Our plan for late-night MBTA service

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

Meet the Author

Ari Ofsevit

Guest Contributor

About Ari Ofsevit

Ari Ofsevit is a transportation planner with the Charles River TMA in Cambridge, which runs the EZRide Shuttle. He has won hackathons examining data from Hubway, late night MBTA service, and MassDOT real time highway traffic.

About Ari Ofsevit

Ari Ofsevit is a transportation planner with the Charles River TMA in Cambridge, which runs the EZRide Shuttle. He has won hackathons examining data from Hubway, late night MBTA service, and MassDOT real time highway traffic.

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.

  • Shuttle service is needed for the Leventhal-Sidman Jewish Community Center, for seniors, for special events!

  • Mhmjjj2012

    Now this is a commentary worth reading. It not only identifies a public policy problem but also proposes a solution and makes the case for that solution. This is how an informed public discussion becomes possible. I’m not at all surprised that of the top 15 transit agencies in the country Boston is among the only three failing to provide some overnight service. That’s unacceptable. What’s really great about this proposal is it relies on buses for overnight service which frees up the fixed routes transit for much needed maintenance. I’d like to see someone come up with a solution to totally eliminate fare evasion. People getting on the same bus I am but not paying for the privilege irks me well beyond my ability to tolerate that behavior. Then, those fare evaders are obnoxious, inconsiderate and take up two more or seats…each. Also, I’m not a five day a week transit commuter but still a frequent user and I’ve never…ever…seen an MBTA officer…never…ever. In Seattle there was an officer who watched people board in the tunnel and when the doors closed he walked up the stairs each time to stand at the entrance to watch the next batch of people as they arrived. In each case those transit officers were alert and on the job. Where on earth are the MBTA officers? And how difficult is it to keep the bathrooms clean at South Station. On two occasions they were flooded, the toilets were un-flushed and there was no toilet paper or soap. TWICE! DISGUSTING!!!!! And yet, MBTA riders are now paying more for less. Unbelievable.

    • bluishgreen

      I’ve always felt that one of the biggest issue (beyond all the management/financial scandals) is the loss of accumulated revenue due to things like fare evasion–especially since more T stations are unmanned nowadays (the worst is the Park St entrance on the further end of the green-line, where someone is frequently waiting to run-in behind you…), but also big are the legal/institutionalized freebies that are lost revenue sources here.

      For instance, the inbound Logan Silver Line is free. Not only that–it puts you into the subway system behind the turnstiles at South Station, so you also ride the T for free. In most cities, getting to/from the airport is actually a premium in which you pay substantially more than a simple subway/bus fare, and this revenue goes into maintaining/improving services.

      It may seem superficially beneficial to impress tourists with its being free, but what would you really want a tourist to encounter? 1) an initial pleasant surprise of a free ride to the hotel, but a poor experience on the way because of deteriorated services due to accumulated lost revenue, or 2) still a somewhat pleasant surprise to only have to pay standard subway fare all the way to the hotel (rather than a premium), and have a good experience on the way due to more revenue to maintain/improve service. The latter scenario benefits both tourists and locals with better service. Hopefully the new payment system/boxes that they are looking to implement in the next couple years will lead to rectifying this, since people can then do micropayments with their CC/Debit/phone in addition to CharlieTicket/Card.

  • bluishgreen

    At least the T does seem to be making strides in better management in the last six months or so, and is moving in the right direction compared to previous years/decades. Maybe a bit optimistic, but I’m guessing that services like this will happen once all the dust settles. There’s no reason not to have at least a rudimentary bus service overnight. While the subway requires most infrastructure to remain open (regardless of train frequency and ridership levels), bus service is much simpler, doesn’t require tons of infrastructure, and is more flexible—it can change on-the-fly, when a new neighborhood suddenly becomes a hot spot for work and/or play.

    I won’t get into the infinite argument over the Silver Line’s being a bus vs. subway, but this brings-up a question: should the Silver Line (or parts of it) be added to this? We’re talking about 1) airport access for both workers and flyers, 2) Seaport/Innovation District access in general, and 3) Washington St from (seemingly up-and-coming) Dudley Sq, though the South End to Downtown. SL1/2 would maybe have to terminate at Courthouse or maybe Silver Line Way (I don’t know the logistics of keeping open the underground/electric part), and SL5 would be normal (SL4 may not be relevant). The new Chelsea line would be relevant for both workers and airport access.