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Pop-up bus service looks to reinvent mass transit

Luxury coach in NJ

An Academy Bus in New jersey. The "pop-up" bus service Bridj is using buses like these to provide an experience the company cites as a step above general public transit. 

Big data has already changed how we interact with many aspects of our cities, as well as how cities deliver services and enforce regulations. In New York, for example, the city has had success using public data to find restaurants illegally disposing grease waste, and stores selling untaxed cigarettes. In the realm of public transit, agencies have been able to make their data easily accessible online for app developers, adding value to the commuter.

Matt George, the founder of the Massachusetts-based startup Bridj, is looking to apply the potential for big data to transit. The service, which launched last month with three bus routes in Boston, takes the self-reported home and workplace data of each of its subscribers, as well as data from other sources, including census data and municipal data, and plots out potential bus routes accordingly. While the service is still in its infancy, there are plans for more dynamic routing in the future, such as routes to special events in areas not normally served by public transit. These more direct routes are capable of significantly reducing commute times over public transit. 

Aside from the innovative, purportedly faster routing, Bridj is one of a number of transit startups — perhaps most controversially symbolized by ridesharing service Uber — that aims to provide a luxury experience, complete with wi-fi enabled busses with plush seats. There is a price to that: the cost of a ride on Bridj ranges from $5 to $8, over double the fare range of Boston’s public bus operator. Though, anecdotal evidence suggests that the Bridj buses are faster than standard transit.

With many of these services, there have been fears in some quarters of a “two-tier” transit system — one of luxury for the technologically savvy elite, another, underinvested public system for the poor. Bridj has not faced these complaints yet, but it is an issue that may arise as the service expands elsewhere.

Another area that has bedeviled transit startups has not yet been an issue for Bridj -- According to founder Matt George: “One thing we thought would be a bigger challenge would be municipal cooperation.”

However, at least in Massachusetts, there has been a relatively welcoming response from local governments.

About the author

Ben Johnson is the host of Marketplace Tech.

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