by James A. Bacon

Bridj, a Boston start-up, bills itself as “the world’s first smart transit system which uses big data and luxury shuttles to adjust to your individual commuting needs.” The company charges $6 per ride, or three times that of a city bus, but it provides Wi-Fi connectivity and luxury seats, and it saves riders time by providing direct service between destinations. For well-heeled commuters, the top-of-the-line service is vastly preferable to either the city bus or driving and paying for parking. If the experiment works out — it launched this month — Bridj could significantly enlarge the market for mass transit.

Not to blow my own horn (Arooo-ga! Arooo-ga!) but I’ve seen this coming for a long time, ever since Uber launched its luxury transportation service as an alternative to traditional taxicabs. The smart phone revolution is making it easier than ever to match rides with riders, reserve seats and make payments. Meanwhile, the ability to process massive volumes of data enables companies to optimize the deployment of their vehicle fleets.

What I find fascinating is that Bridj and start-ups providing similar services in Chicago and San Francisco (see the post in City Labs) are demonstrating that there is a demand for mass transit not being met by one-size-fits-all municipal bus service. As typically happens with the introduction of a new product or service, the first wave of entrepreneurs targets the affluent market because that’s where the money is. One would expect that as these business models prove themselves and as technologies and algorithms are perfected, these private transit companies will begin providing differentiated services for other market segments. One could readily imagine a less luxurious Bridj-like service catering to middle-class riders, and tighter-packed, less comfortable but cheaper services providing mobility to lower-income individuals.

Extending the smart transit revolution from well-heeled riders to the rest of the population will be good all the way around — it will provide more transit options for a wider variety of people. It will get more cars off the road, reduce pollution and cut the demand for parking. There will be only one set of losers — local municipal transit monopolies. We can expect push back from the transit companies against Bridj, just as the taxicabs have sought to block Uber in city after city. The transit companies will wail about the private carriers “skimming the cream” and the disasters that will befall their lower-income riders if they go bankrupt.

There’s nothing stopping municipal transit companies from embracing the same technologies and the same strategies. They won’t, of course, (a) because they are innovation-stifling monopolies, (b) they are dependent upon state and federal subsidies, which come with all manner of strings attached, (c) they are subject to the dictates of local politicians and (d) they lack the financial wherewithal or management skills necessary.

If I were a local elected official in Virginia, especially if I were in a suburban county where lots of my constituents drove to work downtown, I would be on the phone begging Bridj to expand to my metro. And I would promise that when they came, my community would roll out the red carpet.

Share this article


(comments below)


(comments below)


5 responses to “The Smart Transit Revolution”

  1. LifeOnTheFallLine Avatar

    Woo! One more way for the hoi oligoi to use the systems we all paid into without having to actually interact with the hoi polloi! Transit revolution, baby! Now Bloomberg can stop riding the subway while still supporting transit! Guilt free, poor free slugging on demand! The future is now!

    Stuff like this is neat and all, and as long as Bridj, Uber, Lyft et. al have to meet the same insurance and inspection standards as everyone else they’re welcome to come and play ball. But this is very much a niche product and will not replace reliable mass transit.

    1. “This is very much a niche product and will not replace reliable mass transit.”

      It will start as a niche product but the underlying technology will go mass market. We can now foresee the end of traditional, municipally operated bus lines.

  2. larryg Avatar

    why does anyone think that Bridj would seek to serve all demographics in all geographies instead of skimming only what is profitable and basically abandoning the demographics and geography that is not profitable?

    People like Bacon need to consult the meaning of ” public service corporation”

    If we follow Bacon’s Dominion Power is free to serve only those that are profitable and screw everyone else.

    What would happen to Bridj if the rules of their permit said they had to serve everyone no matter the geography the same as the public transit does?

  3. DJRippert Avatar

    This is a good idea. These upscale bus companies aren’t stealing from public transit concerns, they are taking people out of cars and putting them into buses. How is that a problem?

    I am personally surprised you don’t see more municipalities offering long distance, comfortable bus service. Why not bus people from Winchester, VA to Reston and Tysons VA? A lot of employers would be willing to count the bus time as work time if the people could show they were using the WiFi to work. Employers get cheaper employees, people in Winchester get better jobs and we don’t need yet more people in NoVa on roads that are too crowded already.

    1. larryg Avatar

      I don’t have a problem with them operating as any other market-based shuttle service.

      but how does that make them “transit”?

      it costs about $100 to take a shuttle from Fredericksburg to Dulles …
      and I don’t think the shuttle service has any interest at all in regular transit…

      I’m just not understanding how Bacon does not understand the difference between for-profit shuttle service and transit.

      Now… it COULD BE – that TRANSIT – in it’s current form is going to change but call me a skeptic that shuttle services will replace it.

      the basic conundrum is how do you run a standard scheduled service even if there are only two people that need it?

      do you abandon that route because at some times of the day there are only two people? do you only schedule service when there are ..say 10 people?

      we did a food pantry today. we had people who had no transportation trying to bum rides. Others, luckier were carpooling – 3 and 4 to a car – a car on its last legs.

      The local transit is a joke. Even if it did show up, it would not be going where these folks lived. And no for-profit service was going to help them – without charging them more than the value of the food they received.

Leave a Reply