Should Cities Run Subways Later to Attract Young Professionals?

Late-night transit options may make a city more attractive to younger generations, but running trains around the clock has its drawbacks.

Boston's blue line
Do you want your city to become the next mecca for the young, talented and tech savvy? Then do as they’re doing in Boston and expand your late-night transit service. This spring Boston plans to extend service until 3 a.m. on the weekends, in the hopes of gaining an edge with young professionals. 

Judging by the enthusiastic reaction (especially on Twitter), you would think the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, often the target of commuters’ laments, was now as popular as the Red Sox. That’s obviously a stretch, but it’s true that the extra hours the city’s subways, light rail, streetcars and buses will run—while modest—will add a certain cachet to the city. “It gets us closer to the 21st-century transportation system we’ve been fighting for,” Lizzi Weyant, an advocacy director for Transportation for Massachusetts, recently told The Boston Globe.

That’s the same language used to describe the impact of London’s plans to run some of its subway lines 24 hours on weekends, starting in 2015. The announcement portrayed the move as a way to create a “21st-century tube service.” As young professionals, many of whom are car-free, seek out vibrant cities in which to live and work, this is seen as a way to attract them, especially those who work in the burgeoning tech industry, which is known for its unconventional working hours.

Already, Chicago, New York City and parts of Philadelphia run transit systems 24 hours a day. Washington, D.C., also has weekend service until 3 a.m. But for most of America’s cities with extensive rail and bus systems, service barely extends past midnight. Urbanists say hot spots such as Denver; Los Angeles; Portland, Ore.; San Francisco; and Seattle, may want to rethink their hours of service if they want to attract and retain young workers. Taking a bus or a train is less expensive than a cab and more convenient than walking, says Yonah Freemark, a transportation expert who writes the Transport Politic blog. “Transit at all times ensures that mobility is available to everyone.”

But running trains around the clock has its drawbacks. The main one is that it’s costly. Boston will spend $20 million (though the city will rely on some private funding to cover costs) on its one-year extended-hour pilot program. London is already battling transit unions to add automation and cut 750 ticket booth jobs to help defray the expense of 24-hour service on the weekends. Extra hours could also make it harder to schedule maintenance, which is usually done in the wee hours of the morning during the week and on weekends.

Both London and Boston hope to make the new service attractive by running trains every 10 to 15 minutes. It will undoubtedly be great for bar hoppers, but it will only help a small segment of those who happen to work the graveyard shift. Freemark says city transit officials have to ask themselves whether providing improved service after midnight is more valuable than just increasing service during the day when the vast majority of people ride the trains. “If it is, then 24-hour operations might be a good idea,” he says. “If not, then transit systems should be focusing on the times when most people use them.

An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. It is not the Metropolitan Boston Transit Authority. We regret the error.

Tod is the managing editor of Governing and the contributing editor of our sister publication, Government Technology. He was previously the editor of Public CIO, e.Republic’s award-winning publication for IT executives in the public sector, and is the author of several books on information management.