In 2014, the microtransit startup Bridj made a bet that public transit and ride-hailing apps could go hand-in-hand, that the mobile app technology and on-demand service that gave rise to Uber and Lyft could also be applied to buses and vans.
And for a while, it looked like CEO Matt George was on to something: It shortened trips for thousands of Boston commuters, it eventually extended limited service to Washington, D.C., and Austin, Texas, and it got Ford Motors Co. and the Kansas City Area Transit Authority to pilot a year-long experiment in Missouri. Just last year, the company was considering a delivery service called BridjBOX, providing late-night service in Boston, and even integrating AI technology.
Yet the possibility of taking Bridj any further ended this weekend when George announced in a Medium post that the company would be shutting down for good after failing to strike a deal with a major, unnamed car company:
The close date timeline extended from weeks to months, as they sought to gain the appropriate internal approvals that we (and they) thought were already in place. Throughout, we remained convinced of the close strategic fit and both sides had every expectation that the transaction would close. Despite assurances, and all parties acting in the best of faith, that didn’t happen.
Aside from the venture capital issues, the cracks had already begun showing in Bridj’s ambitions. Bridj works by allowing users to request a ride in one of its 14-seat vans whose routes are calculated by an algorithm so that riders are picked up and dropped off in the most efficient manner. Each ride costs passengers between $1.50 and $7, depending on what’s agreed upon with the city.
For Kansas City, a low-density metro, it seemed like a good bet: The city invested $1.3 million in the startup last year. “The way I see Bridj is that it breaks down barriers for people to use public transit,” Kansas City Area Transit Authority CEO Robbie Makinen told CityLab last year. “There are more options for people to access the whole system. It’s a robust transit system that encapsulates all types of modes.”
But the experiment ended in March, as scheduled, with sobering results. In a city of 2 million, it served fewer than 1,500 people. Many didn’t use the app beyond the first 10 free rides, despite the fact that the service attracted a largely younger and wealthier crowd—which raised the question of whether Bridj was accessible for the low-income population. As Wired reported, there was also a marketing problem (many didn’t know about the service) and a geography issue (the shuttles didn’t operate where and when users wanted them most).
The company has seen more success in Boston, its hometown, where the transit officials say they see the vans as a complement rather than a competitor to the existing public transit. There, Bridj has been in operation for three years and transporting thousands of commuters each week, according to the company. And the bet on private, luxury mass transit buses lives on, as Bridj’s competitor Chariot, in San Francisco, was acquired by Ford last year. But just with any industry—and any gamble—there are winners and losers, which makes it fitting that George’s notes ends with lyrics from “The Gambler,” by Kenny Rogers:
You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em
Know when to fold ‘em
Know when to walk away
And know when to run