By Katharine Q. Seelye, Published on June 4th, 2014
BROOKLINE, Mass. — Katie Pasciucco, 34, an account manager at a software company, is a typical Boston commuter. Her door-to-door trip to work is just 4.5 miles but takes at least 50 maddening minutes.
With no predictable subway schedule available, she usually waits several minutes for a train. It makes numerous stops before she gets off, and then she still has to walk 20 minutes. And so she leapt at the chance this week to travel a new way — by old-fashioned bus.
This new-old method of transport has comfortable seats and Wi-Fi. But its real innovation is in its routing. It is a “pop up” bus service, with routes dictated by millions of bits of data that show where people are and where they need to go. The private service uses chartered buses and is run by a start-up technology company called Bridj.
Bridj enters the Boston market at a tumultuous time for transit services here, where a proliferation of options has intensified the competition for rider dollars. (Boston has the third-highest share of households without cars in the country, after New York and Washington.) Ride-sharing services like Uber, which allow customers to hail cars — and now, even water taxis — on their smartphones, have disrupted Boston’s traditional taxi industry, which says that Uber has taken away 30 percent of its business.
Also in the mix is the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, which operates the region’s bus and subway system, known as the T. It has just started late-night T service on weekends to meet the growing demand of Boston’s large college crowd, odd-hour technology workers and late-night service workers in bars and restaurants.
“It’s like the Wild, Wild West right now,” said Donna Blythe-Shaw, a spokeswoman for the Boston Taxi Drivers Association. “The T, taxis, Uber, Lyft — have smart app, will travel.” She predicted that Bridj would have “some impact,” but said it was too soon to say how much.
The transportation authority sees Bridj at this fledgling stage as a complement to the T. “This is not a competitive situation at all,” said Joseph Pesaturo, the authority spokesman.
Yet he was quick to note that the city bus fare of $1.50 and subway fare of $2 are much less than Bridj’s $6. And the city buses now have real-time smartphone apps that alert riders to arrival times.
But most of those who lined up on Monday for Bridj’s first day of beta service, which was free, said that problems with the T had prompted them to try Bridj.
“I’m tired of getting crammed in like a sardine on the train,” said J. P. Nahmias, a co-worker of Ms. Pasciucco’s.
Eva Zhou, a biotech worker, said, “There’s never an easy ride on the T, and it’s always crowded.” As for Bridj’s higher fare, she thought the service might qualify for her company’s stipend for employees who use alternative transportation.
On Bridj’s two maiden trips Monday morning, from Brookline to Boston’s financial district and to Kendall Square in Cambridge, the nonstop buses arrived more quickly than the subway.
For Ms. Pasciucco, Bridj shaved 10 minutes off her door-to-door commute. But what she appreciated most was the predictable schedule, allowing her to waste less time and arrive feeling less frazzled.
The brainchild of Matthew George, a 23-year-old entrepreneur, Bridj uses algorithms to make the bus routes “smarter.” As more people use it, it will adjust the routes accordingly.
Bridj collects millions of bits of data about people’s commutes from Google Earth, Facebook, Foursquare, Twitter, LinkedIn, the census, municipal records and other sources.
“We crunch these millions and millions of data points through a number of algorithms that are existing, or that we’re refining, to tell us where people are living and working,” Mr. George said. “And through our special sauce, we’re able to determine how a city moves.”
The system will become so smart, he said, that eventually it will take more people closer to their destinations. He will then swap out the 54-seat motor coaches he now leases for more efficient, smaller vehicles as Bridj expands its routes. Someday, he said, those vans could use automated vehicle technology — becoming driverless vehicles that avoid collisions, get better fuel economy and speed up traffic flow. And this, he said, will help reduce traffic congestion and greenhouse gas emissions.
Although similar technology-driven systems are being tested elsewhere, Bridj claims to be able to apply its data faster to create new routes more quickly.
Mr. George, while a student at Middlebury College in Vermont, was part of a team that built what he says is the nation’s largest network of pop-up bus services for college students going home on break. Called BreakShuttle, it has generated about $1 million a year in revenue by serving 15 colleges; it is scheduled to serve about 40 this fall.
His track record with BreakShuttle helped win investors for Bridj. His primary financial backer is Jill Preotle of Boston, an early investor in Zipcar, who said she was drawn to Bridj for its potential, like that of Zipcar, to reduce car ownership and therefore reduce traffic and pollution.
Mr. George is in talks to start Bridj in several other cities, which he declined to identify, by the end of summer. He is also preparing a plan to serve office parks on Route 128, the famous “technology highway” northwest of Boston, where thousands of commuters clog the roads in a bumper-to-bumper standstill.
Glen Weisbrod, president of the Economic Development Research Group, a consulting firm in Boston that recently completed a study of traffic congestion in high-growth business clusters like Kendall Square and Route 128, applauded Mr. George for using technology and creativity to address transit issues.
But while Bridj can help incrementally, Mr. Weisbrod said, it cannot solve the fundamental transportation problems of big cities. “Buses can only do so much,” he said. “They don’t eliminate the need for public investment in large-scale transit systems.”
FIND THE ORIGINAL AT: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/05/us/to-lure-bostonians-new-pop-up-bus-service-learns-riders-rhythms.html