Sunday, February 9, 2014

The last train home

Word got around at the end of last year that a new late night weekend service would be piloted this year on the MBTA. On weekend nights, trains and key bus routes will continue running past 1 a.m. with a final departure of the night around 2:30 a.m. from the downtown core. This initiative came from Govenor Patrick, and is reported to have a $20 million price tag. That seems a bit excessive, so it makes me wonder if the T is just taking this opportunity to bolster some schedules at other times of day as well, or adding some shifts to avoid being stretched thin at times. Either way, one thing that brings me concern:
The new late service, which will include the Silver Line, will be a one-year experiment. If it proves popular, it could become permanent.
I think that this foray into late night service is a very good thing (in fact, it does not go far enough, to help the late night service workers) and I am worried that we don't know what criteria will be used to judge the success of this pilot program, or what thresholds it will be expected to meet. What brought this to mind was a couple of good, recent articles on the topic of off-peak transit.

Far Beyond Rush Hour:
Metropolitan areas across the United States — whether their primary mass transit system is a metro rail or a commuter train or a bus network — are recognizing that city residents can't get by on great rush-hour service alone. They need frequent, reliable transit all hours of the day and long into the night.
The Real Barriers to Abundant, All-Day Transit Service:
The "guaranteed ride home." Peak-only services are risky. You can get trapped if you have to work late or leave early, so peak commuters value service at other times, too, even if they never use it. What's more, you won't use transit to get there unless you're sure you can get back, so the ridership at various times of day is interrelated. An empty evening bus is just a piece of an all-day offering whose availability throughout the day may be the real cause of its success.
The logic behind the need for good off-peak options also applies to very late night travel. You wouldn't want to use a transit system that could strand you at 8 p.m. and if you are out late, you don't want to use one that strands you at 1 a.m. either. But this doesn't necessarily correspond to heavy usage of the service past 1 a.m., although that would be good to see. Many people might choose to use the T to go out on the weekends, but even if they do end up coming home before 1 a.m., it is the existence of service after 1 a.m. that gives them the confidence to ride at all.

So I worry that if "success" is measured strictly by post-1 a.m. usage of the system, then it might not be reflective of all the ways the late night service is helping people. Especially if the MBTA does end up adding a surcharge to the fare: then additional people will be motivated to board earlier than 1 a.m., but they still do benefit from the commitment to offer service past 1 a.m., as a backup plan, just in case they miss the intended departure.

Having said that, there are many differences between 2005 and 2014 that could easily make up the difference between anemic usage and strong popularity. Use of the standard system (instead of replacement buses), better communication, promotion, awareness, and now real-time displays with data available online. These will all help increase ridership of the system that people already understand, late at night, with the confidence that only real-time vehicle location data can give.

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