A Red Line MBTA train running at 2:35 a.m.

Credit: Edgar B. Herwick III

Late-Night MBTA: Stories From The Boston Underground

March 31, 2014

For the first time in a long time, as the clock struck 1 a.m. on Saturday, the Park Street station in Boston was packed with riders disembarking a Green Line train. Most were not heading home. They were heading out.

“Wooo, Park Streeet!” one rider called out.

The MBTA has delved into late-night service before, running "Night Owl" buses back in 2001. That program lasted four years, but was ended due to high costs and relatively low ridership. This time, all subway lines and 15 popular bus routes will run on weekends until 3 a.m. as a one-year pilot program.

The city is betting that, with the actual trains running, the younger set, like college seniors Jill Peterson and her friends, will be encouraged to get out and take advantage of the city’s "nightlife."

"I think the truth is that we’re graduating in 40 days and after four years of blowing our money on cabs, and choosing to stay in, Boston has offered us to be college kids in a college city," Peterson said. "Half the time we wave down cabs and they don’t stop. I think it is safer, it's cheaper, it’s so economically sensical [sic]. It’s better for the MBTA anyways cause they’re gonna make money on all of us, coming home, especially on weekends."

It’s easy to think of city nightlife as simply code for drinking in bars and clubs. And there were clearly plenty of riders who were out doing just that. But Eddie Castillo reminded me that there are things besides alcohol to be consumed in the early morning hours. He and his friends were returning from a post-midnight trip to Tasty Burger in Harvard Square when I ran into them at the Kenmore station.

"That is the sole reason we came out tonight, because the T was running later," he said.

I asked him if it was the novelty of the first time or if he thought they'd do it more often on the weekends.

"I mean it will be a nice fall back, we can go somewhere because the T is running late," Castillo said.

Herwick: Does it make Boston feel like more of an open city?

"Its a nice feeling — yeah, I can agree with that, yeah." he said.

While city officials have cited this potential boon for area businesses as a benefit of the late-night service, not everyone thinks it will make a difference. Will Zadanis was grabbing a train home around 1:30 a.m. If the T wasn’t running, Zadanis says he’d be shelling out $50 for a cab. Instead, he was spending just $2 for a ride on the Red Line.

Herwick: Isn't that $48 you might spend on something else? Couldn't you make an argument that that’s good for the local economy?

"No, that’s a caged statement," Zadanis said. "You can’t make that statement, it’s $48 that’s given to the exact same economy. What do I spend the $48 on? A couple of more bags of Smartfood and a maybe a meal that I would have had. That’s a ridiculous statement."

Herwick: I didn’t make a statement, I asked you a question.

"And you got a foolish answer, which was the correct one, sir," he said.

Whether it was for convenience or to save a few bucks, plenty of riders were out and about in the wee hours. And it wasn’t just residents. Van Bettis was visiting the area from West Texas. I caught up with him as he hopped a Silver Line bus to the airport for his flight home.

"I would have been screwed," Bettis said. "I'm gonna miss the bus. Thank goodness for the late service."

There was at least one other rider who clearly changed her usual routine for the first night of late service. MBTA General Manager Beverly Scott spent time at a few stops along the Red and Green lines.

"One o’clock on a Friday night? Now, I am so boring, I would either be watching — I’m a CSPAN junkie — or I would be now watching 'Game of Thrones'," Scott said. "That’s what I’m talking about, honey, I’m getting ready for those Targaryens. I’m getting ready for next week, so I’m going back through."

Herwick: Or you’d be watching WGBH, of course.

"Or I’d be watching WGBH, of course," Scott said laughing.

Scott, who said she'd be taking the T home herself, praised the sponsors who helped offset the cost of the pilot program for the city. She was chatting with riders, upbeat, and encouraged by what she saw.

"This is the one the public has said repeatedly that they really, really want," she said. "I think that folks are going to show it. Because they’re gonna vote with their feet."

MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo said in an email that the weekend service "went well."

"No arrests. No maintenance issues. No problems."

The MBTA expects to release ridership data for the first weekend later this week.

On the first weekend, at least, there was no shortage of “yes votes” in the tunnels underneath the city. Whether that continues for the rest of the year remains to be seen.

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