The snow fell heavily for several hours on Thursday, but compared with some of the blizzards that slam the Boston area, this was a storm of moderate size. What was different was the timing of the storm, when the work force was on the job; the decision of many people to leave work around 1 p.m., when the snow was intensifying; and the dependence of people on their cars.
Friday, office workers were comparing war stories. Governor Patrick himself spent 3 1/2 hours in his vehicle as it crawled from Brighton, where he had done an interview at WGBH, to his home in Milton. Some schoolchildren in Boston didn't make it home until 11:30 p.m. because snarled traffic prevented school buses from reaching them.
People who took MBTA subway lines, however, were regaling co-workers with the relative swiftness of their journeys. In Boston Harbor, the seas were tranquil enough for the Hingham commuter boat to run on schedule, with an extra trip added to accommodate prudent folks who stayed out of their cars.
Service on the Green Line D branch to Riverside went smoothly, but the T had to stop the E trains at Brigham Circle because Huntington Avenue was snarled - with cars. And T bus rides were interminable, although General Manager Daniel Grabauskas said Friday that most passengers were grateful to be seated on a warm bus rather than hunched behind the steering wheel for hours. The T encountered major problems only when transit vehicles had to compete with highway traffic.
Commissioner Luisa Paiewonsky said the state Highway Department marshaled more than 3,900 pieces of equipment to dispose of the snow, but it's hard to clear a road when it's jammed with hundreds of cars. Across the state, the number of motor vehicles has risen by 600,000, to 5.6 million, since 2000, and the capacity of the road system has increased hardly at all, except for the Big Dig.
The governor and his transportation chiefs met Friday to discuss how they might improve the response of the state, and to prepare for the storm forecast for tonight and Sunday. The plows will have an easier time because it's the weekend, but the prospect of rain turning to ice portends a different set of difficulties.
Patrick said he regretted not advising commuters Wednesday night to take the subway. Before the next storm, he'll be more prescient. Grabauskas said the T is capable of handling the extra load, but urged businesses and government agencies to stagger their opening and closing times so that rush-hour crushes don't result in service delays.
Like snowflakes, no two storms are alike. But the lesson of the Thursday highway gridlock is not that there was too much snow, but that metropolitan Boston has too many drivers. Next time, if at all possible, leave the car at home.