You can’t get here from there

There’s an excellent Far Side cartoon of which I’m often reminded around here: a man in a car has asked a farmer for directions from Point B to Point A, as indicated by the map in the man’s hand. The farmer is stumped, saying (to paraphrase) “most folks want to go the other way.” This seems to happen to me a lot when in a car or on a bicycle, i.e., when subject to traffic regulations. I have a clear picture of how to get somewhere but not how to get back, thanks to Boston’s uniquely bizarre system of twisting roads and one-way streets. Sometimes you can’t get there from here, but sometimes you can—you just can’t get here from there.

Here, for example, are a couple of routes to and from a point near my home in Cambridge that have given me pause more than once.

It’s super quick and easy to get to the main Cambridge library on a bike. Getting back takes some thinkin’. Google’s suggested routes from A to B and B to A don’t share any road segments at all.
A to B versus B to A: Cambridge Public library

“Sure. I’ll drive you to the South Station bus terminal,” I say, helpfully. Then I drop off my friend and sit amid the taxis and realize I don’t know the best way to get back home.
A to B versus B to A: South Station

It’s not that the routes are objectively difficult; it’s that unlike many other cities where you can mostly retrace your steps, the return trip here often requires knowing a whole different set of directions. It’s not hard to figure out these days, either, what with smarty-pants phones. But to know offhand how to get to any one point from another AND back again is something to be proud of, I think, as it demonstrates a mastery in local geography, which doesn’t come easily. (If you’re a cartographer, you crave this point of pride.) This should also indicate what a difference there is in this town between walking and using wheeled vehicles, at least if you more or less obey traffic patterns on a bicycle, and it explains why I, for one, am so bad at giving directions to drivers like the man in the Far Side cartoon even if I know exactly how to walk there. Boston-area navigation is difficult enough on foot; throw in one-way streets and turn restrictions and you’ve got a vehicular nightmare. (Don’t get me wrong: I’m as hip as the rest of you and almost never drive a car in town, but these problems occur once in a while.)

Anyway, above are just two of my personal examples. The real question is: what are your own favorite examples of knowing how to get from Point A to Point B, but not Point B to Point A? Do share with all of us, and maps are encouraged!

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35 Responses to You can’t get here from there

  1. Steve says:

    If we’re talking cars — and I assume we are — one point of befuddlement occurs very near where I live on Park Drive in the West Fens (the Fenway’s two sub-neighborhoods are deemed East and West Fens by old timers, from whom I take my cue on nomenclature*).

    If you wanted to travel by car between 1270 Boylston Street (for purposes of this illustration, Google Maps works better with this address than with 11 Park Drive) and 1064 Boylston, at the intersection of Boylston and Mass Ave in the East Fens, you’d drive inbound on Boylston, skirting the edge of the Victory Gardens and continuing inbound to Mass Ave. A fairly straight shot. To make the return you would drive outbound on Boylston one block to Ipswich Street; turn right onto Ipswich; follow Ipswich under the Bowker Overpass, past Fenway Park and bear left where Van Ness street shoots off along the south side of the ballpark. You would finally turn right at the stoplight at Ipswich/Boylston.

    Not sure how to get maps into this, but can provide them.

    * On the subject of nomenclature (a geography-related topic in my view), there seems to be a trend toward conflating “Fenway” (sports-jock talk for Fenway Park) and “The Fenway” (the neighborhood around the park). They’re most definitely different, at least to those of use who live there. I’ve seen this on several blogs and on the Globe’s website (THEY, at least, ought to know better). We residents put up with a lot having the ballpark as a neighbor — the traffic, the noise, the Sox-outfitted fans trampling on turf and peeing on lawns — but I don’t see why the neighborhood should have to sacrifice its identity as well.

    • Jake says:

      I can’t embed a map in a comment, but I can link to it!

    • MarkB says:

      From Fenway Park to The Fenway is about an eighth of a mile. Or 700 feet (two home runs). Fenway Park wasn’t named after Mr Fenway. You might want to put Fenway Park in the Kenmore Square district, but it’s not like it’s a reach to put it in The Fenway.

  2. Steve Brady says:

    When I bike from Southie to the Fenway area, I go via Mass Ave, but on the way back, I can use Boylston to get to Summer.

