It wasn’t too long ago that Greater Boston was widely known as the city where the sidewalks would snap at your heels well before the witching hour. It was surprising given the huge population of college and university students, and their potential all-nighters which have been with us for decades. Having been one of those youthful partiers long ago, I remember how we were forced to be Cinderella clock-watchers — knowing we had to get where we needed to be before the last train or bus shut down at about midnight. So, I was thrilled when in 2014 the MBTA kicked off a pilot late night service. And I was really disappointed when just two years later it pulled the plug. Official cause of death: ridership drop off after seemingly robust initial enthusiasm. Like most, I assumed those late night buses and subways would be well populated with the aforementioned college goers, as well as local professionals who had long petitioned for a reliable safe way to indulge in adult beverages and get to and from sporting events, theaters or restaurants.
So, when the agency reversed course and approved a new late-night service program, I took it as a sign that the city was back on track. Even as it dealt with the ongoing problems of debt and costly repairs. But, this second time around late night test is not a simple rebirth of that first pilot. Transit Matters, a group of public transportation advocates, petitioned for and got the MBTA’s backing for the new overnight bus service called Night Bus. Night Bus uses buses only — much less expensive. And this time, the extended bus service is targeted to communities where shift workers most need transportation. Transit Matters’ Jim Aloisi, former Massachusetts Secretary of Transportation, was himself surprised to see data documenting some 60,000 Greater Bostonians are working between the hours of midnight and 5 a.m. Night Bus addresses what he describes as a “pent up need” for employees working in restaurants, security, entertainment, bars, and hospitals, and Logan airport — all businesses that rarely, if ever, shut down.
The MBTA began testing the early bus hours in April, with routes running in metro Boston, Dorchester, Chelsea, Malden and other neighborhoods and to Logan airport that start in the range of 4:30 am. In September just after Labor Day, the MBTA phased in the expanded hours of the late-night bus scheduled for up to 3 a.m. Taken together this pragmatic plan closes early and late time gaps resulting in an 24/7 plan.
More like 22/7. Now, many more workers can get to their jobs using public transportation. As Greater Boston is an economic engine for the state, this is a win-win. Aloisi says there is clear evidence the early bus schedule is a success, and he expects the same for the late night bus hours. But, that will not be confirmed until the MBTA releases ridership data next month.
I see this nine-to12 month, $2 million pilot as a big step in helping stabilize the T. Night Bus, if proven to be a reliable resource long term, has the potential to reach beyond its targeted population to the nightlife riders and the occasional early riser. And it’s not yet been marketed in the exciting way other cities have stimulated renewed interest in their public transportation systems. Let’s make the pilot permanent, and keep these buses rolling toward a future, which maximizes current resources, and promotes long overdue innovation.