Category Archives: Transportation

The Microtransit Revolution Has Arrived

Oren Shoval and Daniel Ramot, founders of New York's Via private transit system.  “Our goal is to transform public transit from a regulated system of rigid routes and schedules to a fully dynamic, on-demand network,” they say.

Oren Shoval and Daniel Ramot, founders of New York’s Via private transit system. “Our goal is to transform public transit from a regulated system of rigid routes and schedules to a fully dynamic, on-demand network,” they say. What does it take get these guys to come to Virginia?

by James A. Bacon

The smartphone-engendered revolution in urban mobility may have a new name: microtransit. At one end of the transportation is our old friend, the automobile. At the other, we have trains and buses, collectively labeled mass transit. But there is an emerging in-between option, which Lisa Nisenson, writing in the Strong Towns blog, dubs micr0-transit.

Eric Jaffe, a senior associated editor at CityLab, picked up the term in an article last week headlined “How the microtransit movement is changing urban mobility.”

This, of course, is the same phenomenon that I’ve been blogging about on Bacon’s Rebellion for years. As soon as Uber demonstrated that (a) it was possible to connect riders with vehicles through smartphones and (b) algorithms could optimize the number and locations of vehicles in the fleet to accommodate consumer demand for Uber’s car rides, it was only a matter of time before competitors figured out how to do the same thing.

Following Uber’s lead, there have been literally dozens of start-up enterprises — Bridj, which has started service in the Washington region, is the one I featured recently on the blog — that provide flexible new transportation services. To quote Jaffe:

Commuter buses like Leap Transit or Chariot in San Francisco or Bridj in Boston (and now Washington). Dynamic vanpools like Via in New York. Carpool start-ups like Carma. True cab-share options like UberPool (now claiming millions of trips) or LyftLine (now with fixed-point pick-ups). Company and housing shuttles like the Google bus belong in the mix, too.

What you might not appreciate is just how crowded this microtransit space has become. The start-up platform Angel List’s “public transportation” page, currently with 177 projects, seems to grow daily. Its general “transportation” page lists more than 1,000 ventures, and some services like Uber that insist on being labeled “technology.” Plenty of local entrepreneurs don’t bother with the list at all (like a new Omaha bar shuttle). One company, TransLoc, is even building an entire flex-transit platform to help public agencies to join the fray.

Jaffe describes three ways in which microtransit might be a good thing for the world. These fleets of networked cars, vans, minibuses and other vehicles might lure people out of the single-occupancy vehicles. They might identify and serve new niches markets of under-served populations. And they might function as feeders to existing mass transit enterprises, bolstering passenger volume and revenue.

Alternatively, suggests Jaffe, microtransit might not be so good. It might compete with mass transit, “poaching” bus and rail riders in dense transit corridors, requiring more public funding to keep the mass-transit enterprises afloat. While microtransit undoubtedly would take automobiles off the road, microtransit vehicles would be running non-stop — conceivably generating more Vehicle Miles Traveled. Finally, microtransit might “drift into the sort of exclusivity that violates public transit’s equity mission.”

Bacon’s bottom line: Anyone interested in the future of transportation should read Jaffe’s piece. It provides a cogent summary of key issues surrounding microtransit. However, I beg to differ on a couple of key points.

First, an omission from Jaffe’s list: We may not know whether microtransit will result in more or fewer Vehicle Miles Driven, but the phenomenon almost certainly will require fewer cars to deliver the same amount of miles traveled. Fewer idle cars sitting in parking lots means less space — potentially thousands of acres less — for the storage of cars will be required. Anything that allows the nation to recycle parking lots into economically valuable property will stimulate urban economies across the country.

Second, I don’t worry about a move to “exclusivity.” The momentum is in exactly the opposite direction. Uber started out providing a luxury ride service, competing with limousines as much as taxicabs. The company has moved decisively toward the mass market. And if Uber doesn’t make the jump to less affluent riders, others will. In business revolutions like this, start-ups almost always target the most lucrative market slices first — they go for the biggest, fattest profits they can get while they can get it. As long as there are low barriers to entry, as in the case of microtransit, the upscale markets quickly get saturated and businesses migrate to under-served market segments.

My prediction: It is only a matter of years before microtransit begins providing vastly superior transportation services to the poor, as measured by cost of service and flexibility of routes, than they are getting from many municipal bus companies. Public mass transit will bleed customers and face an existential threat. Many will not survive. But the riding public will be better off.

