Why Late Night (and Early Morning) Service Must Be Redesigned and Expanded -- Not Abandoned

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UPDATE: letter to the MBTA on late night service cuts.

The MBTA’s Control Board is planning a number of service cuts – including late night service – in the hope of reducing its budget deficit. While the MBTA needs managerial and operational reform, the proposed cutbacks in late night service would not even make a dent in the T’s structural deficit.  To the contrary, they push the T deeper into the negative spiral it so desperately needs to escape.

The core argument against late night service is that low and inconsistent ridership makes it too costly and too highly subsidized per passenger served to continue when budgets are tight.  But this seemingly slam-dunk fact misses the entire point of late night service and, to some extent, of mass transit in general.

Public mass transit is one of the prerequisites of economic growth in this region. Given the reality of our land-use patterns and the limits of our roads there simply is no other way to move the huge numbers of active people to and from home, work, shopping, and entertainment on a daily basis. 

But transit’s role extends beyond rush hour: as housing costs escalate and people are forced to move further away from employment, shopping, and activity centers, people need longer, more frequent, fully reliable, and permanent transit service over a wider range of hours.  Restaurant, entertainment, and hospitality businesses have been urging more late night service for years because they know how essential it is to their ability to attract customers and to their employees’ ability to access their jobs.  Late and early shift hospital and building service employees need the same transportation services – provision of which would be a small step towards the equitable opportunity for all that we still lack.  Even at the upper end of the employment spectrum, providing more late night transit service will also help to maintain the region’s reputation as an attractive place to start new digital and bio-tech businesses, and for the professional employees of those firms to live in.  

Overnight services – late night and early morning – are not frills but an essential component of the region’s economic infrastructure.  This is not a new insight. Boston used to have late night service. San Francisco (“All Nighter”), Toronto (“Blue Night Network), Philadelphia (“Night Owl”), Chicago, and of course New York all provide some degree of overnight transit; today, Boston is the largest city in North America without it – a lack that has and will continue to hurt our bottom-line and our general wellbeing.

It’s true that the MBTA’s current late-night service is not being used as much as was expected.  But we think this is not because the demand isn’t there – rather, it sometimes seems that the MBTA’s current late-night service was designed to fail.  Promises for additional outreach and marketing of the service were not fulfilled.  The routes do not connect efficiently nor form a comprehensive network and demand patterns were not restudied to see how they differ from daytime coverage.  The coverage area omits key low-income and environmental justice areas including large sections of Dorchester, Quincy, East Somerville, Everett, Malden, Lynn, and Waltham. 

Even where the service does go, its temporary nature has depressed demand – unlike the recreational Cape Flyer, potential night service users will only adapt their life or work to depend on it if they are confident it will be around for years to come.  Emphasizing the temporary nature of the service, cutting runs, and raising fares – all on top of an inadequate level of service – severely and predictably reduces ridership and raises costs – a destructive interaction. When service was reduced earlier this year, reduced ridership caused the net cost per rider to double from $7 to $14. A similar drop in ridership and increase in per-rider costwas observed when the previous Night Owl service (2001-05) instituted a higher fare.

In contrast, the specially designed early morning service that has been in place since 1960 and was expanded in 1999 is highly successful, including several trips running with standing room only – at or before 4 AM – even though it is poorly marketed and has many gaps. Its route structure can serve as a starting point for expansion to all night service.

The damage from eliminating late night service is bigger than the direct cost numbers.  Overnight service also supports daytime ridership because people can count on always being able to get home even if plans change.  Having an unpredictable work schedule, long commute, or infrequent transit connections can be very intimidating if it means you might suddenly find yourself caught past the end of service.  And people forced to buy a car for some trips are more likely to use it for others, further reducing T ridership and revenue. 

There has been some talk about replacing T services, including late-night services, with private businesses. We should remember that public transit, and late-night service in particular, will never pay for itself.  If mass transit were profitable the private sector would have already started demanding the right to provide it.  But in no city in the world have private firms done more than cherry pick the subset of routes and customers who can be most profitably served – often leaving people living along lower-income or lower ridership routes in car-dependent inequality.

Like most MBTA bus routes, the existing late night services have significant room for improvement, such as long waits, low on-time performance, poorly timed and inconsistent connections, and the need for a second fare when boarding a third vehicle. All routes lack coordinated connections with other lines, requiring long waits and making these pieces of the transit network minimally useful and largely unreliable. We support experimenting with flexible services, pulse point hubs, shuttles, community circulators, social service partnerships and other non-traditional service delivery methods which may be more efficient and effective for certain low-ridership services, but there are many high-impact changes that can be made even with traditional fixed routes.

Many of these changes would benefit transit service as a whole, especially buses – and especially late overnight services.  The current late night service is barely two years old.  Rather than drop it, the MBTA Boards should order that it – like other T operations – be radically improved and expanded to meet the latent need. Access to public transportation greatly benefits all citizens’ quality of life and allows greater and more equitably distributed levels of economic opportunity. It allows business to thrive and a regional economy to boom, even if the transit system itself is not profitable.  If we regularly give tax abatements and development assistance to large businesses, we can at the least provide some support for their employees as well.

[Thanks to Charlie Denison, Steve Miller and Gabe Distler for contributing content, editing, and to Stuart Spina for historical service information.  Photo via Flickr]