Bridj revs up

Private bus company looks to supplement, not replace, MBTA service

AS THE MBTA Fiscal and Management Control Board mulls axing late-night buses and trains to save money, the chances of some sort of wee-hours bus service surviving may rest with a start-up called Bridj.

Matthew George, Bridj’s 25-year-old founder and CEO, sees his two-year-old bus company not as a competitor to the MBTA, but as a “supplementary service somewhere between a car and traditional mass transit.”

Bridj has ambitious plans for 2016: A major expansion into every Boston neighborhood and large sections of Somerville, Newton, and other communities. Bridj currently runs shuttles between Allston, Brighton, and Brookline and employment hubs in Kendall Square, Back Bay, the Financial District, and the Seaport District.  Bridj also serves some Washington, DC, neighborhoods and is looking to expand into Kansas City.

The company operates small shuttle buses that can seat up to 14 people in roomy leather seats. Passengers also have to access Wi-Fi.  The vehicles are a significant step up from MBTA buses that feature plastic seats and a scramble for a spot.  Bridj uses mathematical formulas incorporating a variety of data to select routes. Riders make online-only reservations for a seat and get on at specific pick-up and drop-off points.

The private bus shuttle service does have some drawbacks. It does not run service on some holidays, like Patriots’ Day, when many people have to work. It does not allow children on the buses, which does not help parents with child care responsibilities.  The cost, which averages about $4, is nearly twice as much as what the T charges, although the T is pursuing a fare increase,

The MBTA Control Board has proposed eliminating late night bus and rail service and cutting service to more than 30 bus routes. Bridj is keen to work with public transit agencies like the MBTA. “By working with governments, we can improve transit access and do that in a way that is cost efficient for them,” George says.  He also wants to use traffic data his company is gathering to help transportation agencies figure out ways to ease congestion.

Jim Aloisi, a former state transportation secretary, is worried about the MBTA’s embrace of micro-transit providers. He claims that these private entities create transit inequality by siphoning off the well-heeled and the fed up, leaving the MBTA as the provider of last resort for riders with no other means of getting around, such as the very poor, the disabled, and the less than tech-savvy. He says that chasing away wealthier riders saps financial and political support for the T, and could lead to a steady decline in service.

“My concern about Bridj and any micro-transit alternative is that it is a fundamental game-changer in the way in which people, especially in urban environments, can exercise mobility options,” he says. “It threatens maintaining an egalitarian public transportation system.”

George refutes the assertion that Bridj is skimming off any one type of passenger. “We serve customers from all over the income spectrum,” he says. “Our transit rider is demographically identical to the average transit rider.”

It is the average transit rider’s frustration with the financially-strapped, chaos-prone MBTA that has created an opening for the private sector to come up with an alternative that provides good value and a superior riding experience. The MBTA has already lined up conventional taxi companies to backstop The Ride, its paratransit service for seniors and the disabled. It is considering using ridesharing companies such as Uber and Lyft to provide that service as well.

Gabe Klein, a former head of the Chicago and Washington, DC, transportation departments who has worked as a special advisor to Bridj, says that micro-transit detractors are going to have to “toss some of the sacred cows out the window if transit agencies are going to survive.”

For Klein, partnerships between Bridj and the traditional transit networks are the next step in the evolution of public transportation. These deals will allow public transit agencies to concentrate on services that make financial sense for them.

“Running peak-hour service at $160 per hour with 160 people in a rail car is efficient,” Klein says. “At night, [budgeting] $70 to $80 per hour to run a bus carrying two people is not very efficient.”

Efficiency is exactly what MBTA Chief Administrator Brian Shortsleeve is after. The man tasked with the job of bringing fiscal responsibility to the MBTA sees micro-transit as a way to furnish late-night service at reduced cost. Bridj, along with Lyft and Uber, have expressed interest in late-night service opportunities with the MBTA and there is an “active dialogue” going on with them, according to Shortsleeve. Bridj is regulated as a bus charter company by the state, while Lyft and Uber are currently exempt from any regulation.

There has been a fair amount of skepticism about the interest of any private company in what many consider to be the losing proposition of late-night bus service. Late-night bus service costs the MBTA $13.50 per rider. Shortsleeve says that a private company wouldn’t be interested in pursuing a late-night service contract unless they believed that they could turn a profit.

A MassINC/Urban Land Institute poll released last year found that only 2 percent of the young adults surveyed in Greater Boston used Bridj. The vast majority of them used conventional taxis or Uber. George said the poll painted “an incomplete picture” since Bridj serves a small geographic area, unlike Uber or Lyft, which cover the entire city of Boston.

“If you had done that same poll in the areas where we are available, [you would find] that we have more market share than Uber and Lyft combined during the [peak] commutes,” says George.

However, the Bridj chief executive declined to provide any information about his firm’s ridership or the number of buses it runs. He did say that revenues and the number of rides offered doubles about every three months. “We are growing at an incredible rate to where our biggest issue is essentially how to find enough vehicles to put on the road,” he says.

Inability to keep pace with that burgeoning demand at the end of last year led Bridj to eliminate a popular monthly pass program that offered unlimited rides for a set price. The company shifted exclusively to one-way tickets, which typically cost anywhere from $2 to $5, with the price averaging about $4.

Bridj’s tinkering with its pricing structure has alienated some customers. Late last year, Bridj user Jack DeManche vented about the higher prices on Twitter. “Not efficient,” he tweeted. “Huge let down.” (Bridj tweeted an apology promising “new features and plans.”)

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Gabrielle Gurley

Senior Associate Editor, CommonWealth

About Gabrielle Gurley

Gabrielle covers several beats, including mass transit, municipal government, child welfare, and energy and the environment. Her recent articles have explored municipal hiring practices in Pittsfield, public defender pay, and medical marijuana, and she has won several national journalism awards for her work. Prior to coming to CommonWealth in 2005, Gabrielle wrote for the State House News Service, The Boston Globe, and other publications. She launched her media career in broadcast journalism with C-SPAN in Washington, DC. The Philadelphia native holds degrees from Boston College and Georgetown University.

About Gabrielle Gurley

Gabrielle covers several beats, including mass transit, municipal government, child welfare, and energy and the environment. Her recent articles have explored municipal hiring practices in Pittsfield, public defender pay, and medical marijuana, and she has won several national journalism awards for her work. Prior to coming to CommonWealth in 2005, Gabrielle wrote for the State House News Service, The Boston Globe, and other publications. She launched her media career in broadcast journalism with C-SPAN in Washington, DC. The Philadelphia native holds degrees from Boston College and Georgetown University.

The MBTA faces a similar conundrum—but one that could be a boon for Bridj. Aloisi warns that people will abandon the MBTA in droves if service continues to be unreliable, inconvenient, and more expensive when the MBTA finally follows through on a fare hike.

“If you raise T fares to the point where the differential is modest or inconsequential, then more people are going to take Bridj” says Aloisi. “Why wouldn’t they? It’s much better service.”