip #9:  Don't expect turn signals

If you're from another part of the U.S. or another country, you may be accustomed to seeing those little flashing lights on backs of vehicles that tell you another driver is planning to make a turn. 

Don't expect to see them very often here in Boston.

This lack of turn signals shocked me when we first moved here.  But even more shocking, I found that when I used them myself, other drivers would practically screech to a halt.  Fun, but puzzling.

So after a certain amount of trial, error, and observation, I finally cracked the mystery of what turn signals mean in Boston:   A turn signal means the driver plans to make the turn whether or not other cars happen to be in the way.  Turn signals are reserved for those "I'm gonna be fired if I'm late to work one more time" or "I need caffeine NOW" or "Just heard the Sox are winning, gotta go celebrate" emergencies. 

Other Boston drivers understand these needs, and accommodate.

What about all those drivers who don't signal?  Well, they're still going to turn, and you're expected to know that and not hit them. The good news is that with no dire emergencies involved, everyone can maneuver their way through the intersection all at once. 

Boston driving tip #10:   Expect cars to turn across lanes of traffic

Remember the rule about making right turns only from the right lane, and left turns only from the left lane?

If so, you may be the only person here in Boston who remembers this. 

As a result, you have to approach each intersection knowing the car to your right may suddenly cut in front of you while making a left-hand turn - usually without using a turn signal.

Yes, this is quite dangerous - but that's how it is, so if you drive here, beware . . . especially because this trend has really caught on.

Boston driving tip #11:  Watch out for "easing out"

"What is 'easing out'?" you may well be wondering. 

"Easing out" typically happens on roads with faster-moving traffic, such as Storrow Drive and Route 1.  "Easing out" occurs when a driver waiting to get into the road from a parking lot exit or even from the break-down lane pulls slowly into the right lane ahead of on-coming traffic without looking at the cars rushing toward it. 

This maneuver is based on a heart-felt belief that if you don't make eye contact with other drivers, they don't exist.

As the driver of one of the faster-moving vehicles, you're supposed to anticipate that a car may "ease out" right in front of you, and you're expected to avoid hitting it.  If you do hit it, the accident will be your fault. 

Boston driving tip #12:  Beware of pedestrians

Jaywalking pedestrian on Tremont Street across from Boston Common / Driving in Boston - www.boston-discovery-guide.com
Jaywalker strolling across Boylston Street to Boston Common (yes, there were cars coming in both directions, and no, don't ask me why I was in the middle of the street snapping this photo!

Although jaywalking is illegal if a crosswalk is less than 300 feet away, the fine for jaywalking in Boston is only $1, although it does rise to $2 after 3 violations within a single year.   Drivers must yield to pedestrians in crosswalks, marked or unmarked.   (No, I don't know what an "unmarked" crosswalk is.)  You should be equally careful to not hit pedestrians even if they're not in crosswalks.

I do sometimes see police officers respond to jaywalkers:  they stop the traffic so that the jaywalker can cross safely. 

Now I have to admit...I really like this.  It's sort of like a scene right out of Make Way for Ducklings - but with jaywalkers instead of baby mallards being helped across the street.  I've been the beneficiary of this practice more than once myself and consider it to be one of the things that makes Boston a civilized place to live, and if you're a jaywalking out-of-towner, a great place to visit.

But if you're driving . . . watch out!

Boston driving tip #13:  In rotaries, assume the other drivers have the right of way

Boston, and for that matter, much of Massachusetts, has rotaries - circular road junctions where typically (but not always) cars go only counterclockwise, entering and exiting whenever they think they can do so without hitting or being hit by another car.  In other parts of the U.S. except for Rhode Island, they're usually called "round-abouts."

The idea is that rotaries allow cars to go through intersections faster than they could if they had to stop.  This is probably true, especially in larger diameter rotaries where you can pick up a lot of speed while driving in a circle.

Fortunately, traffic signals now make most rotaries in central Boston slightly safer (although Leverett Circle between Beacon Hill and the West End gets hair-raising when traffic moves faster than 3mph; fortunately, this seldom happens).  If you drive outside of the city, you are likely to encounter many more rotaries. 

Ask any group of Boston locals, "What are the rules about who has right of way in a rotary?" and they'll say, "Rules?  For a rotary?!?" 

Or, even worse, each person will describe rules - but each one will tell you something totally different.

The Massachusetts Department of Motor Vehicles actually does publish rules for rotaries (short version: drivers already in the rotary enjoy the right of way).  You can read the rules for yourself in the DMV manual (see Chapter 4; I highly advise this if you're actually planning to drive here).  But bottom line, you need to expect that no one else knows what the rules are, or if they think they do, they're probably wrong. 

Your best bet? 

Always give the other drivers the right of way, especially if they look like they're going to take it in any case.  This is not the moment to prove how you're right and they're wrong. 

And if you see a car, usually with out of state license plates, going clockwise - in other words, the wrong way - in a rotary, don't even think about entering until the other car safely exits. 

Boston driving tip #14:  Assume the best about other Boston drivers

Boston drivers have a reputation for being rude and aggressive. 

Speaking as someone who visited Boston many times and then moved here from another part of the country, I don't actually find this to be true. 

In fact, I find Boston drivers to be generally courteous, good-humored in situations such as tight jams in parking spaces, and forgiving when one goes the wrong way down a 1-way street and has to back out or make a sudden u-turn.  After all, they've probably had to do these things themselves.

So what accounts for the reputation for rudeness?  Um . . . I believe it comes from the disregard for traffic lights, stop signs, and traffic rules in general.  What comes across as rudeness or aggression to someone from a part of the country where drivers actually obey traffic rules may just be the normal, good-humored local anarchy on our roads.

Which gets back to Driving Tip #1: if you don't have to drive in Boston, don't!

 

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More Boston Transportation Options . . .

Boston's subway - Red Line Short term rental car options in Boston Boston's Hubway bike share system
Related topics:
  • Parking in Boston - Where to park without spending a huge fortune
  • Boston's best Irish Pubs - For when you deserve a reward for not driving
  • A special Thanks! goes to Dan McLaughlin for the information about the Puritans driving their cows from the Common to the town's fresh water spring located in our current Financial District
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