Riding herd on Boston's impatient, rambunctious drivers

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

OFFICER William Draicchio does not merely direct traffic. He conducts it, with all the flair and fury of the legendary Arthur Fiedler. Each weekday morning Officer Draicchio strides to the center of ``his'' intersection and, with gloved hand raised high, takes charge of some of the most cacophonous commuters in the nation.

Known simply as ``Boston drivers,'' motorists here have a reputation that commands respect even from highway-hardened Californians. Trouble is, it's hard to pinpoint exactly what that reputation is.

Boston-area motorists have been called aggressive, unruly, sneaky, and impatient, but none of those words do them justice, say people who have lived and motored in other cities. Stephen Coyle, director of the Boston Redevelopment Authority, who has been a commuter in Washington, D.C. and San Francisco, attributes Bostonians' behind-the-wheel behavior to the as-yet-undiscovered ``chromosome A,'' for anarchy.

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It's a small wonder, then, that Officer Draicchio is able to maintain order at his intersection, located in Quincy, six miles south of Boston along one of the most notorious commuter corridors. He says it's a feat that comes with experience -- almost 30 years of it.

Motorists pay him heed, ``because they know exactly what I'm going to do next. I never change my [traffic] pattern,'' says Draicchio, who is known to local residents and commuters simply as Officer Bill.

But lest a driver try to pull a fast one, he warns: ``I go after people who try to run the intersection.'' One time, after a motorist refused to back his car out of a crosswalk used primarily by schoolchildren, Officer Bill instructed a student to climb over the car's hood.

Meanwhile, back in Boston, traffic cops haven't been seen on the streets since 1976, when the city decided its officers had more important things to do.

But that may be changing. For the past month, 59 officers have been stationed ``at gridlock areas'' during rush hours to try to improve the traffic flow, says Boston Traffic Commissioner Richard Dimino.

``We believe it's working pretty well,'' says Detective Robert O'Toole of the Boston Police Department, who heads up the experiment. For years, motorists here have believed ``you can do anything you want and you won't get nabbed,'' he says. ``But we are starting to crack down, and we're determined to make them believe it.''

Boston drivers, however, also have their champions.

Doug Erdman of Chelmsford, Mass., says he's had enough of the whining and complaining. In defense of Boston drivers, he recently sent a letter to the editor of a local newspaper: ``What others call offensive or obnoxious driving is very often the impatience that a skilled craftsman has when he is delayed by the bumbling of amateurs. My bet is that the majority of the complainers are occasional commuters, new to the area, or people who don't own cars.''

And he concluded, ``Restrictions that force us to lower our level of expertise just to suit the occasional novice won't work (good Boston drivers will ignore them).''

Motorists, police, city officials, and pedestrians all agree on one thing: If there's chaos in the streets, it's usually the streets that cause the chaos.

``It's an old city,'' explains Detective O'Toole, a lifelong Boston resident. ``It's got great history, but, boy, it's sure got small streets.''

And there's not a straightforward grid design here either. A recent book on Boston traffic, ``Wild in the Streets: The Boston Driver's Handbook'' by Ira Gershkoff and Richard Trachtman, offers this description of the city's layout: ``The hodgepodge of one- and two-way streets pointing in different directions, curving wildly, merging from three lanes to one and back again, and sprinkled with `No Left Turn' signs, is enough to unsettle any anarchist.''

To this willy-nilly topography add: a freeze on the number of parking spaces allowed downtown, a ban on new thoroughfares through the city, and a boom of new construction and development.

In recent weeks, much attention has been focused on new construction and its impact on traffic. One neighborhood group managed to stall city approval for an office complex in the Back Bay on the grounds that traffic would become unbearable in the area.

But ``you don't just stop development because it creates a traffic or parking problem,'' says Thomas Hynes, vice-president of the real estate brokerage firm Meredith & Grew. ``You [have to] strike a balance.''

Boston has struggled hard to build a strong, diversified economy, he says, adding, ``Every silver lining has a cloud.'' At least one company is considering leaving the city, in part because it can't find enough parking for its employees, he says.

There's evidence, too, that traffic has become even more snarled in the past few years. Commissioner Dimino says almost 700,000 vehicles funnel into the city every day, an increase of 145,000 vehicles since 1982.

The problem has led neighborhood groups, businesses, real estate developers, and even a few bona fide Boston drivers to call for a comprehensive traffic-management plan for the city.

Boston officials, in response, are beginning to move on the traffic issue. In addition to the reintroduction of traffic officers, Dimino says, Boston is experimenting with computer-controlled traffic signals, reexamining the parking freeze downtown, improving major roads leading into the city's core, and requiring all future developers to submit extensive traffic-management plans.

Meanwhile, ``when all is said and done, people still get in and out of the city,'' says Ralph Memlo of the Boston Redevelopment Authority. Motorists here have learned how to spin through rotaries (those infamous traffic circles where a number of streets unexpectedly converge). Commuters who work in office towers have learned to look out to see if Storrow Drive is moving -- or if traffic is hopelessly tied up because another too-tall truck has shaved off its top trying to clear a too-low underpass. And, the tourist bureau routinely advises out-of-towners not to bring cars into the city.

``After you drive here a while, you begin to lose your courtesy, like everybody else,'' says Roger F. Lambert, who says it can take two hours to drive the 26 miles to his home in Acton.

But the aggravation may be worth something to him after all. Mr. Lambert has designed a T-shirt that sells like hot cakes among tourists at his two local gift shops. Emblazoned with the words ``I Survived Boston Traffic,'' the shirt front features the imprint of a car tire.

He got the idea six years ago, while talking with a customer about the difficulties of navigating in Boston. Now he sells 18,000 T-shirts a year, and has had to fend off about 20 imitators who tried to copy his design.

``It may be a gimmick, but it's the reality,'' says Lambert, who drives a Dodge van precisely because he can see over the other cars in traffic.

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