Did the MBTA’s late-night experiment really work?
The one-year pilot program, meant to usher Boston into a new cultural era and pump up the economy, is about to wrap up.
IT’S 12:30 A.M. on a rainy Sunday in December, and the trains are right on time. Even though last call looms at the bars on the busy streets above, the next two hours are when Park Street becomes the busiest station in all of Boston.
I take my place on the Red Line platform. After years spent in the snowy public transportation-starved outposts of South Dakota and upstate New York, this is what moving back to the city was supposed to look like: a nice dinner at Ostra with the wife, just enough alcohol to take the edge off the Boston Holiday Pops concert, dessert downtown after the show, a blindingly expensive ounce and a half of bourbon at The Last Hurrah — all of this unencumbered by the sobriety required to drive (or the small fortune required to take a cab or Uber) back to Quincy. My wife heads home alone, while I pledge, on this night, to ride and observe until the T shuts down.
On one platform, school-age kids are dancing, popping and locking to music nobody else can hear. One pantomimes a bowling windup and two more, standing a few yards away, collapse like pins. The ink from the stamps of the weekend’s parties is still fresh on the backs of the hands of the twentysomethings messing around on their phones. An old drunk is singing tunelessly nearby, stopping only to glare and scream at anyone he catches listening.
If this were a Tuesday, when daylight brings out scores of office drones and students, the last train would be long gone. Instead, the Red Line to Boston’s 24-hour future rattles into the station.
WHEN IT BEGAN last March, late-night MBTA service was supposed to shuttle The City That Sometimes Sleeps into a new cultural era and pump up the economy in the process. “World-class cities offer late-night public transit to support the workforce and a vibrant night life,” then Governor Deval Patrick said when announcing the one-year trial of extended weekend service on every subway line and key bus route. “And Boston is a world-class city.”
Compared with other cities, Boston turns in pretty early. The busiest L trains in Chicago run all night. Philadelphia is dabbling with 24-hour weekend service on its SEPTA trains, replacing round-the-clock bus service and eating the cost increase in the name of citizen convenience.
London is rolling out all-night service on its Tube trains this fall and pitching the increased service as a huge economic driver — adding millions to the economy and thousands of jobs. “London is a bustling 24-hour global city, and by this time next year we’ll have a 24-hour Tube service to match,” London’s mayor, Boris Johnson, said in September. “The evolution of the Night Tube will without doubt make London an even better place to live, work, visit, and invest.” The London service is launching in time for the city hosting the Rugby World Cup — a major international sporting event just a notch below soccer’s World Cup and the Olympics.
A verdict on whether to extend Boston’s one-year experiment with late-night service is expected soon. “What kind of major city — especially one that thinks it’s good enough to have the Olympics — has its entire public transportation system stop at midnight?” asks Malia Lazu, executive director of Future Boston Alliance, an organization that advocates for the city’s progressive growth and has long been pushing for late-night public transit. In a city with Olympic aspirations, a city with more than 150,000 college students keeping weird hours and piling into bars the rest of us haven’t even heard of, a city where artists and entrepreneurs work all night on things the rest of us need explained to us at least twice, can we all, under penalty of an expensive cab ride, be expected to be home by the MBTA’s version of a curfew?
“It’s so crazy to call this progressive,” Seven Cohen says of Boston’s dalliance with late-night train service. “We’re not being revolutionary.” Cohen, director of online fashion purveyor Karmaloop’s private label business, says Boston’s staid and sleepy image has been a tough sell for friends looking for places to settle down and a challenge when it comes to recruiting talent. “Boston is not a destination city unless you’re coming for a great job opportunity or a great education. But Boston definitely has that potential,” Cohen says. “This is a good step . . . but I hope this goes further.”
Changing Boston’s culture is a heavy load for an extra two hours on the train to carry. But Lazu believes the T is as good a place as any to start. “Where does society intersect?” she says. “Public transportation is one of the few places where different people use it at the same time — especially in a city like Boston, which tends to be more segregated than one might expect. . . . It’s a chance for people to experience one another.” And in Boston, 100 feet or so below the Common, Park Street Station is as good a place for that experience as any.
