With New Apps, Bridj Gets Closer to Vision of Private Bus Network

Anyone who’s driven around Boston quickly confronts its twisting, colliding, narrow streets, an unapologetically old-world system that somehow embodies the city’s charmingly abrasive style. How people got around before GPS, I’ll never know.

Transportation startup Bridj is hoping to tap into this generation’s biggest technology platform—mobile smartphone networks—to make commutes in the region a bit easier.

On Monday, the company began offering new smartphone apps that allow people to call for a ride between a handful of well-traveled areas around the city and catch a private bus with a group of travelers heading the same direction.

The service is still in the early phases. But if there’s enough demand from commuters, Bridj hopes to eventually build a kind of alternative transit service that could alter its routes, and even its pickup and dropoff locations, in response to real-time demand from its riders.

“We don’t want to just stage vehicles out in a parking lot in Watertown. We want to place them strategically throughout the city, and evaluate tons of publicly available data—streams like the Census, social media data—and then our own user requests,” Bridj spokesman Ryan Kelly said, “so we build up this database that shows us how people are moving through the city and lets us respond to where users are.”

Bridj Sprinter

 

That sort of vision is increasingly common for digital entrepreneurs in the mobile era.

By tapping into the Internet-connected, payment-enabled devices in consumers’ pockets, innovative companies are able to find interesting and more convenient ways of moving people and goods around in the real world. Car-hailing company Uber and grocery-delivery service Instacart are two of the most prominent companies taking advantage of this reality.

Bridj has quite a way to go before it’s in that sort of company. Before releasing its smartphone app, the startup was using a website to let customers book rides, which were scheduled to run only in the mornings from points around the city. It also originally experimented with using huge charter buses that seat more than 50 people, which proved to be unwieldy around Boston’s streets as well as unpopular with the people who lived nearby.

Bridj is now downsizing its fleet, focusing on 14-passenger Mercedes-Benz Sprinter vans as its main rides. The vans are outfitted with wireless Internet access and, in some cases, luxuries like leather seats. Fares are $3 each way, a bit more expensive than a municipal bus or train but cheaper than a cab ride.

Kelly, however, said Bridj isn’t intended to be an exclusive, high-end ride. “I don’t think we’re any more luxurious than JetBlue or Virgin [airlines],” he said. “We’re trying to reset that vision, and reset what is accessible.”

Entrepreneurs elsewhere have been struck by the lure of a better bus system, but it can be a difficult project to get off the ground. In Detroit, where public services have dwindled as the city seeks to rebound from economic collapse, a startup called the Detroit Bus Company hoped to build a new-age, more responsive transit alternative. But in 2013 the company began focusing instead on serving youth programs, and the general transportation idea is still in the survey phase on the company’s website.

Bridj at least has some significant investment backing to help get its idea off the ground. The startup announced in September that it had raised a $4 million seed investment round from Boston-area venture capitalists Atlas Venture and NextView Ventures, along with angel investors.

As it acknowledges, Bridj’s service still has a lot of growing to do before it can fulfill its lofty goals. Right now, the startup’s service area touches several busy Boston-area neighborhoods, including areas near MIT, the bustling Back Bay, and gentrifying South Boston, but there are plenty of places it can’t go.

To be fair, this isn’t the kind of company that will follow a purely digital growth curve—arranging new bus lines between a few neighboring cities is a significant amount of real-world logistics.

In some key ways, Bridj’s approach is more painstaking than the playbook followed by fellow transportation upstart Uber, which grew quickly in part by tapping into existing networks of drivers-for-hire in various cities and often disregarding local rules in the highly regulated taxi and black-car markets. Bridj, on the other hand, has sought and won proper licenses from local officials in Boston and neighboring Brookline and Cambridge, Kelly said.

Bridj Screen 2

It’s still an open question whether prospective customers will find it tempting enough to switch from more familiar options.

My quick test of the app found that a route from Bridj’s headquarters on fancy Newbury Street to a central part of residential Brookline would take more than 30 minutes, with about half of that time spent walking to or from a bus stop on a freezing winter day.

Just walking the entire route would only add about 10 minutes to the trip, and Google’s transit calculations estimated that taking the MBTA’s Green Line train would actually be about 10 minutes faster than Bridj—although with the Green Line, you never know.

Bridj won’t talk about its user numbers just yet, which is common for a very young company, although Kelly allows that “thousands of users have tried Bridj.”

If it can convince many more thousands to try and stick with the service, the Boston area could have a slick new take on transit perfectly primed for the mobile age.

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