Dave Brat’s Bizarre Statements

 By Peter Galuszka

Almost a year ago, Dave Brat, an obscure economics professor at Randolph- Macon College, made national headlines when he defeated Eric Cantor, the powerful House Majority Leader, in the 7th District Brat Republican primary.

Brat’s victory was regarded as a sensation since it showed how the GOP was splintered between Main Street traditionalists such as Cantor and radically conservative, Tea Party favorites such as Brat. His ascendance has fueled the polarization that has seized national politics and prevented much from being accomplished in Congress.

So, nearly a year later, what has Brat actually done? From reading headlines, not much, except for making a number of bizarre and often false statements.
A few examples:

  • When the House Education and Workforce Committee was working on reauthorizing a law that spends about $14 billion to teach low-income students, Brat said such funding may not be necessary because: “Socrates trained Plato in on a rock and the Plato trained Aristotle roughly speaking on a rock. So, huge funding is not necessary to achieve the greatest minds and the greatest intellects in history.”
  • Brat says that the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) is a step towards making the country be more like North Korea. He compares North and South Korea this way:  “. . . it’s the same culture, it’s the same people, look at a map at night, half the, one of the countries is not lit, there’s no lights, and the bottom free-market country, all Koreans is lit up. See you make your bet on which country you want to be, right? You want to go to the free market.” One problem with his argument:  Free market South Korea has had a single payer, government-subsidized health care system for 40 years. The conservative blog, BearingDrift, called him out on that one.
  • Politifact, the journalism group that tests the veracity of politicians’ statements, has been very busy with Brat. They have rated as “false” or “mostly false” such statements that repealing Obamacare would save the nation more than $3 trillion and that President Obama has issued 468,500 pages of regulations in the Federal Register. In the former case, Brat’s team used an old government report that estimated mandatory federal spending provisions for the ACA. In the latter case, Politifact found that there were actually more pages issued than Brat said, but they were not all regulations. They included notices about agency meetings and public comment periods. What’s more, during a comparable period under former President George W. Bush, the Federal Register had 465,948 pages, Politifact found. There were some cases, however, where Politifact verified what Brat said.
  • Last fall, after Obama issued an executive order that would protect up to five million undocumented aliens from arrest and deportation, Brat vowed that “not one thin dime” of public money should go to support Obama’s plan. He vowed to defund U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services but then was told he couldn’t do so because the agency was self-funded by fees from immigration applications. He then said he would examine how it spent its money.

The odd thing about Brat is that he has a doctorate in economics and has been a professor. Why is he making such bizarre, misleading and downright false statements?

Beware Stalling Growth in Northern Virginia

northern virginia mapBy Peter Galuszka

For at least a half a century, Fairfax County, Alexandria and Arlington County have been a growth engine that that has reshaped how things are in the Greater Washington area as well as the Old Dominion.

But now, apparently for the first time ever, these Northern Virginia localities have stopped growing, according to an intriguing article in The Washington Post.

In 2013, the county saw 4,673 arrivals but in 2014 saw 7,518 departures. For the same time period, Alexandria saw 493 arrivals and then 887 departures. Arlington County showed 2,004 arrivals in 2013 followed by 1,520 departures last year.

The chief reason appears to be sequestration and the reduction of federal spending. According to a George Mason University study, federal spending in the area was $11 billion less  last year than in 2010. From 2013 to 2014, the area lost 10,800 federal jobs and more private sectors ones that worked on government contracts. Many of the cuts are in defense which is being squeezed after the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The most dramatic cuts appear to be in Fairfax which saw a huge burst of growth in 1970 when it had 450,000 people but has been slowing for the most part ever since. It still grew to 1.14 million people, but the negative growth last year is a vitally important trend.

Another reason for the drop offs is that residents are tired of the high cost and transit frustrations that living in Northern Virginia brings.

To be sure, Loudoun County still grew from 2013 to 2014, but the growth slowed last year from 8,904 newcomers in 2013 to 8,021 last year.