IT’S 12:54 A.M. and everyone on the Red Line is playing on their phones. One man has been shouting into his in a language I can’t identify for the last several minutes. Six feet away — phone in hand — someone is sleeping.
Nearby, a twentysomething plays a video game on his phone, guiding a tiny diamond through a series of little squares and rectangles with his thumbs. It’s called Amazing Brick, he says, and if your diamond hits one of the squares, you lose. Again and again, his not-so-amazing brick smashes into one of the rectangles and he starts over. This is how you spend the first 10,000 years in hell.
If you’re the type who sneers every time you see a red-faced young man in a Santa Claus hat and shirt too small for his gym-swollen pecs, staring vacantly into his iPhone, then you are probably outside the target market for late-night T service. The demographic seems to skew heavily young and male, the smartphones sprout like mushrooms in the dark.
FROM THE LAST Friday in March through January 11, more than 845,000 riders took the T between 12:30 and 3 on Saturday and Sunday mornings, according to an MBTA spokesman. Ridership was steady until the winter holidays, about 17,000 to 20,000 per weekend. From Thanksgiving weekend through the end of the year, it was closer to 10,000. Whether that will be enough to keep the late-night trains running remains to be seen. Funded in part by sponsors — including the Red Sox and The Boston Globe — the one-year pilot program is nearing its end. MBTA officials expect to brief the authority’s board on the results soon. Even with the private sponsors, public money covered almost all of the estimated $13 million cost of the additional service. And whether Governor Charlie Baker plans to put his weight behind permanent late-night service is not clear. With a new transportation secretary named just three weeks ago and his administration still figuring out where the office supplies are kept, deciding the fate of 2 a.m. Green Line service is probably not at the top of the agenda. “The administration looks forward to reviewing the results of the pilot program to determine the next best steps for late-night MTBA service,” a Baker spokesman wrote in response to a request for information about the administration’s plans.
Even Mayor Marty Walsh, who stood beside Patrick when the service was introduced in March and said he was “committed to creating the kind of safe and vibrant late-night culture that’s expected of a world-class city,” is now more circumspect. “I think for the most part it’s been a success,” Walsh says. “They can’t lose money — they have to make money. This year we had a public-private investment, and we have to look to extend it.”
Some who see the service firsthand hope it will be given a longer chance to take hold. “That New York style of just hopping on a train or taking a cab everywhere is slowly starting to come, but it takes time,” says Jamie Walsh, a director at Stoddard’s Fine Food & Ale, a Downtown Crossing restaurant and bar with great beer and a lively late-night crowd. Whether the service has helped his bottom line he can’t say for sure. Walsh (no relation to Mayor Walsh) says he still sees a lot of Uber cars pull up out front, and he hasn’t polled customers on where they’re coming from or where they’re going. But it feels as if the late-night crowd is a little bigger lately, he says, and his bartenders will often save some money by taking the train home after their shifts. “This is all baby steps,” Walsh says. “Somebody has to ride it out.”
IT’S 1:05 A.M. and George Xu gets on the Red Line with a trampoline. “It’s a saucer chair,” the 26-year-old corrects, but it just looks like a trampoline: a circular metal frame with a diameter nearly as tall as he is, netted with black fabric.
After a party, Xu and his girlfriend visited another student who was moving. His girlfriend liked the chair, but when they got it downstairs they found it wouldn’t fit in her rental car. So while she’s driving home in the world’s smallest rental car, Xu is riding the T to Porter Square with a small UFO. If it weren’t for the late-night service, Xu says, “I would be doing a lot of walking.” At Porter Square, he rolls his cargo off the train.
Xu was coming from a party, but the late-night T is hardly a party bus. If you speak New Yorker, the 1 a.m. Red Line is more like the last Metro North to New Haven than the 1 train through the Village. Growing up in Connecticut and living briefly on New York’s Upper West Side after college, the late-night subway experience I remember was a little livelier. In a city with this many college kids and this much going on, why do the last few stops look like scenes from I Am Legend?
