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Starts & Stops

Late-night T service may not be far-fetched after all

The “Night Owl” bus once offered late-night commuter service after 1 a.m.

JOSH REYNOLDS /Globe File Photo

The “Night Owl” bus once offered late-night commuter service after 1 a.m.

Most Bostonians have long since given up hope. Late-night service on the MBTA?

Don’t make us laugh.

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It’s an issue that has served as the scourge in the city for years, with no solution in sight: Last trains leave at around 12:30 a.m., the product of a cash-strapped T that can’t pay overtime costs and a deteriorating system that needs nighttime repairs.

That means public transportation in Boston is virtually nonexistent after 1 a.m. — unless you want to Hubway home from the bar — which makes for a sleepy city when many other major metropolitan areas are just getting things started.

But now, there may be hope: A few events in the city this week have made the pipe dream of after-hours T service seem a little more possible.

At a mayoral candidate forum on Wednesday morning (hosted by A Better City, CommonWealth magazine, and the Boston Municipal Research Bureau) transportation and late-night T service were hot-button issues — especially for candidates seeking to appeal to young voters. Few topics rile up the under-30 set quite like complaining about the T’s early closing time.

At-large City Councilor John R. Connolly said pushing for after-hours service on the T would be one of his priorities if he were elected.

“We’ve got to go past midnight. We’ve got to look at the notion of becoming a 24-hour city. Whether it’s 2 a.m. or 4 a.m., that’s a decision we can figure out . . . but truly, we are hurting the economic potential of this city with limited T hours,” Connolly said.

And he promised to push the issue in the State House, saying that he would lean on the Boston delegation to advocate for modernization in the state’s transportation system.

“We ought to be focused on extending the T hours before we go to the notion of large capital projects that we’re probably not going to get funding for,” Connolly said.

Moreover, the state’s transportation finance package, which passed in the House and Senate on Wednesday, also included late-night T service.

One item of the bill, introduced in conference committee, orders the MBTA to issue a request for proposals from private companies that may be able to provide late-night transportation for a lower cost than if the T did the work itself.

So what are the chances that would work?

Stephanie Pollack, associate director at Northeastern University’s Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy, said the plan is not so far-fetched. Other cities have privatized their late-night train service, with some success. And part of the plan could also include asking local businesses or colleges and universities to help foot some of the bill.

“Before, there were two choices — find the money for the T to do it, or not do it at all,” Pollack said. “But now the Legislature is saying, ‘Think a little bit outside of the box. Is there a more creative way of paying for it?’”

Broken countdown clocks

On the subject of late-night T service, I took the Red Line home from Park Street Station late last Wednesday night, and was dismayed to see that the much-touted countdown clocks were not working. Though the sign itself seemed to be functioning, as it displayed the current time, the estimated time of arrival was absent.

I complained on Twitter and got a response from the T: The sign between Park Street and Downtown Crossing was broken, so information on arrival times cannot reach the MBTA control center from the train. The problem remained on Friday afternoon, a T spokeswoman said, though staffers were working to get the system back up and running soon.

My whines on Twitter elicited a response from a former Bostonian now living in the Washington, D.C. area.

“Back in my day there were no clocks,” she said. “We sensed the train by the breeze of T-smell. Or, if it was the Red Line, the screech.”

A guerrilla approach to data collection

Call it D.I.Y. traffic counting.

The process of pinning down exactly how many people ride bikes in Boston is a notoriously imperfect science. Ari Ofsevit, who runs the blog “Amateur Planner” — though he says he’s more “armchair” than “amateur” — was underwhelmed by the state’s data on bike use on Longfellow Bridge. The state’s most recent numbers, from 2011, suggest that a little more than 100 cyclists cross the bridge in a two-hour time frame during a peak period of the day.

Which, if you’ve ever been on the bridge during rush hour, seems like a shockingly low estimate.

So Ofsevit, who rides his bike regularly in the city, hatched a plan to conduct his own ridership count, Ninja-style.

“Instead of getting mad, I got even,” Ofsevit wrote. “I did my own guerrilla traffic count. On Wednesday morning, when it was about 60 degrees and sunny, I went out with a computer, six hours of battery life, and an Excel spreadsheet and started entering data.”

His results?

During the two-hour period he was stationed at the bridge, he said he saw 463 cyclists — more than four times the state’s estimates.

“At nearly 6 bikes per minute for the highest half hour, it equates to nearly 360 bikes per hour — or 10 per 100-second light cycle,” Ofsevit wrote. “Too bad we’re all squeezed in to that one little lane.”

Martine Powers can be reached at mpowers@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @martinepowers.
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