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Generally speaking, late-night transit usage can be divided into four market segments; employment, recreation, shelter-seekers, and non-users.
In general, not very many shift changes occur between Midnight and 6 am, with the notable exceptions of shift ends in the hospitality, restaurant, and transportation industries until about 2-3 am, and shift starts in transportation and related service industries beginning at about 4 am. Absent any other noticeable industry influences (i.e. one-industry towns), any shift patterns not listed above are not common enough to be the basis of economical transit planning.

Recreational customers are essentially identical to hospitality and service employees in their trip patterns, but leave slightly earlier (the employees have to stay to clean up after their customers go home). This market segment is more likely travelling on Friday and Saturday nights (early morning Saturday and Sunday), as well as on the eves of certain holidays, and conversely are less likely to travel on nights preceding a work or school day. The above two groups share the same common travel characteristic that they are moving away from destinations in the very early hours, with that flow decreasing as a flow of customers towards destinations increases closer to daytime.

In many cases, all-night service attracts people in seek of shelter due to homelessness, domestic abuse, etc. These customers tend to favor long, uninterrupted round-trip runs where they are able to sleep most effectively, essentially turning the bus into a roving shelter. Route 22 in San José has been referred to as “Hotel 22” due to the clientele; customers are riding because the bus is a shelter, not because the bus is transportation (for that specific trip). As heartbreaking it is to see the pictures of the 10-year-old girl slouched over bus seats, as well as read the stories of the various people in seek of shelter, and as important as addressing homelessness is as a public policy initiative, the practical reality is that transit firms are not, nor should not, be in the business of combating broader social issues. Transit firms are in no position to offer the services homeless or temporarily dislocated people need, and from a public policy perspective should make no effort to present any image in the collective public mindset that they are a good shelter resource.

While technically not customers now, the fourth market segment of note are people who would use transit service for other purposes. Most people are in bed, or at least home, between 1am-5am; the bus line could run every 5 minutes, once an hour, or not at all and it would not affect travel habits of the majority; if a tree falls in the woods and nobody is around to hear it…. For people with no car availability who do need to suddenly travel at night, inelastic but rare demand for immediate night travel is best met with taxicabs and similar on-demand services.

When the above is taken into account the “symbolic” service offered by the MBTA on a 15-20 minute headway, but only until 3 am is likely superior to service every 30-60 minutes but at all times. More potential customers are in a place to use frequent service to return home than infrequent service offered at times they have no need to travel.

(Note: Copied nearly verbatim from my comment on the Amateur Planner’s post on the MBTA’s late-night service trial.)

13 Replies to “The Role of Late-Night Bus Service”

  1. This essay couldn’t possibly be more on point, or more necessary, both as an antidote to the “peanut butter for the edge cases” urge expressed frequently on this blog, and as a counter to the misplaced conclusions (i.e. value judgments mistaken for neutral observations) of the Amateur (at least he admits it) Planner.

    I hope that every person needing or craving shelter and respite this holiday is able to gain access to it. My heart and my politics are with them, but as you say, our “transportation” priorities by definition cannot be.

    I would also note that nothing prevents us from discussing, as a separate initiative, the gradual expansion of normal span in order to enable more of those 5am shift arrivals that our current morning runs miss by mere minutes. Skeletal overnights do crack-of-dawn-shifters little (if any) good.

    Sometimes the advocates for 24/7 service seem more interested in being able to boast of having 24/7 transit “like a world-class city” than they seem interested in meeting real needs, well.

    1. I’m in agreement with you. Keep in mind that cultural uses of time influence schedule planning. In general, residents of the Mountain West Time Zone tend to live about one hour earlier than Eastern Time Zone residents. The “average” EST worker would arrive at work at 9, leave at 5, eat dinner at 6, watch local news at 11, and go to bed at Midnight. The “average” MST worker would arrive at work at 8, leave at 4, eat dinner at 5, watch local news at 10, and go to bed at 11. At an anecdotal level, it appears that comparatively more people in the Mountain Time Zone, especially in more agricultural and industrial workplaces arrive at work between 6 am and 7 am, meaning that industries that service commuters need to open at 5 am. Consequently, in the Mountain Time Zone transit service should start between 4 am and 5 am to service the earlier commutes, while comparable service in the Eastern Time Zone would start between 5 am and 6 am.

      In broadcasting, Seattle and the Pacific Time Zone use the same TV schedule as Eastern (delayed three hours from the original Eastern broadcast), while Central is simulcast with Eastern and Mountain is delayed one hour offset from Central. Consequently, Prime Time is between 8p-11p Eastern and Pacific, but 7p-10p Central and Mountain. In addition, the West Coast tends to have a more youthful tech industry accustomed to arriving late but staying very late; these factors suggest that West Coast transit follows an Eastern Time Zone demand pattern.