My takeaways are these:

  • The slowing growth in NOVA will likely put the brakes on Virginia’s move from being a “red” to a “blue” state. In 2010, Fairfax had become more diverse and older, with the county’s racial and ethnic minority population growing by 43 percent. This has been part of the reason why Virginia went for Barack Obama in the last two elections and has Democrats in the U.S. Senate and as governor. Will this trend change?
  • Economically, this is bad news for the rest of Virginia since NOVA is the economic engine for the state and pumps in plenty of tax revenues that end up being used in other regions. Usually, when people talk about Virginia out-migration, they mean people moving from the declining furniture and tobacco areas of Southside or the southwestern coalfields.
  • A shift in land use patterns and development is inevitable. The continued strong growth of an outer county like Loudoun suggests that suburban and exurban land use patterns, many of them wasteful, will continue there. The danger is that inner localities such as Fairfax, Arlington and Alexandria, will be stuck with more lower-income residents and deteriorating neighborhoods. The result will be that localities won’t have as much tax money to pay for better roads, schools and other services.
  • Virginia Republicans pay lip service to the evils of government spending and have championed sequestration. Well, look what a fine mess they have gotten us into.

The rest of the Washington area is seeing slowing growth, but appears to be better off. The District’s in-migration was cut in half from 2013 to 2014 but it is still on the plus side. Ditto Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties.

NOVA has benefited enormously from both federal spending and the rise of telecommunications and Web-based businesses. It is uncertain where federal spending might go and maybe increased private sector investment could mitigate the decline. Another bad sign came in 2012 when ExxonMobil announced it was moving its headquarters from Fairfax to Houston.

In any event, this is very bad news for NOVA.

Solid Coverage of the U.S. 460 Fiasco. But the EPA Travesty? …. Chirp. Chirp.

crickettsThe Virginia Department of Transportation has canceled its contract with US 460 Mobility Partners to build the U.S. 460 Connector between Petersburg and Suffolk, Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne announced Wednesday. The action paves the way for initiating legal action to recover $252 million paid to the public-private partnership concessionaire for preparation and asset mobilization to start building the highway.

Layne had pulled the plug on the project a year ago when it was evident that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers might not issue required wetlands permits along the proposed 55-mile route. It’s not clear what recourse the McAuliffe administration has to recover payments provided for under a contract negotiated and signed by the McDonnell administration. There is no evidence that U.S. Mobility Partners has done anything wrong (other than negotiate a highly favorable contract). Still, it’s worth the effort. Even recovering half the sum would be a big benefit to taxpayers.

Now… If only the McAuliffe administration would try to recover money from the Environmental Protection Agency for mandating hundreds of millions of dollars in upgrades to coal-fired power plants to reduce toxic emissions like mercury and sulfur dioxide — only to turn around and issue another set of regulations a few years later, the Clean Power Plan, that will effectively force Dominion to shut down three of the four coal plants it just upgraded.

Governor Terry McAuliffe did protect ratepayers from that fiasco, which would have cost Virginia ratepayers some $1.6 billion or more, assuming the facilities were shut down within five years — by getting Dominion to eat the costs instead. In exchange, however, in a legislative deal carved out earlier this year, Dominion gets to freeze its base rates for five years. Some observers characterize that concession as a give-away to Dominion (although Dominion strenuously disagrees).

While the U.S. 460 fiasco rightfully generated a slew of in-depth newspaper reports, the EPA fiasco made one brief blip in the news cycle and then disappeared. The media has made no comparable effort to examine the issue, much less to hold the EPA accountable for the absurdity of enacting regulations that will likely force Dominion (and other electric companies with coal plants) to shut down investments that the agency had required just a few years previously. If Dominion had been ripping off ratepayers to the tune of $1.6 billion, I suspect we’d be hearing about it. But when the EPA is doing the gouging… all I hear is crickets chirping.

– JAB

The Next Wave of Energy Conservation: Collaborative Business Districts

open_iot

Click for more legible image. Graphic credit: Tridium

by James A. Bacon

As the Obama administration presses forward with its campaign to restructure the U.S. electric industry to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and its friends in the environmental movement have touted the potential for energy conservation to ease the transition to a clean energy economy. One key premise of the EPA’s Clean Power Plan EPA plan is that it should be possible to cut energy demand by 1.5% annually over the next 15 years from what it otherwise would be. The EPA is short on specifics, however. It’s not clear exactly where those energy savings would come from.

As it happens, there is tremendous potential to conserve energy — way beyond weatherizing old houses and installing Energy Star appliances. An entire industry, the building automation industry, has arisen around the opportunity to squeeze energy savings out of office, retail and industrial buildings. Although there are many other applications for building automation, the most tangible Return on Investment comes from reducing electricity consumption from HVAC, lighting, computers and industrial processes.

