Last month, London Mayor Boris Johnson proudly proclaimed that 24-hour weekend subway service in 2015 “will further cement London’s reputation as the best big city on the planet.”
Ahem. Sorry Boris. Like the British of old, you may have fired a first shot. But our T just trumped your Tube. We’re piloting wee-hour weekend service next spring.
“I love it,” laughed MBTA General Manager Beverly Scott in an interview. “We’re taking it to the Tube. Colonists win again!”
The recent announcement by state officials is indeed a revolution. Other than New York or Chicago, the frequency of American cities one-upping European public transit falls somewhere between Halley’s comet and a pope retiring. But when T trains roll through downtown until 3 a.m., Boston will have later weekend subways than London, Paris, and Rome.
Talk about cementing your own reputation. This nearly puts us in the same league as Hamburg, Stockholm, and Barcelona, which have all-night weekend service. We would match the 3 a.m. weekend service in Washington, D.C. We would be throwing down a cheeky gauntlet at our geeky rivals in the Bay Area, where the BART subway system has a Web page to explain that maintenance and operational costs prevent late-night weekend service, “to get partiers from the clubs of San Francisco back home around the Bay Area after last call.”
Well, let the Bay Area stay in the dark ages, and let the Silicon millennials slide on east. The T is not making excuses, creaky as it is. Governor Patrick found $20 million to give late service a try, businesses will hopefully chip in, and the Globe is a media partner. “This has got to be part of a focused effort to keep 25- to 35-year-olds here,” said Rick Dimino, CEO of the Boston civic organization A Better City.
Now the question is whether people will put their Charlie Cards where their mouths are. The clamor for late-night subway service from hospitality workers and techies was a frequent talking point of this year’s mayoral race. In a six-city survey of people ages 18 to 34 conducted this year by the American Public Transportation Association, a higher percentage of young Bostonians used subways, trolleys, and light rail than counterparts in Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, or DC.
Scott, who is wrapping up her first year of running the T, said one of the top agenda items that greeted her was late-night service. “It was clear that this was an idea that was very much way beyond time,” she said.
With the rapidly developing trend toward denser cities with vibrant business districts and entertainment clusters, and with data showing public transit to be a boon to residential real estate values and hotel occupancy rates for tourism and conventions, successful late-night weekend service could be more than just a pilot. It could be a political catalyst if happy riders and businesses become dedicated voters and lobbyists for a full modernization and expansion of the T.
“We are an international destination,” Scott said. “If you want to be a player, you’ve got to play.”
Until now, the T, despite record ridership, has been to the Tube what a Chevy is to James Bond’s Aston Martin — functional but far from iconic. While London’s Tube and train stations are backdrops for Bond and Harry Potter and are praised by Johnson as “the beating heart of London,” the T is too often derided by state politicians from the suburbs as a fanciful cause for bleeding hearts.
But now, the T has a chance to be a global player in public transit. The Bond film “Skyfall’’ has 007 chasing his villain through a Tube station and leaping onto the back of a departing train. Next spring, Bond and Boris Johnson can run down the platform again. Let’s see this time if they can cling to the back of the Red Line.
Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.