MBTA still won’t provide real all-night transit

The MBTA recently announced a pilot program to extend service hours on Friday and Saturday nights. This is a great step for the T, which hasn’t had subway service after midnight in over 50 years. While it does reduce the amount of time the T will have to inspect and fix its aging infrastructure, the other five nights will still have time for track work, while serving the busiest nights for late-night ridership. This is all good.

What Boston will still lack is an actual late-night transit system.

In every other major transit city in the country (More than 25% mode share: NY, Chicago, SF, DC, Philly or more than 1m daily ridership: LA), there is an option for getting around between midnight and 5 a.m. Not just on weekends. Not just until 3. (DC is a slight exception, some overnight bus routes shut down for 30 to 120 minutes around 3:00; but some routes, like the 70, have no more than an hour gap in service.) Service may only come every hour, and it may be a bus instead of a train, but if you need to get somewhere at 2 a.m., you might be able to take a bus there. This is not the case in Boston, and even with added Friday and Saturday night service, it still won’t be. Several smaller cities operate all-night transit systems as well.

Late night transit service is going to cost money, but depending on how it is structured it can serve two economic purposes:

  1. “Cosmetic” late-night service (such as what is being proposed by the T) makes Boston more competitive compared to other cities. Apparently, workers are more likely to want to live in Boston because if they work late on a Friday night and have a couple of drinks, they don’t have to worry about the train shutting down an hour before last call. (This Globe article makes that point.) By calling it “cosmetic” I don’t mean to make light of this, as moving Boston towards being more of a 24-hour city is a laudable goal, and pushing train service later on weekends is certainly a good move. DC operates similarly; the Metro there stays open until 3 on weekends while shutting down around midnight most nights, but they manage to run a few popular bus lines all night, or close to it. And, yes, the workers behind the nightlife will be able to finish their shifts and catch the last train instead of ponying up for a taxicab or driving.
  2. Full late-night service, however, serves a much wider economic purpose: it provides access to employment centers which would otherwise be inaccessible during certain hours. This page has argued this point in the past, making the case that the MBTA or Massport should fund and provide at least a low level of 24-hour service to the airport, where many shifts begin or end between midnight and 5 a.m. But there are other overnight workers too. Overnight service on major transit routes, even if it were only every hour, would provide job access, especially for low-income service workers who spend an inordinate portion of their income for driving and (at the airport especially) parking costs.
How does the rest of the country do it? Because I love charts, here are some charts. I’ll explain more below:

Obviously, New York skews this whole chart. It has more than four times the transit ridership of any other city, and 138 all-night routes (18 subway lines, the PATH, the Staten Island RR, 16 bus routes in Manhattan, 29 in Brooklyn, 47 in Queens, 17 in the Bronx and 8 on Staten Island). Let’s remove New York. Here’s the same chart, sorted by transit ridership, with the number of overnight routes highlighted:

Notice something conspicuously absent in the chart for Boston? It’s the only city with high transit ridership without overnight service. The next largest? Atlanta, which is not known for it’s transit friendliness (i.e. we’re not moving the Red Sox to Danvers) and has a third the daily ridership of the MBTA. And several smaller cities have pretty comprehensive late-night transit systems. Las Vegas makes sense; the city basically operates 24/7. And last call in Miami is 5 a.m. But Cleveland and Baltimore? They’re not what we think of as 24-hour cities. Yet they provide overnight transportation.

So the question is: is Boston going to put a cosmetic “hey look the trains run late filled with drunk people” band-aid on the situation? Or are we going to actually have a discussion of how to provide 24-hour transportation for citizens, and to jobs?
(There’s a longer history of cuts to overnight service. Many cities, including Boston, had owl service in the 40s and 50s. In quite a few cases it survived longer. For example, Portland Oregon cut overnight service in 1986, and Minneapolis had a more extensive network until 1998.)

(By the way, if anyone knows of any other cities with overnight service—other than Newark which runs the 62 all night to EWR, I know about it—let me know. I was surprised that I could find neither a list of transit agencies by overall ridership nor a list of cities with overnight bus service. If anyone wants to help fill out these lists, I’m all ears.)