The industry is charging full-steam ahead with no special incentives from government. Property owners find that installing building automation systems is a competitive use of capital that lowers operating costs. Even more encouraging, the industry could be just scratching the surface of potential savings. Energy conservation could move to a new, higher plateau if property owners began collaborating.

Wayne C. Tighe, vice president of sales for Tridium Inc., a company for which I have done some free-lance work, has written an important paper for ei, a magazine of the National Electrical Manufacturers Association. The next step, he says, is for the industry to move from creating open building systems. in which different devices within a building talk to one another, to open city systems, in which different buildings and municipal infrastructure systems talk to one another.

Tridium provides an open platform, Niagara, that connects dozens of different types of sensors and devices inside buildings. “But we see no logical reason,” writes Tighe, “why connectivity should end at the property line. Our goal is to integrate buildings with each other and with municipal systems.” He continues:

Building automation systems optimize energy consumption of HVAC, lighting, elevators, servers and computers, and other electricity-consuming devices inside buildings and building complexes. But commercial buildings plug into electric grids. Smart grid technologies enable power companies to become defter at managing electric loads. Utilities are experimenting with time-of-day pricing, load shedding, and other strategies to reduce peak electric loads.

The more data that power companies and commercial buildings can share, the more power companies can curtail capital expenditures that get passed on to ratepayers. Sharing energy consumption data also opens the potential for businesses to generate and share their own power in eco-districts — installing solar power, perhaps, or generating electric power and utilizing heat waste.

Tighe describes other benefits from what he calls the “open Internet of Things”: water conservation; conservation of outdoor lighting; improved tracking of employees, visitors and their cars; optimization of space dedicated to parking; and transportation demand management.

From a managerial perspective, implementing building automation in individual buildings is simple —  there’s only one property owner to deal with. Creating functional groups out of the businesses, government entities and non-profit groups across an entire business district, with all their conflicting priorities and financial capabilities, is more complicated. But that’s the future of energy conservation.

Tighe’s article highlights Envision Charlotte, the not-for-profit group that has pulled together 61 of the 64 largest buildings in downtown Charlotte, N.C., to promote sustainability as a competitive economic advantage. I don’t see any comparable activity here in the Old Dominion. We’d better get moving soon, or once again we Virginians will find ourselves eating Tarheel dust.

Getting Around London

red_buses

by James A. Bacon

London is one of the most photographed cities in the world. Tourists flock there by the millions, and most of them have cameras. The Parliament building, the Tower of London, Westminster Abbey… the list of world-class photo-worthy historical sites goes on an on. And then there’s the scene shown above — nothing that the typical tourist would care to capture digitally. But it caught my eye because four double-decker red buses were visible on the same street in one shot, and it illustrated one of the more mundane aspects of London — how the 8.5 million inhabitants get around.

While the Bacon family rushed from one incredible attraction to another on vacation last week, I bedeviled my wife and son by pausing at seemingly random spots to capture images of things that visitors take for granted, such as parks, buses, crosswalks, plazas, sidewalks and ordinary streets full of ordinary houses. As an amateur student of human settlement patterns, I have a keen appreciation for how people organize their build environment. Citizens of countries around the world flock to London not just to visit but, despite a punishing cost of living, to live and work. Even if you stripped away the metropolis’ impossible-to-reproduce historical attractions, it still would be an awesome place. Part of that awesomeness, which won London recognition last year as the “best” city on the planet, is its transportation infrastructure.

London has an excellent mass-transit system, which includes the London Underground, a network of double-decker buses and some light rail. We had no trouble whatsoever getting around the city without a car. Actually, a car would have been a hassle because parking is difficult and there is an £11.50 congestion charge for entering the busy center city.

crosswalkThe key to making mass transit workable is creating hospitable pedestrian environments. London sweats the details. The first thing to notice is that crosswalks are not located at the edge of intersections, as they are in the United States but set back by several yards. The necessity of considering only left-right traffic flows as opposed to multi-directional traffic flow in the intersection, I presume, is improved safety. In London, the on-street signage remind pedestrians which way to look for oncoming traffic (of particular help to foreigners, most of whom drive on the opposite side of the road).