  3. Jake says:

    What if I left NE Baptist to pick someone up at the Jackson Square T, then brought them back to Baptist?

  4. Jake2 says:

    My favorite annoyance is that you can’t from the public garden or Boston Common to MGH/Cambridge without going around the state house the long way. Check this one out.

  5. Adam Gaffin says:

    Ah, so that explains the real meaning behind the old rhyme:

    Lynn, Lynn
    City of Sin.
    You never come out
    The way you went in.

  6. Ben Schmidt says:

    I live in the triangle formed by Davis, Teele, and Powderhouse squares in Somerville; it’s incredibly easy to travel south from there and impossible to return.

    Going from just north of Davis Square to Porter is 0.8 miles; the recommended Google return trip is 2.1, and doesn’t overlap the route there on any stretch. Although that’s an extreme case, there are a lot real examples (to Somerville Ave, to the northeast side of Harvard Square) where it’s almost twice as long one way as the other. After a year there, I still don’t have any real conviction how I should get home from the south. (Particularly on a bike, where there are the ethics of taking sidewalks upstream on one-way streets to consider).

  7. MarkB says:

    Anything involving Charles street. Don’t get me started – I remember when it was two-way.

  8. Mr Punch says:

    From my home in North Cambridge to Logan, I drive down Somerville Ave and past the Science Museum; returning, I take I-93 over the Zakim Bridge to Sullivan Square. I may be doing it all wrong, of course.

  9. Mr Punch says:

    Oh, Charles Street story: When I first lived on Beacon Hill, it was one-way outbound. Early one morning I walked down to Charles and saw work crews rotating all the signs 180 degrees. Watching them, in his trenchcoat, was Mayor Kevin White.”You’re just turning the street around, without warning?,” I asked. He smiled and replied, “That’s one of the fun things about being mayor.”

  10. rednikki says:


    Anyway…I now live in downtown LA, which is (natch) one of the earliest neighborhoods in LA. Due to the many one-way streets, we actually have some of the same issues. It’s not so bad if you’re going from South Park to Pershing Square, but if you’re going from South Park north of Chinatown the route back has no relation to the route there. I learned this the hard way. One wrong turn and you’re on a 4-mile detour. It’s very Boston.

    • rednikki says:

      And I will add in reference to Mr. Punch’s story: my dad drove in Boston for about 45 years, and was actually involved in the Logan renovation/rerouting. I happened to come up two weekends in a row. The first weekend, in-out, no problem. The second weekend, he came to pick me up and we got lost trying to get out of the airport. Seriously lost. We were trying to get to the South Shore and I think we wound up in Lynn. They had literally re-routed every single road in the 24 hours since he’d last been there. Fun times…

    • All the cool people live in this neighborhood!

      Funny, your description of “LA” doesn’t sound a bit like Lower Allston…

  11. elemenoh says:

    At least cars have engines. Try following Google maps bicycle directions. I tried to take a Hubway bike over Beacon Hill from Cambridge St to Park St and it was just not possible with that thing’s gearing (I walked the bike most of the way, defeating the purpose of the bike entirely). I really didn’t want to take the route around the hill and end up in that horrific hideous traffic circle at Cambridge & Charles on a bike!

    Biking around town would hugely benefit from allowing two-way bike traffic on some of the one-way streets, since riders give up going around in big circles and end up riding on the sidewalks to get from A to B.

    • Ugh, yeah, the choice between mega-hill and terrifying traffic if, let’s say, less than ideal. Or the choice between mega-hill and nothing. I’ve always struggled to find a way to get up to the middle of Somerville without riding up some Hill of Doom.

      I’ve heard that allowing counterflow bike traffic on side streets is the default in some other countries. I’ll sometimes go the wrong way on small one-way streets if there’s enough space and I’m not riding the wrong direction in a bike lane (HATE when people do that), but it would sure be helpful to have more of that around here considering the crazy roundabout alternatives.

