MassDOT Wants to Bring More Events to the MBTA’s Late-Night Trains

Musical acts performing on Red Line vehicles? Four-course meals served up at each stop? It could happen sooner than riders think.

Photo by Margaret Burdge

Photo by Margaret Burdge

Imagine stepping onto a Red Line train bound for Boston, when suddenly, at each stop, waiters from one of the city’s most renowned restaurants start serving a four-course meal hosted by the MBTA. Or perhaps catching an Orange Line train downtown as a resident DJ spins electronic tunes that blast from speakers hanging overhead sounds more enticing.

No matter how strange and out-of-character these scenarios may sound for the MBTA, officials from the Massachusetts Department of Transportation aren’t ruling anything out when it comes to calling attention to the new late-night train service. “It’s about creating a vibrant, interesting place to be,” said MassDOT Secretary Richard Davey. “We’ve got some great ideas, and some short-term, medium-term, and even long-term things in mind.”

During a lightly attended meeting at District Hall on Tuesday night, organized by transportation officials and Cambridge Innovation Center CEO Tim Rowe, Davey said the MBTA is determined to find more creative solutions for turning T stations and stops into social destination spots, rather than just modes of transportation that get riders to where they need to be. To accomplish that goal, the T’s willing to try anything once. “It’s easy saying no, but we’re not in the business of saying no, nor should we be in the business of saying no. We need to be in the business of saying yes, let’s try it, and if it doesn’t work, let’s move on,” said Davey.

Davey and a panel of prominent names from Boston and Cambridge’s arts and architecture communities convened during the casual round-table discussion in the Innovation District to figure out ways to retain the area’s artistic talent, while simultaneously transforming Boston into a “yes” city, stripping away the stigma that promoting visual and performance entertainment is low on the totem pole of priorities.

Davey said he wouldn’t mind if the T could be the catalyst—with the help of surrounding communities—to do that.

Attendees at the District Hall event, who ranged from people representing local think-tank organizations, to City Hall officials, designers, and guerrilla artists, agreed that leveraging the empty spaces available outside T stops and inside trains cars could be the key to further promoting Boston’s burgeoning arts and music accolades while also driving passengers to public transit so that the new one-year late-night pilot program can live beyond it’s infancy, and not go extinct like the defunct Night Owl service. “We’re going to try some things,” Davey said. “These have been energizing discussions, and great ideas have come from them…we really want to lean in and take some risks, and set up a different type of conversation.”

The ideas floated to MassDOT officials, no matter how outlandish they were, didn’t fall on deaf ears during the meet-up, even when they stretched the boundaries of what the T currently allows to happen along the transit lines.

Some suggested allowing artists to wrap entire train cars with their work to promote upcoming galleries and shows. Others heralded the idea of actually hosting art galleries inside the train cars. “The artists want to do these types of things, they are hungry to do it,” said Gustavo Quiroga, director of advisory and placemaking at Graffito SP, who specializes in urban development and policy. “The creative class and students are leaving the city faster. They have no feeling that this is a place that wants them to stay and create art. Meanwhile, they’re starving for venues to do this stuff. I think we should think of the MBTA as a practice space [to encourage these artists].”

Davey and his staff openly welcomed these suggestions. “We could do that,” he said to the enthusiastic panel of participants.

The event attendees, who were selected and invited by MassDOT and Rowe to share their fantasies for promoting local artistic talents, weren’t the only ones weighing in. A MassDOT representative came prepared with a rendering of what an MBTA bus stop would look like if the T put up swings for passengers to use while they waited for their ride to arrive.

Davey tapped into his own creative genius, too, and said his ideal event to draw a crowd and keep them coming back would be to host a four-course dinner on a select train line, mimicking a “pop-up” event that was held on New York’s transit line recently. “It sounds ‘schticky’ in a way, but it generated so much buzz that people wanted to do it. I think that’s a pretty easy one to pull off. Imagine yourself on the Red Line and every few stops a waiter gets on and serves food for you,” he said. “And it wouldn’t be forever, you could do it just once. You could certainly imagine that, and there are other easier things we could do.”

Davey envisioned bringing subtler forms of entertainment to late-night riders, such as rotating art installations, game tables like foosball, or pianos and phone-charging stations. Other less-restrictive ideas included teaming up with Mayor Marty Walsh—something the T did to promote the late-night service in the first place—to collaborate on destination-point outdoor gatherings that would require riders to utilize the trains to get to the events. Davey said film festivals on the Common, or performances by well-known artists and local buskers outside of specific stations could easily happen.

Representatives from Walsh’s office also attended the meeting Tuesday, and said the mayor supports any sort of innovative collaboration that could benefit the general public and bring together the community while promoting the arts. “Working inside [City Hall] and seeing the process there, you will soon see Boston is no longer a city of ‘no,’ and we are open to all of this type of stuff. Start spreading that word. Really, anything is open, and not just for business—arts and all the others, too,” said John Fitzgerald, senior project manager at the Boston Redevelopment Authority, and co-chair of the mayor’s new Late-Night Task Force.

To get the ball rolling on MBTA-specific events, Davey said he would start putting a plan together in the next 30 to 60 days that would make it easier for artists and performers to acquire permits. He said he would also consider creating some sort of “artist in residence” position so that a designated person could interact and work closely with those interested in hosting events.

Of course, the topic of funding also came up, but Davey said these ideas would come with minimal costs that could be siphoned from collaborations with sponsors of the late-night service. When asked what he would say to riders who complained and demanded the T fix service before implementing these artistic endeavors, he said there is room for both. “The goal can’t be absolutely 100 percent perfect T performance all of time, and then we do something like this. That’s just not feasible,” he said. “I don’t think we should be sitting around and being grumpy and sulk. We’ve got to try some new things. Maybe we can generate enough interest that there won’t be a need for incentives. It may pay for itself.”

Davey wants to tap into the public mind, like the agency did when they launched a contest to create the newest T map, to further along all of the ideas he gathered from the meeting at District Hall. “It’s an interesting moment for us right now,” Davey said. “There seems to be a need to encourage artists in the creative class to stay in Boston or come to Boston, and if the T can play a part in that, I love that idea.”