      On the other hand, the primary economic center of the United States is in the Eastern Time Zone. Many West Coast financial workers need to arrive by 6:30 am to be in sync with Wall Street’s opening bell at 9:30 am EST. Seattle also has a large traditional industrial base that would likely start work earlier than their office counterparts; these factors suggest that West Coast transit should start earlier than the East Coast.

      1. There was an actual study done of when people went to bed in different cities.

        Frankly, Boston needs service all night long. People go to bed late, and as a result, the service workers on the night shifts are getting off work even later. Meanwhile, the workers on the early shifts are still up before dawn.

        Seattle has a more 9-5 lifestyle. And you’re right, the whole west coast gets up earlier and goes to bed earlier.

  2. I agree with your conclusion. Since bars close at 2:00 A. M. (by law) a 3:00 A. M. end makes a lot of sense. It takes a little while to “close up shop”, which means anyone working at a bar or restaurant can get on the bus by 3:00 (even after a little unwinding). I do wonder, though, how many shifts switch at 4:00. I think just about everyone switches over around midnight, give or take an hour. For example, i used to work as a security guard, and we switched at midnight. Likewise, nurses at hospitals and nursing homes typically switch at 11:00. So, basically, I think that even if you had excellent bus service at 4:00 AM, very few people would ride it.

    The bigger challenge, though, is deciding when to start. A lot of coffee shops (e. g. Starbucks) expect their employees to start at 5:00. That seems like the earliest you would need to start, but that still means you would need to provide service fairly early if you expect the employee to get there in time. If I had to pick the dead time for Seattle, I would guess it is between 2:30 and 4:30.

  3. Comprehensive night owls is a long-term goal. It’s not something we can or should reach today, or before filling in even-more-useful evening service. But we can increase evening and night service in tandem, perhaps in a 90/10 manner. And we can start with early-morning runs, which are useful to people with early-morning jobs or 6am flights. And we can turn the 83 into a 15th-65th-35th route to at least get something into Lake City; that would be almost revenue-neutral.

    In other cities, San Francisco and Chicago have half-hourly night owls a mile apart. In Europe, Seattle-sized cities seem to have Friday/Saturday night owls, while larger cities have 7-day night owls. We have something odd in between: 7-day service but only two runs per night and covering only part of the city, and in odd slow loops that don’t resemble the day service. We definitely shouldn’t delete the existing level of service, although we should straighten out the loops as we’ve already started to do.

    I would love to have 5-minute daytime service and 10-minute evenings. But that gets into Seattle’s large swathes of low density, which hinders both evening and night service. 15 minutes until 10pm is a good next step for Metro to make, and we can build up from there. But it doesn’t make sense to forbid any night increases — or worse to delete the existing service — until we’ve achieved ultra-frequent day/evening, because (1) that may never happen, and (2) temporal coverage is important.

    1. Unfortunately, Mike, the “Cargo Cult” attitude of Seattle transit advocates doesn’t seem only to apply to subways. It seems present in every argument about “needing” 24/7 service — “If I can hypothetically take transit at any hour of any day — not good transit, not transit to where I need to go, not transit I’ll actually use, just transit that technically exists — then we get to feel like we’re a real city! — and in that sense your statements above contradict your attempt to dismiss that psychology below.

      Comprehensive night owls is a long-term goal.

      If they’re not necessary and can’t do much good, then why?

      We definitely shouldn’t delete the existing level of service.

      If they fail the usefulness smell test and really can’t do much better (even straighter or with more costly frequency), then why?

      But it doesn’t make sense to forbid any night increases until [we have a more functional regular system].

      Seriously, why not? Didn’t it make sense to delete the wasteful 61 in favor of a better 40, despite the technically tiny number of hours the 61 used? Empty overnights — at today’s level or at slightly increased levels — are functionally the same as 61s.

      Despite your denials below, and despite your admission that other Seattle-sized (but denser and much-better-transited) cities “seem to have Friday/Saturday night owls” only, it still feels like your defense of 24/7 is psychological. Like you want to feel boastful of the possibility of riding whenever, and are irrationally bumping that up in the priority queue beyond its genuine value to more than a double-digit number of infinitely-patient insomniacs.

      Again, and for posterity, the best way to achieve a usable span that doesn’t die at 10pm — or one that can get early-shifters where they need to be in the wee hours — is to focus on a comprehensive core network, legible and logical and walkable to the vast majority of people, and to focus most expansion efforts on those core lines until they become the no-brainer functional network in every users mind at any time of day or evening.

      Overnight peanut-butter is the exact opposite of that.