pedestrian_spaceThere is nothing resembling a street grid in London, so streets intersect at all manner of odd angles. As a consequence, street designers create a lot of pedestrian islands that allow people to stop halfway across busy intersections rather than risk crossing all the way. The city also installs wrought-iron rails to prevent people from stepping into parts of the street where they have no business stepping. Considering how fast Londoners drive — faster and more aggressively than in most parts of the States — these design precautions make sense.

cyclistI sense that it has been more difficult grafting bicycle-friendly infrastructure onto the street network. How would you like to be the cyclist at left, riding that close to a huge bus?  Cycling remains relatively dangerous by comparison to other transportation modes. There have been five cycling fatalities in London so far this year. Just last week, 55-year-old Moira Gimmell, recently picked by Queen Elizabeth to oversee renovations at Windsor Castle, was struck and killed by a truck.

Despite the issues unique to bicycles, London as a excellent transportation system overall. An American friend, who has lived in London for about a decade, does not own a car. He doesn’t need one. I’m sure that millions of other Londoners have made the same choice of going carless. A trip on the Underground near the center city costs about £1.7 (more if you’re traveling to outer boroughs), or $3.00. Say the average Londoner takes three bus or rail trips daily, costing about $10 daily. That’s $3,600 a year, or half the price of owning a car. That savings helps offset the mind-numbing price of real estate. (A two-bedroom flat on the street where we stayed is on sale for £1,250,000, about $1.8 million.)

How much does it cost to maintain this system? Thanks to the density of development and the high cost of operating an automobile, Transport of London captures a large share of total travel. Revenues in the year ending in 2013 (the most recent year I could find) amounted to about £5.6 billion, generating a loss of £1.2 billion, or about 20%. I suspect that’s pretty efficient by the standards of mass transit authorities in the United States. It’s certainly cheaper than building new or wider roads. Given the high cost of real estate in London and the narrow street setbacks, the cost of expanding roads would be astronomical.

Transportation systems are always a work in progress, and London is no exception. Personally, I like living in Richmond, Va., where I can load four of five bags of groceries into my car — try lugging four bags of groceries with you on the Underground. Car ownership offers convenience and privacy in travel that no mass transit system can replicate. But I can definitely see the allure of the London way of life.

When Bicycles and Buses Collide

cyclists

Cyclists near Buckingham Palace.

by James A. Bacon

My favorite London bicycling story so far comes from the London Evening Standard, which wrote of a bus driver ogling a female pedestrian who failed to notice a cyclist and hit him. That was only one of 25 incidents involving cyclists in complaints lodged with Transport for London over a fortnight last August. In a metropolis of 8.5 million dedicated to building a system of multimodal transportation in narrow streets, I suppose such incidents should come as no surprise.

bike_laneLondon is a bicycle-friendly city, and cyclists are seen with some frequency. Local authorities have done a commendable job of building bicycle lanes; there are even two Cycle Superhighways providing easy access to the central city. And under a new seven-year, £51 million sponsorship by Santander Bank (taken over from Barclay’s), the bus share system is undergoing an expansion. The bike-share stations can be found all over the region, and there is one about a block from our apartment.

According to another article in my new favorite authoritative source on London urbanism, the London Evening Standard, proximity to bike-share stations has joined schools and underground train stations as amenities that drive real estate values.

more_parked_bikes
An unresolved issue is where to park the bikes. In our Earl’s Court neighborhood, which is rich in ornamental ironwork fences, people bolt their bikes to the ironwork — and homeowners don’t like it. I’ve seen at least a dozen signs threatening to haul away bicycles attached to private fences.

chainsIn a city as large and dense as London, there is no perfect system. Cars, buses, bikes, pedestrians and property owners cannot all be fully accommodated. Trade-offs must be made. While I’m a huge fan of bicycles as a transportation mode, I don’t think they should rule the streets. For every cyclist one sees on the streets of London, there are hundreds of cars and hundreds of pedestrians. I’ve counted more of the ubiquitous red buses than cyclists. It’s great to have bicycles as a transportation option, but London could never evolve into a cyclist’s paradise like Amsterdam or Copenhagen without a multibillion-pound reworking of the urban fabric. Even so, it beats most American cities by a country mile.

Update from the London Evening Standard: A truck driver, 53-year-old Barry Mcyer, is facing jail time for running a red light and striking and killing a woman cyclist. The woman was one of 13 cyclists killed in London in 2013.

