Like clockwork, talk about overnight transit has bubbled up to the surface in Boston again. No one is arguing they run the trains overnight on 100-plus year infrastructure. The list of cities that do that in the US is New York, a couple lines in Chicago and PATCO in Philly. But most major transit cities provide some sort of overnight service on at least a few major routes (such as Philly, San Francisco, Chicago, LA, Seattle, Twin Cities, Miami and others, for example, but not DC, although trains do run until 3 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights). And most have at least some bus service past 1 a.m.
When night comes to Boston, buses wait for the last train to reach transfer stations, and then the system shuts down. Cold. A couple of routes run by 3:30, but it's not until 5 that the system comes back to life.
I've thought a lot about late-night transit service in Boston. Night Owl was useful but it provided service to the wrong constituency, and we were basically subsidizing getting drunk college kids home on weekend nights (a laudable goal if they'd otherwise be driving, but many would probably otherwise take cabs or stumbling or not going as far from home in the first place). Ed Glaeser wrote about how it is helpful to the city a couple years ago.
The way to think about this, I think, is to look at what groups require late-night service first and figure out how best to provide that. The second step is to figure out who pays for it, and it might not have to be the MBTA.
So, the groups that require late-night transit include:
- Nightlife patrons
- Late night / early morning employees
- Late night / early morning travelers
The Night Owl buses were designed to serve almost solely the first group. When the service didn't pay for itself (since MBTA contract pays double-time after midnight, costs skyrocket), it looked like hardworking ridership and taxpayers were subsidizing students and twenty-somethings and their hard-drinking habits. This is not good politics, especially since the service was only provided on Friday and Saturday nights. Sure, it added incrementally to the city's nightlife accessibility, but it cost the T a lot and didn't serve any constituents which really needed to be served.
A politically expedient and lasting service would have to serve the two other groups, namely, people who are trying to get places in the middle of the night and who aren't just too drunk to drive. There are two main groups here, and as it would happen they have rather complementary travel patterns: overnight workers and late-arriving and early-departing travelers. And this creates an interesting funding mechanism: a lot of these folks are trying to get to or from the airport. In other words, make Massport pay for it.
Why Massport? They have the need, and they have the money. Right now, Massport buses hundreds of workers from an off-site garage in Chelsea to the airport, 24 hours a day. Parking at the airport is frozen by statute so in order to keep inventory available, Massport raises rates. Parking is the cash cow for the agency, and both supply and demand are inelastic and limited (demand because business travelers fill many of the spaces and are more than willing to pay for—or expense—the cost no matter how high) higher rates lead to proportionally higher revenues. Even with higher rates, parking is frequently full.
So, when parking rates when up by $3 a day recently, it netted the agency a cool $10 million. A year. Part of that has gone to reducing the prices for Logan Express, and part of it to free rides on the Silver Line (this speeds boarding, too—although it does little to speed the ride).
Let's go back to our constituencies. First, overnight employees. There are overnight employees across the city, but with Boston's parochial climate, there are not too many at bars, clubs and all-night businesses. There are, however, a lot at the airport. Flights arrive at Logan until 12:30 a.m., and those flights need ground personnel, baggage handlers and other staff to unload. And those people need to get home. The could take a bus to Chelsea and drive home from the garage; many likely do just that, as the last Silver Line bus to make connections to downtown leaves at 12:25. Plus, if flights are delayed, they are as well, so some transit options would be helpful.
Hand-in-hand with these workers are late-night plane arrivals. Now, it could be argued that these travelers should know there is no transit available to them and arrange for a ride or take a taxicab. But this all breaks down with any delay: there are no cabs at the airport after 1 a.m. It is much more lucrative for a taxi to pick up fares between Back Bay and Cambridge and Brighton than deadhead through the tunnel with no promise of a fare and a stiff toll whether they have a passenger or not. I've arrived on a delayed flight and the cab line at 3:00 was 45 minutes long. I actually thought about crashing in the terminal until the first buses started running at 5:30.
At the very least, the Silver Line—or a Massport shuttle to South Station—should run all night. It's a little easier to get a cab at South Station, anyway.
The second half of the overnight constituency is larger and perhaps more important. Since Boston is not a hub airport, many flights leave early in the morning to get to Chicago, Atlanta, Newark and other cities where passengers make connections elsewhere. The first flights leave at 5:30, and Logan runs a full flight schedule by 6:00 a.m. That happens to be the earliest a you can make a connection to the Blue or Silver Line from any other transit line on the system. So unless you're leaving after 7:00, you're out of luck taking transit to the airport.
More importantly, 6:00 flights mean 5:00 check-ins—and with post-9/11 security, 4-something arrivals. This means that everyone in the airport, from gate agents and ground crew to TSA staff to flight attendants and pilots, has to be fully-staffed no later than 5:00. To the right is, from a Massport PDF, the arrival times for Logan employees. Two thirds arrive by private auto, and the peak arrival time is between 4 and 5 a.m., well before transit service commences.