IF THE FATE of late-night service rests on a perfunctory look at its balance sheet, the city will be getting a good night’s sleep again very soon. On pace for about a million rides in its first year, the service is costing the MBTA roughly $13 per ride. A standard fare is $2.65, and monthly passes, discounts applied to Charlie Cards, and other reductions surely bring the average fare paid well below that. An MBTA spokesman says the agency is not ready to discuss the future of the program publicly, but it is hard to imagine the service becoming self-sufficient any time soon. “It’s a public agency, and they can’t be running a deficit,” says the mayor, who vowed to work with the MBTA to try to get the pilot extended. “The voters of Massachusetts voting down the gas tax didn’t help matters,” Walsh adds. “That was a revenue stream that was going to go into the infrastructure of the MBTA. That’s going to be a big gaping hole now.” But Walsh says the service has been “a boon to the Boston economy,” and a deeper look at the data produced in the first few months of late-night service reveals ancillary economic benefits that are difficult to measure.
Using ridership and other data released over the summer as part of a Hacker League contest sponsored by the MBTA, the city, and others, a three-person team made up of engineers and data analysts who also happen to be public transit enthusiasts uncovered effects of late-night service that went well beyond closing time. Contest winners Andy Monat, Andrew Collier, and Ari Ofsevit wrote in a blog about the contest that in addition to the new riders during the extended hours, their research found tens of thousands more riders earlier in the evening as well. “In fact, there are probably a number of people who don’t even show up in these data, but take the train rather than driving because they know that if they are out later than expected, they can still get home,” they wrote, estimating that the true ridership increase due to late-night service was likely about double the raw number of rides between 12:30 and 3 a.m. — still not revenue-neutral, but a lot closer to the per-ride cost at other off-peak hours. “Most service the MBTA provides loses money,” says Monat, who runs mbtainfo.com, an independent website and Twitter account that tracks T arrival information. “They make money running a totally full Red Line train during rush hour. You probably don’t make money running a midday train, but without that service, you can’t build your life around it.”
Monat says he is probably not a typical user of late-night service. The 37-year-old lives in Melrose, out near the end of the Orange Line. But the late-night service has made his travels downtown easier, and its continued expansion is one of the few tools the region has to combat longstanding traffic and parking problems. “I remember one time my wife and I went to the symphony, and we went out for a drink afterward and had to run to catch the last train,” Monat says. “The more that you can rely on the service to be there at all the times that you want, the less demand there is for things like parking.”
IT’S 1:54 A.M. and the second 10,000 years in hell are spent on the Red Line shuttle between JFK/UMass and Broadway. Owing to track work that only seems to take place when I am trying to get to a movie or a dinner reservation, every rider is ushered off the train and onto one of countless overloaded buses, which drive impossibly slowly between stations. They say haptic memory — the recollection of tactile stimuli — erodes within seconds. But the gentle brush against your lips of the soiled fur lining around the hood of a stranger’s coat lasts far longer.
Weeks later, on an empty subway car, it haunts me still.
It is frigid and has been raining most of the night.
Now on the Orange Line, a guy in a Bruins hat is reading The New Jim Crow a few feet from an unconscious man.
There are still people who chew toothpicks in public.
INSISTING ON A cold financial calculus to decide the fate of late-night service misses the point entirely, says Malia Lazu, whose Future Boston was among the earliest backers of late-night service — despite a powerful enemy in the late mayor Tom Menino, who was largely averse to city-sponsored late-night shenanigans. “The problems at the MBTA aren’t that we have late-night service,” Lazu notes. “That’s not their fiscal problem. That’s not their long-term planning problem.” She insists it’s foolish to demand that a service that is aimed at benefiting the public good in ways as disparate as curbing drunken driving and enlivening downtown also be revenue-neutral. “Do we kind of want to move our city forward? Or do we want to continue to be, you know, the little provincial city-town?” Lazu asks.
Devin Cole, a director of business development at the co-working office space provider Workbar, says late-night T service is a first step toward shedding the city’s sleepy reputation. “You have a perception of Boston that it’s a place that kind of closes down,” says Cole, whose clients include entrepreneurs and startups. “So when you have young people looking for an exciting opportunity and an exciting place to be, they can kind of look down I-95 at New York and see a place that doesn’t tell them ‘no.’ ” Too often, Cole says, the discussion surrounding late-night public transit “tends to focus on the exciting things. Either drunk people getting home or a concert playing a little bit later.” But late-night service supports those whose talents and occupations broaden and diversify the city’s culture beyond Irish pubs — “not that there’s anything wrong with Irish pubs, necessarily,” he added. “I think the bigger thing is that if you provide more people more opportunities to do the things that they like doing when they want to do them, they’ll be happier here and they’ll be more likely to do everything in their lives here.”
