A Bridj luxury van parked at its destination in Kendall Square, Cambridge. Keith Barry

Bridj won't compete with Boston public transit, but it could get some commuters of out their cars.

Judging by the media coverage, Bridj looks like the biggest thing to happen in Boston public transit since Rosie Ruiz rode the Green Line to win the 1980 Marathon. The Cambridge-based startup, part of a new field of private buses popping up in major metros, promises to shake up city transit by relying on big data to plan routes and on luxury shuttles to move riders. That buzzword-filled elevator pitch seems tailored to get both investors and car-free Millennials excited about riding the bus.

But much like Ruiz did, the hype seeks a shortcut to the finish line. I first rode Bridj on a quiet Friday morning in July. During my trip, the full-size buses that Bridj used on some of its initial trips had been replaced by black Mercedes Sprinter 15-passenger vans. Though I had a pass guaranteeing me a comfortable leather seat, finding space wouldn't have been a problem: Only two other passengers were on board.

So, as Bridj readies to expand its route network and move from beta tests to full service, it's looking highly unlikely that the company will disrupt public mass transit enough to please the Silicon Valley crowd—at least anytime soon. Still, it just might help some people get where they need to go without a car, and that's a laudable goal in its own right.

Take, for instance, Bridj's initial test route, from the tony suburb of Brookline to Cambridge's Kendall Square, near MIT. Brookline is a prototypical streetcar suburb, with an MBTA Green Line trolley that runs down its main artery. But getting to Kendall requires taking the Green Line to the Red Line—two legs of an isosceles triangle, if you will. Bridj's route follows the hypotenuse, making no intermediate stops and taking between 15 and 30 minutes to complete a journey that could take almost three times longer by MBTA.

According to David Block-Schachter, Bridj's chief scientist, many Brookline-to-Kendall commuters wanted an alternative to that circuitous route. "A lot of them were driving because it was not particularly attractive to take the T," he says. Brookline officials approached Bridj, and a route was born.

That's where Bridj can shine. As a nimble startup that sources its buses from third parties, it can scale service up and down almost instantly depending on need, and act as an alternative to driving. The company's proprietary data algorithm looks at sources as diverse as social media check-ins and even the MBTA's own ridership data to determine if a bus should run, and Bridj officials talk with businesses and municipalities about ways the service can fill in the gaps of the existing public transit network or act as a reliever for beleaguered bus routes.

For instance, Block-Schachter says Bridj was in talks with businesses in the suburbs that had difficulty attracting workers who might balk at a highway commute. It wouldn't make sense for the MBTA to run an entire bus line for passengers who don't yet exist, but Bridj can easily try an ad hoc route if, say, a web services company in Woburn wants to attract car-free coders from Cambridge.

It isn't just about commuting, either. Bridj is working with event promoters to set up "pop-up" service for concerts and festivals, something the MBTA just doesn't have the agility to do. "It's entirely different institutional constraints," Block-Schachter says. (He would know—he worked at the MBTA before coming to Bridj.)

But that's not to suggest that Bridj could replace the MBTA. Routes will only run when data show that new buses are needed. And with buses that guarantee seats for every passenger, ridership couldn't possibly match the T. After all, the MBTA moves more than 386,000 people on its buses each weekday. By comparison, Bridj has moved mere hundreds during its beta test.

MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo says those numbers are precisely why the agency doesn't view Bridj as a threat. "It's like saying that Disney World competes with a traveling carnival," he says.

Even when the service expands beyond initial test runs, Bridj isn't designed to be a shot-for-shot remake of an existing transit system, and it wouldn’t be very useful if it were. What Bridj can do is provide another option for those who don't want to drive but aren't interested in or don’t have the option to take the T, either. That's why Pesaturo wishes luck to the upstart. "We're still accomplishing the same thing," he says.

Block-Schachter says low ridership isn't a problem—at least not yet. The routes are paid for by around $3 million in venture capital funding, and only run in the mornings. The Bridj app hasn't even been released to the public, and fares aren't yet being collected. "It's great we have passengers, but we want the feedback," he says.

MBTA moves more than 386,000 people on buses each weekday; during its beta test, Bridj moved mere hundreds. (bradlee9119/Flickr)

They're certainly getting it. During my trip, one of the two other passengers on board asked the driver to adjust the temperature, which he did. And I'd apparently just missed a test of whether soft music improved the trip. The day before, riders said they preferred silence, and now the music was gone.

For some riders, that responsiveness may be Bridj's greatest selling point. Indeed, a report from the Transportation Research Board shows that transit riders will gladly pay more for a trip or even take a longer route in exchange for amenities like guaranteed seating, a clean station, and a route that avoids transfers—all of which Bridj provides.

"People will substitute from car to bus if the bus is high quality and allows them to use their scarce time productively," says Matthew Kahn, a UCLA professor who's studied what factors lead commuters to choose public transit.

By definition, public transit has to serve the public, with affordable fares and multiple stops. Bridj doesn't allow riders under the age of 18, won't overbook a bus, only makes fixed stops, and charges $6 per ride—more than three times what a MBTA bus costs. The result is a "country club" atmosphere, says Kahn. "Some people may enjoy Bridj exactly for this reason."

Despite the luxury, Bridj founder Matt George denies that the service is about exclusivity. "It's not the nice bus, it's not the WiFi, it's not the power points," he says. Rather, it's about the route plans. George says Bridj is already in talks with other cities, including those vastly underserved by public transit, and will be announcing a second city soon and a third by the end of the year.

So even if the rise of private buses is shaping up to be more of a marathon than a sprint, the race is clearly on.

This article is part of 'The Future of Transportation,' a CityLab series made possible with support from The Rockefeller Foundation.

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