Fumbling Toward Portland

Megaloping has only three simple rules. One: All vehicles used must be operated by a public transit company. Two: Using regional or long-distance transit systems is forbidden. Three: No megaloper can walk more than two miles.

Unfortunately, there’s no rule in this social/infrastructural experiment about sticking to the schedule. It’s 1:30 p.m. on Tuesday, May 15, and I’m expecting to meet megaloping pioneers Davide Gadren and Stefan Bertreau at precisely 1:45 p.m. at the Walter Rand Transportation Center in downtown Camden. I’ll be following them on their five-day journey to the end of the megalopolis â€â€? the interconnecting urban areas that span the Northeastern United States. We will megalope through more than a dozen transit authorities â€â€? New Jersey Transit, MTA, ConnDOT and RIPTA, to name a few â€â€? en route to Portland, Maine.

Walter Rand is a hub for NJ Transit buses, the PATCO Speedline, and the River LINE, which we will megalope to Trenton. My South Philadelphian traveling guide, Andrew Keller, a friend of Gadren’s who just led me over the Ben Franklin Bridge’s pedestrian path, shows me a text message Gadren just sent. We won’t be meeting until 3 p.m. because he and Bertreau missed their bus from Cherry Hill. We originally were scheduled to be on the road â€â€? or more accurately, the rails, weaving through the vast interconnected public transit systems of the megalopolis â€â€? by 9 a.m. No worries, though; today is a short day, roughly four hours to New York City. The Megalopers had traveled all the way from Fredericksburg, Va., to Philadelphia the day before.

“We were really fucking exhausted. … We got up at the ass crack of dawn in Virginia,” Gadren will recall later at a hotel in New London, Conn., where we’ll spent our second night together. “It was kind of a tease â€â€? we got coffee as soon as we got to D.C., but we had to throw it out because you’re not allowed to take coffee on the subway.”

Philadelphia is the halfway point of the trip. Originally, Gadren and Bertreau had planned to film a mockumentary while going as far as public transit would take them, all the way to Halifax, Nova Scotia. Wearing suits and carrying lunch pails, they would remark to fellow passengers that they had a hell of a commute â€â€? five days to Halifax. Upon arrival, they would sit down, eat lunch and turn around. But the more they talked, the more the trip became about the notion that they were dealing with one continuous urban territory which, using explorer’s logic, simply needed to be traversed.

“You can actually take ferries from Portland, Maine, to Bar Harbor, Maine, and a ferry from Bar Harbor to Halifax, Nova Scotia,” says Gadren. “But the contention that Halifax is actually part of the megalopolis didn’t really make sense because commuters weren’t actually coming from Nova Scotia to work in Portland, Maine.”

The term megalopolis was first used in the United States in 1957 by the French geographer Jean Gottman to describe what he called the megacity spanning from Washington, D.C., to Boston, Mass., (aka the BosWas supercity), though the term is now used to describe interconnected cities all over the world. Gadren and Bertreau believe they are the first to use the term “megaloping” to describe using multiple transit systems to navigate through the megalopolis. For the megalopers, a megalopolis is not merely a network of overlapping transit systems â€â€? it must be bound by the people who use them to travel on a daily basis.

This is why the SEPTA regional rail, which they took from Wilmington, Del., to Philadelphia, didn’t break their second rule â€â€? people do it every day.

On the way, Bertreau noticed that commuters between D.C. and Baltimore actually had shorter commutes than his own from suburban Howard, Md., to his research engineer job in D.C.

It’s firsthand observations like this that make the trip worthwhile. The patterns that form from the city block to the supercity fascinate Bertreau. He believes a field of study may be emerging to study these patterns and the behaviors of people who will increasingly begin taking multiple transit systems to complete daily tasks.

“Eventually people are going to need a word to describe [this],” figures Bertreau, “so it would be really cool if they used mine.”

Besides expanding English lexicon, the megalopers hope to spread awareness of public transit’s ubiquity. Alternatives to gas-guzzling exist up and down the East Coast. “There are buses and trains everywhere,” says Bertreau. Bertreau travels exclusively by bike and public transit; Gadren owns a car where he lives in Brooklyn, though he says he uses it only to see his aunt on Coney Island and his parents in South Jersey. (As of press time, he will have moved to San Francisco to write full-time.)

To spread the word themselves, they take turns pointing their Handycam without garnishing too much attention from various transit authorities. Editing on Bertreau’s laptop, they condense each day’s filming into a five-minute clip to post on their Web site, www.megaloping.com , and on YouTube. On the first day of the trip, a Google search for “megaloping” yielded two results. By the second night, there were 130 due to people linking to their site.

The landscape montages that make up the bulk of their film also illustrate the subtle differences and similarities that many intercity commuters miss. In most cities, the arriving Amtrak trains have covered ground in a few hours that took the megalopers all day. Throughout the trip, Gadren and Bertreau refer to Amtrak customers and employees as “fascists” â€â€? not so much because of their totalitarian policies, but because of their obsession with efficiency; in other words, making the trains run on time. As the megalopers see it, going straight from point A to point B misses too much in between. Only by megaloping across transit systems is it possible to begin to understand the enormity â€â€? and beauty â€â€? of the megalopolis.

Back at Walter Rand, the River LINE has passed to the waterfront and will return in a few minutes. It’s 2:54 p.m. and the megalopers have not yet arrived. I buy each of them a ticket to save the extra 30 seconds â€â€? we’ll need it. At 3 p.m., the train pulls up, but they are still missing. Once again, Keller has a text message from Gadren. They’re here. But where? Finally, they approach the platform and I slam the big green button to open the River LINE’s doors, thinking they will follow me in with Keller. I turn around to see Gadren buying a ticket. Bertreau is holding their Handycam on a monopod and smiling at us. The doors close and they’re still on the platform as the train pulls away. This is going to be a long trip.

    • Josh Kruger is an award-winning writer and editor-in-chief of Philadelphia Weekly. His past work includes years as a journalist with Philadelphia Weekly, his PW column “The Uncomfortable Whole” winning multiple awards, including the Society of Professional Journalists’ First Place award for newspaper commentary in both 2014 and 2015. Josh has written for a variety of local and national publications, and his work often includes his perspective as someone with lived experience with HIV, homelessness, poverty, trauma, and addiction along with expert analysis from years of experience in journalism and public service following a five year stint in local government communications. He is a member of Philly’s local LGBTQ community, a parishioner at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, a militant bicyclist, and resident of the Point Breeze section of the city with his cat, a senior tom named Mason.

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