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Outside brains keep late-night transit hopes alive

Late-night riders waited for a Green Line train in 2015.
Late-night riders waited for a Green Line train in 2015.Kieran Kesner for The Boston Globe/File

If Ari Ofsevit and Jeremy Mendelson have anything to say, the MBTA’s recent decision to kill off its late-night weekend service won’t be the final word.

Ofsevit, 31, is a planner for a private organization that runs bus shuttles. Mendelson, 30, cofounded the advocacy group TransitMatters. They’ve joined forces with former state transportation secretary Jim Aloisi to promote a bold idea: Instead of cutting back on weekends, the T should offer overnight bus service seven days a week.

In CommonWealth Magazine last week, Ofsevit, Mendelson, and Aloisi offered a clever plan for “a new, robust ‘All-Nighter’ service” on a limited bus network, at a cost of about $1 million a year. Their proposal, they write, “would enable the MBTA to set a standard for quality 24/7 service — service which is provided in Philadelphia, Seattle, Cleveland, and Baltimore, not to mention peer cities such as New York, Chicago, and San Francisco.”

The plan offers a credible solution to a nagging problem for the T: its inability to serve people with places to go between about 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. Beyond that, it also speaks to the benefits of tapping Greater Boston’s vast store of independent transportation brainpower — people in academia, the nonprofit world, or the private sector who identify problems and solutions that might otherwise escape official notice.


As the state ponders a new Mass. Pike interchange in Allston, Ofsevit and the group A Better City have proposed intriguing alternatives to the elevated viaduct state that highway planners put forth. Likewise, the late-night bus plan shows a similar mix of imagination and technical expertise.

Eight or so routes would radiate outward from a single central location, such as Copley Square. Once an hour, a bus from each route would meet back at Copley so that passengers who needed to transfer from one route to another could do so. The simultaneous layover — known as a “pulse” — would allow the T to serve an entire region with fewer than a dozen buses a night.


In hospitality and other industries, many workers have inconvenient hours, and not all of them can afford a taxi or Uber ride home. When the T added extra hours of service in 2014, low-income riders and minority communities especially benefited. Under federal civil rights guidelines, the T needs to figure out how to soften the blow of cutting that service.

Nothing that the agency has proposed would achieve as much as the all-night network that Ofsevit, Mendelson, and Aloisi favor. They’d build on a smattering of well-used but minimally publicized early-morning routes that the T already operates, originally as a way to get its own employees to work. By focusing on the needs of commuters, the new plan also counters the “drunk college kids” critique of late-night transit — the false but all-too-common notion that overnight service only helps rowdy partiers who are unworthy of public largess.

In an earlier era, outside experts might have presented ideas to transit agencies without getting a response; today they can flesh their ideas out online and tweet them at an agency like the T, which now has an implicit responsibility to respond to the best ones.


The T appears willing to hear all-night bus proponents out. “We’re very, very open to considering this,” says Monica Tibbits-Nutt, a member of the T’s Fiscal Management and Control Board who herself is a transportation planner.

Any test of the all-night proposal, she says, would need to have clear benchmarks, something the most recent late-night service program lacked. Another cautionary note comes from Massport CEO Thomas Glynn, who praises the technical sophistication of the plan but says a thorough demand analysis is in order. He notes that his agency, a major early-morning employer, already runs some shuttles for employees who need to get to work before the T starts up.

Still, the evident interest in the “All-Nighter” proposal could defy an unfortunate trend in public policy: Once an idea like late-night transit is deemed — even unjustly — to have failed, it won’t be tried again for years.

Particularly in a city that abounds with transportation knowhow, the limited options for late night transportation represent a conspicuous gap. The people in charge need to listen to bright ideas about how to fill it.

Dante Ramos can be reached at dante.ramos@globe.com. Follow him on Facebook: facebook.com/danteramos or on Twitter: @danteramos.

Editor’s note: After an earlier production error, this column has been updated.