Building the New Midtown Tunnel

tunnel_construction

Graphic credit: Virginia Business. Click for more legible image.

Building the new Midtown Tunnel between Norfolk and Portsmouth is one of the more spectacular engineering feats ever attempted in Virginia. Elizabeth River Crossings (ERC), the private-sector partner in charge of the $1.5 billion construction project, has to dredge a 95-foot-deep trench in the Elizabeth River, float 11 massive concrete tubes the length of football fields down from Sparrows Point Md., submerge them, and then place them together within one-inch tolerances in order to snap them together.

The tunnel, only the second in the nation to be constructed in this manner, is engineered to withstand the weight of a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier. Virginia Business has the story.

– JAB

Exploring the World’s “Best” City

Blackbird2

by James A. Bacon

Last year Price Waterhouse Cooper crowned London as the “best” city in the world based upon a range of factors encompassing technology, innovation, transportation, tourism, livability, corporate clout and sustainability, beating out such great metropolises as New York, Singapore, Toronto, San Francisco and Paris.

With a population of 8.6 million, London is a big city. The Bacon family is spending only one week here, we’ll experience only a tiny fraction of what the city has to offer, and we’ll do so as tourists skimming the surface. But there’s still a lot to be gleaned from a superficial scan. In between indulging in typical tourista fare such as the Tower of London, the British Museum and the Eye, I’ll report my observations about land use and transportation with the thought that Virginians might have something to useful learn.

We’re renting an apartment in the Earls’ Court ward, which originated in the mid-1800s as a railroad suburb west of the city. In the 20th century, the ward went into a period of decline, earning a seedy reputation. Thanks to large numbers of Polish immigrants following World War II, the area became known as the “Danzig Corridor.” Later, after an influx of Australians and Kiwis in the 1960s, it earned the moniker “Kangaroo Valley.” Since then, according to Wikipedia, Earl’s Court has gentrified. Indeed, a remarkable number of old buildings are adorned with construction scaffolding, suggesting that investment and revitalization remain strong.

harcourt_terrace2From what I can tell  from the architecture (and I speak with no authority), this part of London was built in the Golden Age of city planning — the late 19th century and early 20th century. Even though buildings rarely rise higher than five stories, density is high. Almost all residential buildings are attached, either in row houses or apartments. As seen above, the dwellings fronting on a single block tend to have identical patterns of design; they’re not as individuated as the buildings of similar era and density in Barcelona. While a certain sameness prevails on a single block, the blocks stand out distinctly from one another. That makes it much easier for wandering strangers to remember to find their way around.

troubador

The front door to Troubador

One of the great virtues of old development over new is that older buildings have had time to evolve distinctive personalities, as their occupiers work their creativity upon them over the ages, adding a porch stoop here, a balcony there or a garden in the back. One fun place we visited the first day was Troubador, an organic-food restaurant with a music club in the basement and a postage-stamp dining garden in the rear. Inside, there was an eclectic mix of decor, including three shelves of watering cans in the front window. Old watering cans as decorative art? Let’s just say that’s something I never would have come with.

new buildingsWhen new apartments have been constructed, as seen at left, builders have preserved the human scale of the original development pattern, no more than five floors. I suspect that’s enforced by strict zoning standards, although I don’t know for certain. Real estate has gotten so expensive in London, due in part to those very same zoning standards, that developers surely would build at greater heights and densities if allowed.

mews

Redcliffe Mews, behind our apartment

From a livability perspective, five stories may be the optimal height for large-scale residential habitation adapted to the reality of the automobile. Even on a Sunday, the streets are crowded with cars. But parking is limited. I didn’t see any structured parking in Earl’s Court, as exists in older districts of New York, Barcelona and San Francisco. But that’s just one neighborhood. And many of the on-street parking spaces are permit-parking only. On Harcourt Terrace, where we are staying, it is possible to access garages behind the houses by means ofa “mews,” basically, an upgraded alleyway that would be impossible to build in the United States because it is too narrow to accommodate monster fire trucks so prevalent in fire departments today. Continue reading

Step Aside, Uber. Bridj Is the Next Wave of Transportation Disruption

bridj

by James A. Bacon

Later this month, 13-person vans emblazoned with the Bridj brand will begin ferrying Virginians, Marylanders and D.C. residents to destinations throughout the Washington metropolitan area, filling an under-served niche in the transportation marketplace. For $3 to $5, little more than the cost of a bus ticket, riders will be able to ride directly from Point A to Point B as long as enough of them are willing to share the ride. The trips will be 20% slower on average than if passengers drove their own cars, but the cost will be less than operating and parking a car. Trips will be marginally more expensive than a bus ticket, but they will be 30% to 40% faster.

