Three things to do to keep late-night T, knowing one year of test wasn’t enough
In less than a month the MBTA will make a recommendation to the state for keeping or ending late-night T service, which is just wrapping up a year’s test (and, delightfully, got an extension to June 19).
Letting Friday and Saturday night T service run to 2:30 a.m. will add about 1.4 million rides between 12:30 and 3 a.m. through March 27. And efficiencies lowered test costs to $12.9 million from an expected $16 million, according to the state Department of Transportation, which held five meetings this month (and a “Twitter Town Hall”) to get public comment on the program.
The March 9 meeting in Harvard Square was the only one held outside Boston – a sign of how important Cambridge is to the T, and vice versa.
Despite the good news about ridership, transportation officials meeting April 15 could yet call for an end to the program by saying the added hours aren’t profitable: Money brought in by it covers only 16.5 percent of operating costs, and every late-night rider is subsidized to the tune of $7.68, while T riders during the day are subsidized only 84 cents; and attempts to get corporate sponsors to help cover costs largely failed.
This is the wrong way to think about late-night T service, for a variety of reasons. First, there are many hours of the day in which T service isn’t profitable, but no one would argue to shut down the T for those daytime hours; late-night service also simply makes sense because our economy has late-night workers who need it and bars and clubs that shut down after traditional hours. “It shouldn’t just be a perk, it should be a staple,” said Erica White, a late-shift worker at a Harvard Square hotel who needs the T to get home safely. “It’s really nice that Boston is a historical city, but we need to expand beyond that.”
We can’t grow our economy without reliable T service, let alone maintain it, and a one-year test simply can’t show what effect permanent late-night service will have. The MBTA is bad at providing predictability, but by now its leadership must know it has to make it safe for businesses to expand their own hours without fearing they’re going to have to retract them again in a few months. In general, riders have to feel safe relying on a service before committing to it – whether it’s heading out for a late night on the town or, now, even going to work during a snowstorm and wondering whether the T will be running for the return trip. The same goes for businesses for which expanding hours is a big deal, and possibly even a gamble.
The T’s Night Owl bus service was shut down in 2005 in part because of low ridership, but there hasn’t been so much change in Greater Boston over the past decade to account for the 909 percent increase in ridership late-night T service has seen in comparison. No, the Night Owl failed “because you didn’t have a quality of service that was reliable,” said speaker Paul Kafasis, a Boston software developer who until recently lived in Cambridge, on March 9. “Here you’ve got really reliable service and it’s been really popular. This is something that over time will grow in popularity. A one-year trial is not nothing, but it’s not enough to gauge the change it will have on the community. If we have a five- or 10-year trial, I think every year you’re going to see growth from it and more people and businesses buy into it.”
Here are just a few suggestions for how the MBTA can keep and improve on its late-night T service and its profitability:
Build a case by knowing what’s possible. We have a Republican governor who helped gut the MBTA years ago and a legislature that seems not to understand how important transportation is to the state’s economy. Transportation officials will have to show the benefits, and the seven gathered March 9 in Harvard Square confirmed there has been no study of the economic impact seen by other cities that have added late-night service. (“I don’t think we’ve collected that data, but we’ll take that note down,” said Rose Yates, director of marketing communications at the MBTA.) It won’t be overnight, but it would be good for everyone to keep in mind what MBTA general manager Beverly Scott told Boston magazine in envisioning our eventual 24-hour service:
It will be a build. You of course will have a build-up. But I think that will end up happening, you are going to start beginning to see just the city blooming on those Friday and Saturday evenings. We are going to just – we are going to get it together. And that’s how it just happens – it’s organic.
Let businesses franchise within T stations. Space within T stations should be carved out for businesses that will profit from the captive audience and pay for the privilege, suggests Winchester’s Vince Dixon, who runs Cambridge Advantage Tours in Harvard Square. Do some construction and hand over the real estate to anyone from Dunkin’ Donuts to a mom and pop operation that’ll be open to the bitter end, as opposed to most businesses within T stations that now have smaller stores and close long before trains stop. For that matter …
Activate the T stations and make them destinations in themselves. The MBTA tried some promotions to hype late-night service, but they got little traction. A better way to go is to crowd each station with buskers, artists and unique food carts (ice cream sandwiches or Nutella crepes, anyone?) who will turn each station into a place to hang out. Install tables, chairs, electricity, warmth and sound systems – and a transit cop or two, of course – and let creativity reign. While this can entertain people waiting for a train, it might also encourage people to travel to far-off stations just for the food and fun. It’s possible that weirder, more challenging minds than those of T executives need the chance to craft the weekend attractions throughout the system – possibly including Cambridge’s Art City, the folks at the Boston Hassle and Boston Compass or outreach personnel at the Berklee College of Music.
This story was updated March 23, 2015, to identify speaker Paul Kafasis.