Massport already runs early-a.m. bus service. Logan Express buses, frequently used by employees, leave terminals at 3:00 and, with no traffic, arrive more than early enough for early-arriving staff and passengers. These buses serve suburban park-and-rides; there's no similar service for anyone who lives inside the 128 corridor (with a couple of minor exceptions). In other words, there's better early morning transit from the suburbs to the airport than anywhere in the city.
The MBTA actually runs very limited early-morning service as well. The MBTA's route 171 runs at 3:50 and 4:20 from Dudley Station to the airport, arriving by 4:15 as a through route the 15, and it and the 32/39, 57 and 89 have early morning runs to Haymarket and a connection via the 117 to the airport. This is all nice, even though these routes are all but hidden from the general public, although the 194 has found its way on to Yelp (more on Yelp transit maps).
Anyway, what I'm trying to point out here is that there is some ridership need, some money, and some routes already in place. Massport wouldn't run in to Pacheco issues (an arcane, if well-intentioned, law regarding operation of public services by private corporations), and likely wouldn't run in to the pay-scale issues the MBTA runs in to. Marketing service as serving overnight workers and travelers (there are some intercity buses and trains which arrive at South Station after the T stops running) rather than drunk college kids will be more palatable. And the taxi lobby, which might object to the T/Massport nudging in to their drunk college kid business, might be happy for them to deliver passengers downtown from the airport where they can get rides home.
So, here's a rough idea of what I'd propose, in order of priority and/or implementation:
- Run shuttles 24 hours a day from South Station to the airport. This can take the form of the Silver Line from 5:30 a.m. to 12:30 a.m., and then a Massport shuttle every 15 or 30 minutes overnight. In the overnight hours, the bus could stop at surface level outside South Station and skip the Silver Line tunnel, running express to and from the airport.
- Run Logan Express buses every hour overnight to and from termini. Right now the earliest bus leaves for the airport at 3:00 a.m. and the last leaves Logan after 1 a.m. There's already minimal layover at the termini.
- Incorporate overnight Logan Express buses with strategically-places transit stations. For instance, have the Peabody bus stop at Wonderland, the Woburn bus stop at Wellington, Malden and/or Alewife, the Framingham bus stop at Riverside and the Braintree bus stop at JFK/UMass. This would allow commuters near those stations to take Logan express during the non-MBTA hours, and the MBTA at the other end of their shift.
- Have Massport buses take over for early-morning MBTA service, or integrate this service with South Station shuttles.
- Integrate Massport buses serving transit nodes throughout the MBTA area with the South Station Shuttle. For instance, run Silver Line-sized buses to South Station every 30 minutes, and then have a transfer point there for buses to imperfectly trace major transit corridors. I say imperfectly because such a service needs only to travel near transit stations, not to them, allowing them to take straighter, faster lines. I'd propose the following routes, trying to serve major park-and-rides transit stations and Logan Express lots:
- Red Line South serving JFK/UMass, Ashmont, Quincy Center, Braintree
- Orange Line South serving Orange Line Stations and the Green Line E branch via Huntington Avenue, Tremont Street and Columbus Avenue, with a possible extension to the Route 128 Park-and-Ride. (Another option here would be to trace the route of the old Orange Line Elevated down Washington Street through Dudley and integrate the E Line with the B, C and D ines by running it down Huntington and then up to Audubon Circle)
- Green Line (B, C and D) via Beacon Street, Route 9 to Riverside, with an overnight extension to the Framingham Logan Express.
- Red Line North via Mass Ave to Alewife.
- Orange Line North Malden or Oak Grove, then up 93 to Woburn.
- Blue Line to Peabody via Wonderland and Lynn.
Here's a crude Google Map:
These lines could run every hour (and perhaps half-hour on Friday and Saturday nights), meeting shuttles at South Station from the airport. There could be full interchanges there, and possibly a secondary transfer point at Kenmore Square between the Red Line North, Green Line and Orange Line South lines. The system wouldn't perfectly serve late-night bar-goers, but it wouldn't be designed to; the fact that it would be nearby would be an ancillary benefit to their mobility. This route structure specifically leaves out Allston, for instance, where bar patrons would have the option of walking (stumbling?) less than a mile to Beacon Street or taking a taxicab and having fewer drunk-and-disruptive passengers in the system.
Assuming $125 per vehicle hour, you'd probably need two vehicles per route for hourly headways. That's $250 per hour per route, or $1500 per hour, or $7500 per night, plus a South Station-Logan shuttle, so $8000. Operating this daily would cost $3 million per year, which could be fully funded by a $1 increase in parking at the airport. Then there are savings from running fewer Logan Express buses (with early and late departures handled by this service), fewer MBTA buses, and recouping some costs from fares. At $5 for a flat fare you could reasonably expect 200 riders—or $1000 per night.
So, Massport, can we get this to happen?