“We aim to fill the doughnut hole between car and bus,” Bridj CEO Matt George told me in an interview yesterday. “We don’t have routes or schedules. The routing is dynamic. People tell us where they need to go. We direct them to a pop-up mass transit stop. The vehicle expresses them to a drop-off point within a five- to ten-minute walk of their destination.”

Bridj vehicles carry 13 passengers, have comfortable seats and come equipped with Wi-Fi and USB power. That makes passengers’ time on board more productive, George said, whether they want to check their work email or play Flappy Bird.

The Boston-based Bridj doesn’t see itself as a transit company, however. It’s a technology company. Its core competency is matching supply with demand: identifying clusters of people who want to travel between the same two locations at roughly the same time. The company outsources the actual driving to local partners who are licensed as operators to provide the vehicle and driver.

“We’re looking at billions of data points a day to understand where the city is moving,” George said. What are those data points? He won’t say — it’s proprietary. However, the company website refers to “dozens” of data streams, and it invites prospective riders to submit home addresses and work addresses online. The 25-person company has two research teams dissecting the data. One is led by an MIT PhD, the other by a Columbia University PhD.

Bridj is enlarging the market for mass transit. George said that, based on its Boston experience, about 20% to 30% of riders are new to mass transit. Bridj will provide transportation connections to parts of the Washington metro area that don’t have bus service. In Washington, like Boston, a third of city residents don’t own cars. Similarly, 40% of the jobs in each metropolitan area are inaccessible by transit in 90 minutes or less.

However, the other 70% to 80% are transit riders — Bridj’s gain is the local bus company’s loss. Municipal bus companies tend to be financially precarious enterprises. Would they not see Bridj as the same kind of threat to their operations as, say, Uber represented to taxicab companies? Will Bridj stimulate the same kind of political backlash that Uber did?

I asked George that question, and he gave a mixed message. On the one hand, he affirmed strongly that Bridj is far more efficient — up to nine times more — on a cost-per-passenger basis than conventional transit companies. The standard model for municipal transit companies is to run on scheduled routes at scheduled times. The buses rarely travel full; indeed many travel almost empty. Moreover, city buses typically cost ten times more than Bridj vans. The average cost per passenger trip for municipal buses in Boston is in the realm of $13 to $15 per passenger trip, said George, adding the caveat that he hadn’t checked the figures recently and could be off somewhat. By contrast,  Bridj buses run full. The company charges $3 to $5 per ticket, depending upon whether it’s on-peak or off-peak traffic — and it makes a profit.

On the other hand, George downplayed the idea that Bridj represents a threat to city bus companies. Bridj shares its data with city bus companies. (He didn’t say to what purpose, but I would conjecture to help bus companies optimize their own routes.)  “They see the ability to work with Bridj in the future,” he said. “We’re open to discussion.”

Bridj announced its move into the Washington market in late February. “We’re in the final stages of vendor selection,” George said. “We’ll be on the road in the next couple of weeks.”

Bacon’s bottom line: Just as Uber turned the economics of the taxicab business on its head, Bridj is transforming the transit bus business. It’s expanding the market for transit, but it’s also siphoning off existing mass transit riders. I can’t help but think that at some point bus companies will start complaining that Bridj is “skimming the cream,” weakening them financially and endangering their ability to maintain service to the poor. Insofar as the transit bus business is bigger than the taxicab industry, I would expect the political pushback to be commensurately bigger than the opposition that Uber faced.

But there is one big difference. Uber was unapologetically confrontational. Bridj appears to be taking a much lower-key approach to entering the Washington market. George is shrewd to consult with local authorities in advance and position Bridj as a “partner.” Insofar as George can provide valuable data that enables bus companies to improve their operations, municipal transit companies actually may welcome Bridj into the market.

Regardless of how the vested interests might feel about Bridj, the company brings a welcome transportation alternative to the Washington regions. Any innovation that expands the marketplace for shared ridership and spurs sluggish local transit companies to up their game is a good thing.