Night Owl Bus Gives Its Final Hoot

At about 1:30 on a freezing morning last winter, Jacqueline Francis, a Lesley University sophomore, finished her shift at a Jamaica Plain J.P. Licks ice cream store and started out for her apartment near Northeastern University.

The last inbound buses and Orange Line trains had departed nearly an hour before, leaving Francis little choice but to embark on a two-mile walk back into Boston—or hop aboard one of Boston’s special “Night Owl” buses.

“I would probably just [have walked], but it was really cold that night,” wrote Francis, who was able to wait at the usual #39 bus stop on Centre Street for one of the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority’s (MBTA) “Night Owl” buses. Since 2001, the fleet of buses has ferried late-night travelers—every weekend on the half hour until 2:30 a.m.—along routes approximating the four subway lines, as well as on seven popular daytime bus routes.

But two weeks ago, the Night Owl died; the buses finished their final flights in the early-morning gloom of June 25.

In March the MBTA, citing a budget shortfall, pulled funding from several of its services—among them the $1 million-a-year service. That means that mass transit in Boston, even on the weekends, is once again shuttered by 1 a.m.—an hour before many bars close, amd at a time earlier than any other major U.S. transit agency.

Beantown revelers—as well as late-night workers like Francis—must now either walk, take a taxi, or drive their own cars home, as they had to from 1960—when the T first eliminated 24-hour service—until 2001.

According to the MBTA, operating the Night Owl was, financially, a losing proposition—even more so than normal bus and subway services, both of which hemorrhage large amounts of money each year.

It cost the agency $7.53 on average to transport a Night Owl customer, compared with only $1.37 for a daytime bus rider, and no more than $1.40 for a subway patron (the actual price for a daytime bus ride is 90 cents and $1.25 for a subway fare).

“We cannot justify an expensive service like that when we have regular bus routes that are overcrowded and crying out for more service,” said MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo.

Pesaturo also noted that the main beneficiaries of the Night Owl service seemed to have been collegiate revelers rather than workers toiling into the early morning.

“There’s no doubt that the ridership was dominated by college students,” he said.

Francis, the late-night worker who rode the Night Owl, said that she remembered that ridership was comprised of “almost all young people” when she took it home from Jamaica Plain. She added that the whole bus was only about one-fourth full.

“This is not like New York, the city that doesn’t sleep,” added Pesaturo, who noted that the service was “sparsely” used. “This city does sleep.”

But some of Boston’s well-rested activists and lawmakers see a problem in shutting down Boston’s late-night transit, no matter whom and how many it served.

Michael P. Ross, a Boston city councilman and Night Owl advocate, said that the service was a safe alternative to driving for intoxicated partiers.

“If we save one or two lives [with the Night Owl], I think that demonstrates a good use of the money,” said Ross, who represents parts of Beacon Hill, Back Bay, the Fenway, and Allston, all of which are littered with residents of college students at Boston College, Boston University, and Harvard.

“If it was primarily being used by college students, I see that as a good thing,” said Hathaway Fiocchi, a researcher at the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group (MASSPIRG).

In March, before the Night Owl had been cancelled, Fiocchi authored a report defending the service. Her report noted that among the country’s eleven largest public transit systems, only Boston and Atlanta lacked 24-hour service during the weekend.

According to the MBTA, alternative ways of providing late-night service—such as running subways into the early morning—remain unfeasible.

The MBTA maintains that 24-hour subway service is an impossibility in Boston. Unlike subways in New York, which can run on local and express tracks, Boston subways have only one track, meaning that subway traffic must stop for maintenance.

“Those hours between 1 a.m. and 5:30 am are an absolutely critical time...not only to do work [on the tracks], but inspect them,” Pesaturo, the MBTA spokesman, said. “It’s the only time the crews can get out on the right of way.”

—Staff writer Brendan R. Linn can be reached at blinn@fas.harvard.edu.