Business

Shirley Leung

Late-night transit service needs an advocate

An average of 13,000 passengers a night took advantage of extended T hours Saturdays and Sundays.

Kieran Kesner for The Boston Globe/File

An average of 13,000 passengers a night took advantage of extended T hours Saturdays and Sundays.

Add this to the list of #MBTAfails: late-night service.

Not because it was a bad idea, but because the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority found a way to make it so eyepoppingly expensive that the board had no choice but to kill it. The average subsidy for late night bus and train service is $13.38 per ride compared with $1.43 for regular service.

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Given the MBTA’s dire financial straits, I can’t blame the board for pulling the plug on the two-year-old pilot, which is scheduled to end next weekend. But let’s not throw the concept under the bus. If anything, this is the time to launch more experiments.

It’s too easy just to say the demand isn’t there. If only more people were out and about until 2 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday, then the T wouldn’t be losing so much money.

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An average of 13,000 passengers a night took advantage of extended hours. So how many people should have been using it?

There’s no right number. That’s because people should have a public transit option beyond the standard 12:30 a.m. shutdown. This is not about keeping the bar-hopping millennials happy. This is about making sure the dishwashers and waitstaff have an affordable ride home.

According to one MBTA survey, nearly a third of the late-night trips were related to work. The ridership customer base was also more likely nonwhite and had lower household incomes compared with the average T user.

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No wonder the Federal Transit Administration last week slapped the MBTA on the wrist for failing to follow a civil rights guideline that required the agency to study the effect on minorities and low-income riders of canceling the late-night service. Joining the chorus Tuesday were two state senators from Boston, Linda Dorcena Forry and Sonia Chang-Diaz, who called on the MBTA to keep the longer hours until the agency finishes its analysis.

So now what?

The T bungled late night, and here’s an opportunity to start fresh. Instead, government should push the private sector to come up with a variety of options for night owls.

Already, Uber said it would offer discounted fares on uberPOOL rides between T subway stations during late night hours for four weekends starting March 19. UberPOOL is the ride-hailing service’s carpool option, and for a limited period people can ride from, say, South Station to Alewife for a flat $5 fare.

I can also see the company bringing back MegaPOOL, a street trolley service offered New Year’s Eve that picks up riders going in the same direction for $5 per person.

“We’re honestly looking at everything and all technology,” Uber Boston general manager Chris Taylor said.

Matt George, founder and chief executive of Boston transportation startup Bridj, is also champing at the bit. He said he thinks his on-demand bus company can run late-night service for “60 to 70 percent” of the current cost. The T spent about $14 million in fiscal year 2015 on extended hours.

Now, late night Bridj would be different. No trains, just 14-passenger buses. The service would focus on the busiest corridors, whether it’s Dorchester or Cambridge. And like its daytime service, this Bridj would not have fixed routes. Customers download a mobile app on their smartphones, tap in their destination, and the company platform designs routes and stops based on demand.

There is a catch. George said he won’t go ahead unless the MBTA is a true partner, just like a deal the startup struck with the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority.

“We can save the T a bunch of money,” George said, but he cautions that Bridj would not be a “cost-eliminating measure.”

In other words, Bridj still would need some public dough — similar to what a regular T ride gets — in order to make late night affordable to all.

George might be waiting a long time. When I spoke with Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack on Tuesday, she made clear that the T is done taking the lead on this.

“I’m happy to come to a table with other public sector partners and the private sector to discuss other models for there being late night service,” Pollack said.

As for the possibility of subsidizing a private sector effort, Pollack could only offer this: “Beyond coming to the table, that’s all I can say.”

Which might explain why Bob Luz, chief executive of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, has been incredibly frustrated. His organization gave a five-figure sum to help launch late-night service, and his board agreed to double that amount the following year. But Luz said the T never collected the check.

Luz said he thinks bar and restaurant owners would kick in more money toward another effort, but he questions whether there’s commitment on the public side.

“You need somebody that can champion this thing in the public sector if there is going to be outreach to the private sector,” Luz said. “That’s really been disappointing to me. It makes me think we threw away money.”

That leaves Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh. His late night task force recently issued recommendations to extend liquor license hours and allow longer hours for outdoor entertainment in certain areas.

It makes all the sense in the world for Walsh to take up the cause. He can get everyone around the table.

More than just money, late night transit needs an advocate.

Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @leung.
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