After years of complaints that it shuts down too early, the MBTA announced this week that it will start a yearlong trial of later trains and some later buses this spring. T officials say that if the test demonstrates enough demand to keep the system open until 3 a.m. on weekends, the later hours may become permanent. The announcement marks a long-overdue step; now the T needs to give the trial adequate support and riders enough time to change their travel habits.
The T’s hours — service now shuts down by 1 a.m. — have long been an irritation to people who want to enjoy the city’s nightlife, but also an economic burden on the workers who keep restaurants and bars going but now lack an affordable way to get home. Employees of hospitals and globally connected businesses also work unconventional hours and would benefit from later T service.
In announcing the trial, which will cost around $20 million, Transportation Secretary Richard Davey said the state would seek private-sector donations to offset the cost. Since local business leaders have argued persuasively that the T’s current hours are an impediment to attracting and retaining workers, it’s appropriate that they play a role in solving the problem. (The Globe intends to sign on as a sponsor.) In the long term, though, depending on corporate largesse isn’t a viable strategy; if the service becomes permanent, the T may need to create a special, higher late-night fare to cover the cost, similar to the tiered fare structure already in place for late-night service in Washington, D.C.
If given time and publicity, the T’s foray into after-midnight transit will likely be more successful than its last attempt, the Night Owl buses that ran between 2001 and 2005. The fact that the service will include trains on their normal route, and not just buses, should greatly increase its usefulness. And technology developed in the intervening decade has helped solve one of the problems that doomed the Night Owl: Riders found themselves waiting for infrequent buses in the wee hours, with no idea whether or when they might arrive. Many of today’s riders carry smartphones; they can check their arrivals in real-time and plan their trips accordingly.
Time will show whether Bostonians’ longstanding gripes about early closing translate into ridership for the new weekend service. Either way, the T deserves praise for finding out.