      • Josh says:

        I worked at City of Somerville for a summer on a Community Path Extension federal grant application (alas, not won). Anyway, I got fascinated with Portland, OR style bike boulevards – where there is a system of streets that are dead ended for cars so that bikes have priority, creating a network for bikers to go all over much of the city. A lot of these bike boulevards parallel the main auto streets, which works in a grid street system

        I tried mapping something like this out in Somerville, but it is very hard on the Boston style street network. Here the main automotive streets run off angle to the side street grids, without parallel streets that go more than a few blocks. You really can’t layout a parallel system unless you take away some of the main streets. The only strait ways from Davis to Union are Elm to Somerville or Summer. Or hitting the Hill of Doom!

      • Jurvis LaSalle says:

        I lived at the corner of Central and Summer in Somerville for 3 years. /me flexes my calves

        What Spring Hill of Doom??

  12. andy says:

    Where is this hill of doom in Somerville? I know I’ve found it once but I’ve never been able to find it again!

    • Josh says:

      Somerville is basically bisected along Highland Avenue (see, it’s right there in the name) by a massive hill (there are supposedly seven hills in the City, but that’s kind of bs). The eastern and central part of the City’s streets, rail and personality are largely shaped by this barrier. South and west of the hill you have Union and Davis Squares, as well as the area around the intersection of Beacon and Washington*. This area is culturally more or less an extension of Cambridge (not trying to start a flame war! I know there are differences!)

      Meanwhile, north and east of the hill you have the more ethnic and still more working class neighborhoods around Broadway and Magoun Square, an area more akin to Medford and Everett. (again – I know there are differences!)

      It will be interesting to see how the Green line changes things, insha’Allah.

      In anycase, here:

      *Sometimes called Duck Village, which I’ve never seen catch on. I think its a real estate marketing move a la SOWA, but it might have some deep history to it.

      • Jurvis LaSalle says:

        Is the climb up Walnut St steeper than Central St from Somerville Ave to Summer St? Who has a decent topo map of Somerville?

        • Josh says:

          I didn’t mean to get everyone all in a frenzy! (And here I thought that the Cambridge line was going to get people upset, not which street *on the same hill* was going to!)

          Anyway, I have no idea which is steeper. I chose Walnut because that’s where I used to live, and the streetview pic looked better.

  13. Guido Stein says:

    Not sure why Google recommends these directions, but for some reason these two routes are significantly different.

  14. Conor says:

    My work commute has almost no overlapping sections!

  15. Lorraine says:

    I have worked in and around Harvard Square at different locations for the last several years, and trying to explain to out-of-towners, for instance, how to get to Church Street from the JFK bridge in a car is simply impossible.

    “Ok, so go straight until you hit Harvard Square. You’ll go straight through two lights, and then the road will kind of dip down and you want to stay to the left. It curves around to the left, and then keep going left at the next light, but sort of in the middle so that you can go straight through the light after it. Then turn right.”

  16. MarkB says:

    “Don’t get me wrong: I’m as hip as the rest of you…”

    No comment. ;-(

  17. Catbus says:

    From my old apartment in Central Square to the Boylston Chess Club in Davis and back. These are Google Maps driving directions, but they’re the same route I followed by bike, as opposed to Google Maps’ biking directions, which are weird.

  18. Chris says:

    Haha wow Andy, you live right up the street from me. I’m also on Putnam.

  19. Daniel says:

    Yay! Time for me to share my bit. I recently moved to Central St next to the commuter rail tracks. Those are some fun hills for sure, but as a long time biker, I find ways around them most of the time. For instance, taking Highland from Davis, Summer from Union, Medford from either Magoun or Sullivan Sq are all pretty gradual rises which lead to no ‘hill-of-doom’ encounters. That being said, if you’re not coming from one of those places, you’re pretty much out of luck

    I was also interested in seeing Portland OR mentioned. I grew up there and still spend some summers back – so I’ve seen these bike-only roads, but never gotten the chance to actually try one out. The problem is a)none by my place and b)Portland is already laid out in such an orderly grid that it is usually more direct to bike on regular streets. Alas, city planners never seem to get this concept. However, I think these would be great here. A two direction, low/no stop, no-pedestrian path from the Longfellow or O’Brien Hwy bridge area to Southie would be awesome indeed

    My most recent A to B excursion: I went to Fire+Ice in Harvard, and realized i was supposed to meet up with friends at the location downtown. I got verbal directions from the host, but took Mass ave to save time!

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