With SafeTrack underway, Metro now closes at midnight every day— it used to stay open until 3 am on the weekend. With so many people needing a way to get around at night, it’s as clear as ever that there’s something missing from our region’s transit services: effective late night bus service. Montreal has a model for how to pull it off.

A night bus in Montreal. Image from STM.

Montreal’s Metro opened a decade before DC’s Metro.  Its operator, STM, also operates an extensive network of 220 daytime and 23 nighttime bus routes covering the Island of Montreal (population: nearly 2 million), serving almost 1.5 million riders on an average weekday.

There are, of course, some big differences:

  • The dense parts of the Island of Montreal are much denser than DC, and Montreal’s residents are generally more inclined to take transit than those in our region.
  • The Montreal Metro is smaller than the DC Metro (about 3/4 as many stations and 1/3 as many track miles as the DC Metro), but runs more frequently and has nearly twice the average weekday ridership.
  • While there are plenty of jurisdictional areas in the Montreal area, STM is generally the only transit operator within the Island. That’s certainly not the case in DC.

But Montreal’s night bus service in particular can provide some pointers for how we could complement our rail network with great night bus service.

Montreal’s current night network is relatively recent, the result of many incremental improvements like a slight retooling in 2011. These are the most important characteristics:

 

  • Service every night of the week, for all hours when the Metro is closed.

     

  • Even in the dead of night, buses are at most 45 minutes apart on all routes.

     

  • The routes are long, designed to require no transfers.

     

  • On an important central corridor with lots of bars and restaurants, headways are 15 minutes all night.

     

In Montreal, late night bus service isn’t an afterthought

These routes aren’t just a stopgap measure for some hours when the Metro is closed; they are designed to be an integral part of the transit system and provide meaningful, frequent service all night long.  While at some hours headways lengthen to 30 or 45 minutes, the routes are designed to take people where they need to go without transfers.

Also, information about these routes is readily accessible; a map of the night bus network is freely available, and when riders look up the operating hours of Metro lines, they see very clearly that complementary night bus service operates at other hours:

Table from STM’s Metro info page for the McGill station.

Taking the bus at night here requires too many transfers

By contrast, the DC area has no bus lines operating at all hours when Metro is closed.  Those that do operate for some of the time after Metro closes often stop at jurisdictional lines, or are designed with the assumption that passengers will transfer to Metro lines that actually aren’t running that late at night.

For example, going from Rockville to Friendship Heights is an easy trip when the Metro is running, but once the last train leaves Rockville at 11:30, the trip requires two (!) transfers on night buses.

Requiring transfers when there are long late-night headways severely limits how useful these buses are. Because of this, our region’s night service generally isn’t seen as an effective alternative to riding the Metro.  This is why, for example, pizza restaurant Pete’s announced that all area locations will now close at 10 PM on Friday and Saturday, since workers don’t have reliable transit options for getting home after midnight.

WMATA has surveyed nighttime riders and learned that there is significant interest in improved service, and some potential changes came out in an April 2016 report.  However, WMATA’s proposed solution is overly complex and confusing to riders. It relies on riders’ willingness to transfer buses late at night, and doesn’t form a coherent network with consistent hours and headways.

Proposed Metrobus late night network from WMATA’s 2016 study. Image from WMATA.

Montreal shows us that it doesn’t have to be that way. As a first step, WMATA (in conjunction with other area transit operators) should compile all of the bus routes that operate after Metro closes. This would make unmet needs even clearer.

Next, WMATA should propose an incremental plan to create an effective, easy-to-use late night bus network modeled on the basic principles of the Montreal system: all-night service complementary to Metro, assurance of reasonable headways, and routes designed to minimize transfers. Of course funding is an issue, but the impact of SafeTrack on businesses, workers, and residents has reminded us that effective transit at all hours should be a priority for the region.

Gray Kimbrough attended graduate school in North Carolina, then moved to the DC area in 2011 to work in economic modeling. He has lived in Arlington and Takoma DC and now resides in downtown Silver Spring with his wife and two children. He recently completed his doctoral dissertation in applied microeconomics.