A year and a half after the MBTA ended late night transit service, it’s back, albeit in a reduced format. At the beginning of this month, some of the more popular bus routes were extended beyond traditional hours, many until 3 AM. Though it is not a perfect set-up – I would be unaffected by the program due to the lack of routes traversing my neighborhood – it is an important step forward for Boston as a city, and one that could help realize the vision of the City of Boston’s Go Boston 2030 plan.
The most important aspect of the introduction of this late night service is that it provides a greater deal of equity in transportation. The workforce that stays on the clock when the T shuts down each night are an essential component of making Boston the world-class city that it is, and those without a car can struggle with the commute. Ride-sharing apps certainly offer a solution, but it’s hardly a sustainable one, as has been pointed out.
Late night service ensures a reliable, affordable transportation option to get them home. In some cases, such as with the early-morning workers at Logan Airport, this service would also enable them to get to their job. It is also worth noting that, of the specific neighborhoods that will benefit from this service, many are traditionally underserved. Reliable transportation to jobs is crucial for upward mobility.
Like the predecessor, this late night service is being offered as a pilot program. The MBTA had indicated will study its usage “to determine if the program should become permanent within the next year.” It is important to remember, though, that public transportation should be offered as an amenity and that profitability should not be the end goal. Certainly, it cannot wastefully bleed dollars and must be properly managed. If additional revenue is needed, the MBTA could explore collecting taxes from businesses that would stand to benefit from the service (i.e., those whose employees’ schedules would align with late night service), like the Downtown Boston Business Improvement District has done since 2011.
While heavy and light rail is typically less expensive to operate due to an ability to handle greater capacity, the utilization of buses for late night service does make sense for this pilot because it offers the MBTA flexibility in the geography to cover. This decision also ensures that track maintenance, performed while the T is dormant, is not disrupted. There is always the possibility that service could be expanded and reintroduced on the T in the future, though.
Reintroducing late night service is a fantastic development, and one that should not be abandoned. MBTA must stay the course and adhere to its mission to provide mobility to riders, many of whom may not have an alternative.