Boston's New "Smart Mass Transit" Gets You To Work Faster—For A Price

It's time to go to work. But instead of walking a half-mile to the nearest bus stop and waiting in the searing morning sun, you tap in your location to an app and keep sipping your coffee at your kitchen table. The bus stops mere blocks from your house and delivers you to work in record time.

That's the pitch for Bridj, a new startup in Boston that's billing itself as "the first smart mass transit network." Since that doesn't really describe what they do very well, here's my take: They're creating a new system of luxury buses which have perks like Wi-Fi to cater to commuters who want to fork out the extra money for comfort and convenience.

Here's probably the coolest thing about the startup: Where the buses actually go will be driven purely by data. According to Next City, Bridj plans to eventually establish 30 routes which will be completely determined by users, giving riders more customized service—at a price. Each trip will cost up to $6 per ride, compared to $2.50 per ride for the T.

To figure out how to do this, Bridj's founder Matthew George has hired transportation scientists and developers to build the app, which can help determine the pickup points and routes, and also equip the buses themselves with some navigation tools. Since the drivers can be flexible with their routes (after picking up passengers), the buses can use traffic data to avoid crashes or construction, shaving time off the commute.

Boston's New "Smart Mass Transit" Gets You To Work Faster—For A Price

The first routes, determined by Bridj's beta users

Privatized transit—the kind that's not funded or maintained by the city's transportation agency—has become a touchy issue for cities over the last few years, if only because of one specific example: The tech buses in San Francisco. As you'll remember, protesters believe that the buses cause gentrification because the easy access to these corporate shuttles cause wealthier people to move into certain areas of San Francisco where they wouldn't normally live, displacing longtime residents. While there isn't really any kind of direct correlation that can prove that—desirable areas of San Francisco are getting more expensive, period—the city has responded (a little) by charging the shuttles to use its bus stops.

While it seems on the outset like Bridj is kind of the same thing—these are fancy buses targeted to tech workers, too—the biggest difference is that this is a service which is open to the public. It's privatized transit, but not a closed system. It's another option for getting to work, and it's more like a high-tech carpool than an alternative transit system. And as the branding clearly states—and I'm not saying I agree with it—this is for people who don't like touching other humans or getting sweaty on the subway.

In theory, if Bridj becomes wildly popular, Boston's transit agencies could suffer as those fares being paid by Bridj customers are not being pumped into the system, improving its service (which is, coincidentally, another criticism of the tech buses—all those riders could be hopping on Caltrain, making it better). But this isn't a service for most Bostonians. It isn't even a service for several large corporations in Boston. It's a service for a handful of Bostonians, who would probably not be taking the T—they'd probably be driving. And if it gets 300 or so cars off the road and parking lots every day, then that's good, right?

More non-car transportation choices are always better for a city, whether it's the T, a bus, bike share, or more startups like this. It also sets up a good way to start thinking about how autonomous vehicles will function, which Bridj says is the next step for them, too. You'll summon a shared-ride vehicle and the system will intelligently put together a route to your destination based on nearby passengers going in the same general direction.

Soon the city will be swarming with smart transit systems, each establishing on-the-fly routes based on demand and how many people want to split the ride, with riders paying a whole range of rates to get where they're going. [Next City]