Bridj offers MBTA late-night service

Contractor wants T to subsidize its buses at night


A private transit company that already shuttles people around greater Boston during the daytime has proposed to do the same at night, in a partnership with the MBTA to provide a late-night transportation option that workers, employers and transit advocates have clamored for.

The T’s Fiscal and Management Control Board on Monday will hear about a proposal from Boston-based Bridj to provide on demand late-night buses to move people around the city after the T’s rail and traditional bus lines shut down. The control board will decide if it wants a more detailed proposal from Bridj and the public will have a chance to weigh in before anything is final, T officials said, but Boston night owls could soon have a new transit option.

Under Bridj’s proposal, riders would enter their pick-up and drop-off locations in the Bridj app and Bridj would provide pick-up and drop-off locations within a seven-minute walk, mirroring how Bridj works during its usual operating hours.

“We would simply have service areas that are targeted based off movement patterns of Bostonians and folks from surrounding cities who need to move in the late night,” Bridj CEO Matthew George said. “It allows us to serve more people in a way that’s a lot more flexible than putting up a fixed route at a fixed time.”

Bridj proposed to use its own vehicles, which George described as “14-passenger vans that have a nice center aisle, nice big leather seats, (and) wi-fi.” He said the vehicles would be driven by Bridj employees who are already licensed with the Department of Public Utilities.

Matthew George of Bridj

Matthew George of Bridj

By basing its routes on customer demand, George said, Bridj can optimize its service to transport more people more efficiently.

“We can be a little bit more responsive to the needs of the riders, but equally important is that we can adapt the service in real time to change service areas and make it even better,” he said.

MBTA Acting General Manager Brian Shortsleeve said Bridj has proposed a “public utility model” for its late-night service, and said the T would likely start with a pilot program before going all-in.

“The MBTA would set the fares, customers would register with the Bridj app directly, and then the MBTA would pay Bridj on a per vehicle per hour basis,” he said. “The T would recoup whatever fare revenue came through the system and Bridj would be paid per hour.”

Shortsleeve said the Bridj proposal contemplates the T paying Bridj $85 per vehicle per hour to run late-night service. If Bridj were to start out providing service with 10 vehicles, five hours each night, 365 nights a year, it would cost an estimated $1.55 million annually, some of which would be recovered through late-night fares.

The $85 per vehicle per hour cost is about 35 percent less than the $132 per vehicle per hour cost of putting a standard MBTA bus on the road and just higher than the $83 per vehicle per hour cost of the T’s contracted bus services in Winthrop, he said.

“As we look at late-night, we’re looking at ways to be innovative, to engage with the community, and also, frankly, to close what is a $100 million operating deficit. We are looking at any opportunity we have to run more efficiently,” said Shortsleeve, whom Gov. Charlie Baker appointed last year as the first chief administrator of the MBTA and charged with fixing the agency’s budget woes.. “In the case of late-night, partnering with a Bridj, or other contract bus services, we believe we would probably be able to provide bus service at somewhere between 35 and 40 percent cheaper than our internal cost.”

If the T’s oversight agency decides it wants to work with Bridj to bring late-night service back, it will have to decide who is going to pay the service’s operating subsidy.

“The really important discussion that will be happening with our board here is who pays that? Is it the MBTA splitting it with stakeholders like the city of Boston, for example, or the restaurant management association,” Shortsleeve said. “There are a lot of groups and stakeholders that have a real interest in this, employers, so we want to make sure as part of our discussion we think about how to make sure all the stakeholders have an opportunity to support the program financially.”

The MBTA has attempted to run late-night service a handful of times in the last decade, but it was never successful. FMCB member Monica Tibbits-Nutt said riders and advocacy groups have made it clear they want late-night service to work in Boston, and the FMCB wants to determine whether it is ever going to work.

She’s most attracted to Bridj’s data collection capabilities because the T could finally study what and where the true demand for late-night service is, she said.

“At this point, all of the evidence around whether late-night service is going to be good or not is all anecdotal because we are very limited in the amount of data we can collect on our riders,” Tibbits-Nutt said. She added, “I think we’ll finally be able to answer … is this something that’s going to be successful in a city like Boston. I think it’s still a very big question mark.”

The pitch from Bridj is among the first unsolicited proposals the T has received since it hung an “open for business” sign and adopted an innovation proposal policy about a month ago, asking the region’s universities, its business community and its non-profit organizations to suggest ways they could work with the T to improve the transit system.

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The policy, which was modeled on similar policies in Los Angeles, Dallas and Denver, is already paying dividends, Shortsleeve said. The FMCB on Monday will also here about a proposal from Ameridial to run the MBTA’s customer call center that came about as a result of the innovative proposal policy.

“Our goal is to drive innovation and creativity through outside-the-box thinking, frankly, which has been lacking at the T for decades. In Boston we are lucky enough to be in the middle of the world of innovation and ideas, so shame on us if we don’t do everything we can to tap into that world.”