Private bus service gets six-month trial, praise as innovative addition to MBTA
City officials welcomed the data-driven Bridj bus service on Monday, calling it a wave of the future that will get traffic off clogged streets and help maintain higher standards for the region’s public mass transit.
As a private company sharing busy streets, it also drew concern about being the mass-transit equivalent of controversial car services such as Uber and Lyft. Councillor E. Denise Simmons said she wouldn’t vote on allowing Bridj into Cambridge until the City Council saw a copy of its insurance policy – and was promised a look at them annually – even though it was on file with state officials.
Mainly, though, Bridj was embraced.
“I support it unequivocally,” councillor Nadeem Mazen said, crediting the company’s founders with working with cities including Boston and Brookline from the start, rather than plunging in and wrestling with regulation later. Bridj also side-steps driver issues stumbled over by Uber and Lyft by working only with already licensed bus companies, Mazen noted.
“It was a commercial operation from the outset … we don’t have to worry in the same way about individual operators as with the other services. We are in a different place than with Uber and Lyft,” Mazen said. “The fact it is serving new routes and working with cities is interesting and laudable, and it will hold the MBTA, maybe, to a higher standard.”
“I’m just so pleased to see a commercial operator doing the mass-transit route,” Mazen said, “and in a way that allays our concerns first.”
“A good model”
The 101 Main St., Kendall Square, company first went through a License Commission process recommending a six-month pilot program but restricting the use of certain stops and stressing that Bridj “must not adversely impact MBTA service.” Stops in Central, Harvard and Porter squares will be evaluated during the pilot, while Bridj was barred outright from a Cambridge Street stop near the high school and told to use a mall shuttle stop in Kendall Square instead of an MBTA stop because the area is too “congested and challenging” to add vehicles.
City Manager Richard C. Rossi said the city’s memorandum of understanding with Bridj was “a good model” that was greeted warmly by representatives of Boston, Somerville and other communities in a regional regulatory planning group hosted by Cambridge.
“They all loved this MOU as a really good model,” Rossi said.
Expanding the customer base
Bridj has four weekday routes, one of which delivers people from Coolidge Corner to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Kendall Square six times a day. Tickets cost $1 to $3 systemwide and sell out, although the company can swap out vehicle sizes to fit demand. The company’s operations manager, Mike Izzo, described this as the start of “a beta period” that would see added technology and routes, possibly including a wider variety of customer than the workers using the service to get to Boston’s Copley, downtown, Longwood and Seaport areas in addition to MIT and Kendall Square.
Launched this past summer, the service looks at “millions and millions of data points from places like social networks, municipal databases and private data companies” to figure out how a city moves, finding the most demand from workers and designing routes that take the least travel time possible – taking only 25 minutes to get students and workers to Cambridge from Coolidge Corner versus 50 minutes or more by public transportation, Bridj founder Matthew George said in June.
Councillors were interested in seeing how Bridj could serve Cambridge seniors, with vice mayor Dennis Benzan particularly interested in how to get access – and possibly even reduced rates – for older people who don’t use smartphones or even computers.
“It’s not outside the mission of Bridj, and it’s very feasible,” Izzo said of serving seniors as the service expands. “We want to provide transportation for everybody, whatever age they are and whether they require [Americans with Disabilities Act] access or not.”
Craig Kelley, another councillor who wanted to be sure seniors had the same access as computer-savvy tech-industry workers, called Bridj the “wave of our transportation future … And whatever we can do to help make those new and innovative systems work I think is super important for us to grab onto.”
Softening the tone somewhat after Simmons’ sharp questioning about Bridj’s insurance, which she said was prompted by reports of bad Uber and Lyft experiences and a wish to see level playing fields, the mayor acknowledged questions about the industry but called Bridj “an opportunity” to improve transportation and reduce traffic.
“I’m actually pleased to see this come together … in 2014 in a place where what we hear about is seeking alternative forms of transportation,” Mayor David Maher said. “Who knows where this will be a year, two years, five years from now, but as we see emerging and new forms of transportation, this is rather exciting.”