Not too long ago, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) Rider Oversite Committee issued a survey asking commuters if they would be in favor of extended hours on public transportation services in the city of Boston. For readers from New York or Chicago, I know it may be hard for you to imagine a subway or bus system not running 24 hours a day… but such is the reality of life here in Boston (and I suspect many other cities in the country).
MBTA thought that roughly 500 people would answer the survey. They were blown away when nearly 26,000 people responded with a resounding “YES”. Over half of respondents said they would be willing to pay at least double the regular fare to take a “night owl” bus of subway ride.
I, for one, am all in favor of extended hours on public transportation for multiple reasons. For one, it cuts down on accidents, injuries, and deaths associated with drunk driving, as residents are more likely to take public transportation into the city knowing that it runs later. Public transportation is especially important to young professionals, who coincidentally are most likely to use the late night service. Extended hours would also cut down on automobile traffic, as individuals who work late or overnight shifts might be more willing to take the “T” instead of driving to work. Finally, I truly believe that to succeed as a vibrant, modern city in the United States (and one that wishes to reduce automobile traffic in your city center) you need to offer residents a means other than a cab for accessing the nightlife and cultural attractions that keep a city humming.
To be clear, I’m all for extended hours. And I also commend the MBTA for “feeling the pulse” of the people. Residents continually clamor about the desire for extended hours; without actual evidence like this survey, these stories only amount to anecdotal evidence.
But issuing such a survey at the current time seems almost irresponsible. The MBTA is notoriously cash-strapped and indebted – although to be fair, much of that debt was forced on the agency due to the Big Dig. However, at a time when the MBTA is pleading with state legislators for new funding streams to close budget deficits and is floating the idea of either cutting service or raising fares, even considering the idea of extending public transit hours seems ludicrous. Residents of Boston and the surrounding areas that rely on the MBTA to commute in and out of the city every day constantly complain about the poor and unreliable service of the many buses, subways, and trains. How many times did the commuter rail shut down this winter? And how many days has it been since the Green Line or Red Line last suffered a breakdown? Do we really think that extended service will be any better? Perhaps we should focus on fixing what we have before we consider extending ourselves farther…
No folks, the MBTA shouldn’t even be entertaining the idea of extended hours until the agency can offer frequent, efficient, reliable, and sustainable service to the areas it currently serves – and without a negative operating margin. Without those fixes in place, public transportation service during extended hours will be subject to the same delays, inconsistencies and breakdowns, and will be yet another source of discontent with the MBTA for Bostonians.