Boston: the 22-7 city in terms of transit

T eliminates pilot bus service from 1 a.m. to 3 a.m.

BOSTON LIKES TO THINK of itself as a city that never sleeps, but the MBTA says a recent pilot project showed otherwise, prompting the agency to pull the plug on an effort to offer limited service around the clock.

The T’s Fiscal and Management Control Board voted on Monday to make permanent two initiatives that filled in and extended bus service until 1 a.m., but it pulled the plug on a third element that continued limited bus service from 1 a.m. to 3 a.m. The decision means the T will offer no transit service of any kind for a few hours each night.

“We didn’t get the ridership levels we thought we’d get,” said Steven Poftak, the general manager of the MBTA.

The T has struggled for almost two decades with how to serve people who need transit service in the early morning hours.

In 2001, the T launched a night owl service that kept buses running on weekends along popular subway routes, but that initiative was discontinued in 2005 due to low ridership. In 2013, the T extended subway and bus service from 12:30 a.m. until 2:30 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights, but two years later that service was also discontinued due to a lack of riders.

The latest attempt, developed in conjunction with the transit advocacy group TransitMatters, was a cautious, incremental approach that relied on buses targeting employees working odd-hour shifts through the night at the airport, hotels, restaurants, hospitals, and other businesses.

While the goal was helping workers get to and from work, TransitMatters also portrayed all-night service as a point of pride. Of the top 15 transit agencies in the nation, TransitMatters said only Boston, Atlanta, and Houston had no overnight service. The advocacy group also pointed out that Philadelphia, Seattle, Cleveland, Baltimore, New York, Chicago, and San Francisco offered 24-7 service.

After some planning fits and starts, the T broke its night bus service into two pilot projects, with the second pilot involving three separate elements. Both pilots offered service seven days a week, and not just on Friday and Saturday nights.

The first pilot, launched in April 2018, added an earlier run on the T’s most crowded early morning bus routes. That pilot was so successful with riders that it was made permanent in December 2018. The second pilot launched last September. The first element added extra trips to ease crowding on popular buses between 10 p.m. and 12:30 a.m., and a second element added an additional “last run” on popular routes that previously stopped running at 12:30 a.m.

T officials say the first and second elements of the second pilot eased overcrowding and added about 2,000 riders at a subsidy per trip of $4.30 on the first element and $5.30 on the second. As a result, the T control board voted to make both elements permanent on Monday, adding about 160 bus trips overall to the T’s service.

The third element added limited bus service on 15 bus routes between 1 a.m. and 3 a.m. T officials say the third element attracted few riders overall – only three of the bus trips averaged more than 15 riders  and eight had six or fewer passengers. The operating subsidy for the 1 a.m. to 3 a.m. service was $16.30 per trip.

In terminating the 1 a.m. to 3 a.m. service, the control board rejected a plea by Jarred Johnson of TransitMatters to continue the three most popular routes in the 1 a.m. to 3 a.m. time period.

Matthew Moran, a member of the Boston Transportation Department’s transit team, said city officials believe Boston is a 24-7 city that needs a transit system to match. He urged the control board and the MBTA to work with the city to come up with a new approach that would maintain some level of service all night long.

Johnson of TransitMatters said he was pleased most of the late-night service was made permanent, and he said the advocacy group would continue to work for uninterrupted service throughout the night.

“We know anecdotally and through data that there is demand for late-night service,” he said, suggesting that the best way to provide continuous service may be to continue expanding the number of last runs and early morning runs.

Meet the Author

Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

“We’ll just keep chipping away at it from both sides,” he said. “I’m hopeful that somehow we will have a 24-7 transit system.”

Poftak, the T general manager, was noncommittal. “We’re committed to addressing demand where we see it,” he said.