How does the MBTA stack up against other transit services on the world stage? WGBH compiled the operating hours of 20 major systems in the United States and elsewhere—and it turns out that late-night service remains an aspiration for many other “world-class” cities.
Internationally, the T, with its current hours, falls about in the middle of the pile.
(The numbers below are approximate; the T's late night service, for example, is often cited as ending at 2 a.m. — but the last trip for several lines is closer to 2:30 a.m. Some systems, like the Bay Area's, utilize buses to replace aspects of late-night train service).
Only a tiny handful of cities in the world, it turns out, offer 24-7 subway service: New York City does, as does Copenhagen, Denmark; Chicago has 24-7 service on two of its eight ‘L’ lines.
Widen the criteria a bit, and the list of late-night stand-outs grows considerably: Vienna and Berlin replace late-night trains with buses that run all night on weekdays; and on weekends, those cities, along with Barcelona, Hamburg, Stockholm, and Philadelphia offer 24-hour subway service on weekends.
With its current late-night service, the MBTA’s hours roughly match those of the subway systems of Paris, Washington, Toronto, Madrid, and Montreal.
Cutting back late-night service, though, would change that standing, putting Boston closer to Rome’s subway (closes at half-past midnight on weekends) on the international stage, and, back home, San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit system, which runs its last weekend trains at midnight.
In 2013, after the MBTA announced it would extend late-night service on (some) train and bus schedules, Boston officials hailed the decision not just as a boon to riders, but as a victory for the city itself—proof of Boston’s emergence as a world-class metropolis.
Then-General Manager Beverly Scott noted that the move would put Boston ahead of other big, world-class cities—notably London, where subway trains stop running at about half past midnight.
“We’re taking it to the Tube,’” proclaimed Scott in an interview with the Boston Globe for an editorial piece whose title, "The T’s chance to one-up London’s Tube" echoed the idea that late-night service would help cement Boston’s place among the great world cities.
Less than three years later, a different comparison might be made: After years of delays, London’s Tube is—probably—on the verge of finally implementing all-night weekend service. And Boston’s MBTA Board is deciding—or, possibly, has already decided—whether to roll back the T’s own late-night service.
The arguments for and against extended hours for the MBTA are many and heated. The T’s board has called the service too expensive and under-utilized. Opponents of cutting the hours cite concerns ranging from the safety of students, bar-goers, and other night owls to the impact the cuts would have on the roughly one-third of late-night riders who use the service to get to or from a job.
But there's also the argument for the less-tangible benefits: city status and international clout.