The T’s latest experiment with late-night transit launched with high hopes just a year and a half ago. This month, Governor Charlie Baker’s Fiscal and Management Control Board began the process of eliminating it early in the new year. As they contemplate fare hikes and other “unpopular or even painful” choices, T officials have deemed late-night service an experiment that failed.
Yet if a cash-strapped MBTA can't keep running until bars close on weekend nights, that bodes ill for everything else the agency does. Late-night transit is at the mercy of the same aged equipment, cost structure, political currents, and tortured history that shape the T's operations during the week.
Strip away the unfair stigma about ferrying around tipsy college students, and late night looks like this: It's unprofitable, but it fills a niche and increases the T's overall consumer appeal. In other words, it's like many other services that the T provides.
So who or what brought late-night transit to this precipice? Let's consider some of the suspects:
Riders. One possibility is that there just wasn't much demand. Yet when the T began offering an extra 90 minutes or so of service, it was moving 13,000 people a night — nearly 10 times as many riders as when the T ran a bus-only Night Owl service a decade ago.
There is a cost attached. In February, the T reported that late-night service required a subsidy of $7.68 per passenger, compared with $2.74 per bus passenger overall. That assertion prompted cuts on the least productive late-night bus routes. In November, another study recalculated the late-night subsidy at $13.38.
Yet it never made sense to compare late-night service to the overall system average. A better comparison is with other off-peak periods — early morning, mid-day, and late evening. I asked the T for its data on usage by hour. On average, 41 people rode each of the late-night bus lines in the hour between 1 a.m. and 2 a.m. in September and October; by comparison, more than 70 bus lines carried fewer than 41 passengers between 9 p.m. and 10 p.m. over the same period.
Some lines get more buses than others. But even according to a metric that takes account of the number of buses plying a route at a given time, bus 66 — which winds from Harvard Square to Dudley Square through Allston and Brookline — operated more efficiently from 1 a.m. to 2 a.m. on Saturday nights than nearly 70 other routes operated from 11 a.m. to noon during the week. Why judge late-night T by standards that other services would flunk?
According to an April report, 31 percent of late-night riders were taking it to or from their jobs. Under better circumstances, offering longer hours on a permanent basis would draw in even more late-shift workers. One way to reduce subsidies is to cut service; the other is to seek out new riders.
Uber, et al. For many years, people leaving Boston nightclubs after about 12:30 a.m. would have to walk home or take a taxi. There were long lines for cabs, whose number was restricted by law. The ride-hailing companies Uber and Lyft add to the options — and lessen clubgoers' need for the T. Yet, especially when surge pricing is on, Uber is still an expensive ride home for a hospital orderly or a restaurant server living off tips, and legitimate regulatory issues, such as accessibility to disabled riders, are still up in the air.
T officials are talking with the ride-hailing companies, and the pop-up bus service Bridj, about alternative models for late-night transportation. It's worth a try. But the closer a privately run transportation system matches the simplicity and affordability of fixed-route transit, the more likely it is to lose money.
Private businesses. At a recent meeting, several T administrators and control board members expressed disappointment that private-sector businesses that benefit from late-night service hadn't stepped up to pay for more of it.
The problem is that late-night service, like most T service, doesn't offer any single company a huge gain. Instead, it offers incremental benefits to nightlife venues and to 24-hour employers. Plus, any deep-pocketed corporate sponsors that come forward may not be to local pols' liking. MillerCoors will subsidize the Washington Metro system's free service on New Year's Eve; the T, in contrast, faced pushback when it proposed to end its ban on alcohol advertising.
There's a lesson here as state officials seek new funds for the stalled Green Line extension project: You can't count on voluntary private money.
The MBTA itself. In good ways and bad, the T knows how to stretch out the status quo. On the upside, late-night trains initially came at about the same frequency as the ones before midnight. They didn't need to; running fewer trains from the beginning would have trimmed costs.
But bureaucratic inertia has more harmful consequences: Workers rack up expensive overtime as the agency struggles to fill vacancies and monitor employee leave. After years of financial struggles hollowed out the T's upper ranks, the agency lacks the expertise to manage big projects like the Green Line expansion. The sprawling T needs constant fine-tuning; instead, the entirety of a recent initiative like late-night T may fall victim to the principle of "last in, first out."
Charlie Baker. The first-year governor opposed the indexing of the gas tax to inflation, and his control board's mission is to bring down the T's structural deficit and free up money for long-deferred repairs. If putting the T on a diet now is a precondition to investing extra money into it in the future, the agency and its riders will benefit over time.
Yet the short-run drawbacks are significant. Meanwhile, Baker isn't the first Beacon Hill leader to pursue reform before revenue. The governor's appointees have the authority to impose fare hikes and service cuts that affect the consumer, but not structural reforms such as streamlining work rules and making the T pension system more transparent.
Everyone. Philadelphia's transit system provides service in the overnight hours. Washington Metro runs trains until 3 a.m. on weekends. Civic leaders in those cities think the advantages for economic development justify the expenditure. In Massachusetts, though, the debts and the anxieties of the Big Dig era still loom large over the entire transportation system, and lots of dueling interest groups — drivers and T riders, transit advocates and exurban taxpayers, unions and antitax activists — exercise veto power over some of the necessary reforms and revenue enhancements. Yes, a long-term transportation plan would let people ride the T at 1:30 a.m., but it would solve a lot of other problems as well.