    2. “Comprehensive night owls is a long-term goal.” => “If they’re not necessary and can’t do much good, then why?”

      Because they are necessary and can do much good. The only “long-term” thing about it is our limited resources, tax-cutting political forces, and our other transit needs. Otherwise we should implement it tomorrow.

      “We definitely shouldn’t delete the existing level of service….

      But it doesn’t make sense to forbid any night increases until [we have a more functional regular system].” => “If they fail the usefulness smell test and really can’t do much better (even straighter or with more costly frequency), then why? … “Didn’t it make sense to delete the wasteful 61… Empty overnights — at today’s level or at slightly increased levels — are functionally the same as 61s.”

      There’s no comparison. Without the 61, people can walk eight blocks to the 40 which is running at the same time. Without the night owls, people are walking an hour or two, or can’t get to a night jobs, or can’t attend events or have to leave them early, or can’t take a 6am flight (which are often the cheapest and the least full). An hourly bus is less than half as useful as a half-hourly bus but it’s better than nothing. A night owl with gaps of 1-3 hours is likewise less useful but better than nothing.

      “despite your admission that other Seattle-sized (but denser and much-better-transited) cities “seem to have Friday/Saturday night owls” only”

      I said that some countries in Europe have Friday/Saturday night owls. But in the US, you don’t even have to go to New York or LA to find 7-day half-hourly night owls: San Francisco and Chicago have them too. We shouldn’t chase the lowest common denominator, we should aim for good service.

    3. You know perfectly well that we’re no San Francisco or Chicago. Not in size. Not in land use. Not in overnight-activity level. Not in night-transit geometric serviceability. Not in daytime transit usefulness that would spill over into nighttime demand.

      people are walking an hour or two

      They’re walking an hour or two, or waiting an hour or two, or both now! Except not, because they’re actually driving or cabbing, because symbolic transit is bullshit whether it’s the 61 or the night owl!

      And symbolic transit is all you’re ever going to get in the overnight. Especially with a network self-marginalized by crappiness the rest of the time.

      A night owl with gaps of 1-3 hours is likewise less useful but better than nothing.

      You’re just wrong. The proof: empty fucking buses.

      You’re just as bad as Cruickshank and Cullen on this one.

      1. people are walking an hour or two
        …actually driving or cabbing

        Really, though, they’re at home. Asleep or awake, the vast majority of Seattleites aren’t going anywhere transit-serviceable at those times.

        There is a critical demand density below which if you fall, there is simply no form of multi-passenger scheduled transportation that can possibly make sense to run.

        On a weekday in the dead of night, Seattle might as well be Enumclaw.

      2. The reason Metro added night owl to the 120 was that a significant number of people were walking from the 20 and 85’s terminus to Burien.

      3. Metro functionally extended the span of the core route known as the 120.

        It emphatically did not turn it into a night owl.

        Even taking into account your strange definition of “significant number of people”, there’s no such thing occurring or desired or needed at 3am.

      4. “On a weekday in the dead of night, Seattle might as well be Enumclaw.”

        I’ve never been to Seattle on a weekday in the dead of night.

        I’ve been to Minneapolis. It’s deader than any city I’ve ever seen. And yet they absolutely demanded overnight service (hourly) on their trunk line from Minneapolis to St. Paul (the Green Line).

        There’s a psychological element to this. Perhaps it’s the fear of getting stranded without a train back and *freezing to death*, which is more of an issue in the snowbelt than in Seattle.

  4. Can we have a moritorium on “World-Class City”? It’s such a vague term, and mostly psychological. To me it means a city that’s always in the news and where decisions affecting the world get made. For instance, I was in New York a few times in the years between 9/11 and the post-crash recovery. On the news was all sorts of financial stuff and things about companies and people — things I normally consider “national news” — but I realized that in New York, half of it is also local news. The same can be said about London and Los Angeles, and to a lesser extent Vancouver (mainly because it’s the only Pacific Rim city of a small country, and very international).

    Seattle has a bit of that because of the international role of Boeing, Microsoft, Amazon, and container shipping, and it was the historical origin of most of the major mobile-phone carriers. But we get into the national news only in little blips here and there — more like every few months rather than every week or every couple days. And with the recent rise in growth and skyrocketing rents, I don’t think we want anything more than that. It’s enough to be a regional leader with an unusual amount of entrepreneural energy. Because if we really went world-class, it would mean some two million more people, and the cities/counties just aren’t ready to accept the kind of density that would require.

    Night owls have little to do with “world class” status. They have to do with people being able to get around without a car, and downsizing their number of cars, without paying $2.70/mile for a taxi which only the rich can afford on any regular basis (and people with night jobs are mostly at the bottom of the pay scale).

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