Our plan for late-night MBTA service

Utilizing existing buses, T would run all night, every night

WE BELIEVE THERE is an affordable pathway toward establishment of a robust late-night transit service on the MBTA, building on the T’s existing early morning bus service. Our plan would not just offer service on Friday and Saturday nights, as the recently canceled late-night experiment did, but instead offer service all night, every night, and be geared primarily toward getting people to their late-night and early morning jobs. Our proposal would also place Boston in line with its peer transit agencies around the country; of the top 15 transit agencies in the nation, only Boston, Houston, and Atlanta currently fail to provide some overnight service.

The MBTA currently runs approximately a dozen early-morning trips, originally geared toward fare collectors and now oriented more towards early-morning workers. These trips are shown as confusing footnotes on published schedules, but otherwise are not publicized. Buses run modified or combined routes and continue to Haymarket where they meet by 5 a.m., providing access to downtown and a connection to Logan Airport before the subway starts running. A few earlier trips from Dorchester and Mattapan go directly to Logan Airport, arriving by 4 a.m.

study of early morning service conducted by the state Department of Transportation’s Central Transportation Planning Staff in 2013 found these services to be well used. Indeed, there was extreme overcrowding on one route: the single 117 bus trip (Wonderland-Haymarket) carried 89 riders. In response, the MBTA added some additional trips to this early morning service.

Our proposal would use these trips as a baseline for a new, more robust “All-Nighter” service. This would allow the use of current MBTA bus stops and corridors, and be mostly an extension of current service, not an entirely new service. It would provide service to most of the area covered by MBTA rail and key bus routes, putting the bulk of the most densely populated parts of Boston and surrounding communities within a 20-minute walk of a bus stop.

All buses would meet hourly at a central point such as Copley Square, where transfers between routes would be coordinated and guaranteed. Because of the limited (hourly) frequency of the service, it is important to coordinate all services at such a central transfer point that “pulses” once an hour as buses arrive, passengers transfer between routes during a short layover period, and then the buses leave en masse. This effectively prevents missed connections. This approach is used in many small cities where hourly frequencies are common (Portland, Maine, for example, calls their downtown hub the “Metro Pulse”) and is a necessary strategy for this sort of service when a single transfer point is used.

A critical component of the network would be the leg to the region’s largest overnight employer—Logan Airport—where nearly half of all shifts begin before T subway service allows access. In addition, it would allow airport workers, late-arriving travelers, and East Boston and Chelsea residents to get across the harbor between 1a.m. and 5 a.m., and it would make other transportation connections downtown, providing access to major hospitals and other overnight job locations.

Based on current late-night and early morning published schedules, and accounting for more efficient bus usage, we believe this service would cost on the order of $1 million per year. Even if it draws fewer than 1,000 passengers each night (a low estimate based on late night and early morning usage), fare revenues will cover 25 percent of the cost, and the subsidy per passenger will be no higher than the T’s current average subsidy for bus passengers.

And because this service would specifically benefit Logan Airport workers and travelers, a partnership between Massport and the T could reduce costs to the transit agency further.

Both the recently eliminated Late Night Service and the previous “Night Owl” bus service (2001-2005) served a very different population and purpose than this proposal, as they were perceived as focusing on the “drunk college kid” demographic on Friday and Saturday nights only. (The drunk college kid perception did not conform with reality; data from the T’s equity analysis showed otherwise.) While late night partiers would certainly benefit from overnight service, this plan is focused on providing better access to overnight jobs (in addition to Logan Airport, most routes would pass nearby major hospital clusters), especially from low-income areas.

These routes would (unlike the prior “Night Owl” service) mostly follow existing bus routes and stops, providing coverage to the region’s core neighborhoods, but not necessarily to each rail station’s front door. For example, areas served by the Green Line in Brookline would be within a mile of either the 57 bus along Commonwealth Avenue or the 39 bus on Huntington Avenue, so riders would need to walk to those routes. Most of the densely populated portions of Boston, Brookline, Cambridge, Chelsea, Everett, Revere, Malden, Somerville, and Medford would be within a mile of service, and the service would also reach parts of Newton and Watertown. The goal is to make the system both useful and easy to understand for regular and infrequent users.

The T’s current plans to mitigate the removal of late-night service, as we understand them, target a single line or a couple of trips on a single day. In other words, it would consist of minor improvements around the edges, with no real solution to late-night travel. This proposal, on the other hand, would bring overnight service to much of the area which hasn’t had such service in more than 50 years. It would be a win-win solution. By focusing on low-income areas and job access routes (while costing a small fraction of the recent late-night rail service), and by demonstrating that the goal of late-night service is to provide better—and efficient—service to the region, it goes a long way toward being responsive to federal equity requirements. More importantly, it would benefit the traveling public, by allowing passengers to make trips by transit to major job sites at all hours of the day.

Meet the Author

Ari Ofsevit

Boston program senior manager/Board member, ITDP/TransitMatters
Meet the Author

Jeremy Mendelson

Lead bus service planner/Founder, TransitMatters
Meet the Author

It will be important, as well, to implement this plan with discrete goals in mind. The T’s current mitigation plans would add a handful of trips on a few routes during existing service hours. Instead, we believe the T should look to create an expanded network with specific goals, and measure the efficacy of the system in providing better connections to people traveling at all hours.

This plan is designed to be affordable and robust, serving real needs across the region, responding to social and economic inequities, and doing so without relying on the private sector—which cannot and will not offer similar service at such affordable costs. The recently discontinued late-night service was painted as a failure by MassDOT, which compared the ridership to the previous iteration of late-night service. We, however, continue to believe the discontinued service was an unqualified success. We believe it is constructive to build on that success, and to do so in a way that is both meaningful from a service perspective and affordable from a revenue perspective.  Our plan does that. It would enable the MBTA to set a standard for quality 24/7 service – service which is provided in Philadelphia, Seattle, Cleveland, and Baltimore, not to mention peer cities such as New York, Chicago, and San Francisco – and the kind of egalitarian transit service a city and region like ours both needs and deserves.

Ari Ofsevit is a transportation planner and blogger; Jeremy Mendelson is a founder of the transportation advocacy group TransitMatters; James Aloisi is a former state secretary of transportation.