IT’S 2:30 A.M. at Park Street, and Michael Nee is watching morons leap across the tracks from one platform to another. The 28-year-old waiter and bartender at a nearby restaurant is just getting off work and catching one of the night’s last Red Line trains back to the Wollaston stop. Like many people who are moved to share their MBTA horror stories on social media, he whips out his phone, snaps a picture, and shares it on Twitter. “They were probably doing it for about 20 minutes,” Nee says. “Nobody showed up to stop them.”
But while the daredevil bros might fit the public image of late-night service, Nee sees trains filled with working people: medical professionals in scrubs and restaurant workers in telltale black-on-black ensembles. “You know who’s who,” Nee says.
WORKERS LIKE NEE deserve to see their tax dollars put to use to help them get to and from their places of employment as much as anyone else, Lazu says. “Not only should we just have late-night train service because that’s what a healthy society offers to its grown-up patrons and citizens,” she says, “but that we should have one because people who get off of work at 2 or 3 . . . should be able to get home.”
Chef and restaurateur Brian Poe, who owns late-night hot spots Poe’s Kitchen at the Rattlesnake on Boylston Street and The Tip Tap Room in Beacon Hill, among others, says the benefit to his staff has been enormous. “It’s nice to know that they can just walk over and catch a train,” Poe says. He hoped the service would boost his business, but says it’s hard to tell without polling customers. If nothing else, he says, “it keeps a lot of drunks off the road I hope.”
That notion also appeals to Marty Walsh, a labor leader before he became mayor. “You’ve got people waiting tables and bartending,” Walsh says. “If they took a cab home, they could spend half the money they made that night.”
Paul Grogan, president of the philanthropy group The Boston Foundation, says ushering the city out of its stuffy past will boost the next generation of workers as well. “I think Boston has gone through this process of becoming a much more cosmopolitan, open, vibrant, welcoming city than it used to be,” says Grogan. “The arrival of millennials . . . and their expressed preference for urban living has been a tremendous shot in the arm for Boston.” Ten years ago, Grogan says, Boston was a very different place. Back then, a study of attitudes about staying in Boston showed that college students docked the city for its lack of night life compared with other cities. Even so, the city kept more than its share of young talent in the ensuing years — owing at least in part to the built-in advantage of having top-notch colleges doing a lot of the recruiting. The notion that Boston is no fun when compared with Chicago and Los Angeles and, yes, New York remains symbolically important, Grogan says. “Are we a world city, putting our dynamism and vitality out there to compete with anybody? Or do we still have this vestige of stodginess and parochialism?”
For Malcolm Gray, who grew up in Boston and went to college in Amherst before coming back, the late-night service is a sign that the city is on the way to shedding that old blazer with the patches on the elbows and trying on a sleek suit. “We’re becoming a better city for night life,” says Gray, part of an organization called Cllctv Boston that plans parties and other events in the city. “It’s a step in a right direction.” The 28-year-old notes that the months since the late-night service started have brought new faces to events — people who might not have turned out had they not had an easy, inexpensive ride home. Changing the culture, even an hour or two at a time, might lead more people to make the same decision he has — so far. “I go back and forth with leaving Boston all the time,” says Gray. “But there’s something about staying in the city and contributing to the culture and helping to grow it that’s really special.”
IT’S 2:35 A.M. at Stony Brook station, and I’m sprinting alongside three teenagers to catch the last inbound Orange Line train, but I won’t make it downtown in time to transfer back to the Red Line, where the last shuttles are ferrying the stragglers southbound, out of The City That Sometimes Sleeps and into the suburbs. The cab ride home from the Back Bay costs me $35.
LATE NIGHT BY THE NUMBERS
2 hours — Approximate extra running time for all subway lines and key bus routes on weekends as part of the MBTA pilot program
2:30 a.m. — Approximate time the last Red, Orange, Blue, and Green line trains depart downtown stations on Saturdays and Sundays
$13 million — Estimated cost of the additional service for the one-year pilot program, which is scheduled to conclude next month