Bridj: Can pop-up mass transit overtake the subway?

My normal policy is to write about frequent flyer miles, hotel points or the equivalent. Should there be nothing to write about, the day normally goes blank. We’ll make a slight exception today to write about intra-city traffic.  Listen up, particularly if you’re in Boston or DC. Your subway system is about to become a dinosaur (which would be appropriate in Boston, where many of the trains/trolleys are that old). Well, not yet, but Bridj could be the Uber for commuters.

I rode Bridj for the first time yesterday to try it out. It won’t be the last.  Bridj is, for lack of a better term, “pop-up” mass transit. It has a number of 14-passenger vans scheduled on anticipated demand. For example, I live west of Boston and work in an area with a number of people that live in my suburb.  Bridj uses demographic data to generate a bus route that happens to pick up two blocks from my office and drops me off a block from home. Why do they choose those locations? Because their data tells them that those are the two best spots for the largest number of people. In the case of my van, there are two pick-up spots downtown and two in my suburb, but the company knows that there are enough customers commuting between those locations to put butts in seats. Pricing is based on anticipated demand as well, but my rush hour price going into and out of the city was $2 each way. If I wanted to go into the city with most commuters between 8:30 and 9 am, the cost would have been $3-4.

So yesterday, I traded in the plastic bench (or metal pole to hold onto, as the case may be) of the Boston subway system (the T) for one of Bridj’s van seats. I booked the van about 20 minutes before the pick-up time of 4:02 pm. The app (Yup, you’ll need a smart phone.) told me where to wait and tracked the bus for me. I was the second of two stops in the city and my van rolled up at 4:00. Because I was the only passenger getting on there, we took off right away.

I took Bridj again today just so I could get a photo.  It had nothing to do with the comfortable ride, of course.

I took Bridj again today just so I could get a photo. It had nothing to do with the comfortable ride, of course.

The vehicle itself still has that new van smell and the driver looked professional. The leather seats were large and plush, and the wireless was fast (Speedtest clocked it at 9 Mbps.). There was one other passenger on the van who was happy to fall asleep (Yes, it was that comfortable.  Added bonus: Unlike on the subway, the air conditioning on the van worked.). Traffic behaved and we made it to my destination about five minutes before my 4:38 arrival time.  Door to door, Bridj saved me 15-20 minutes off of what would have been my typical commute time. More importantly, it seems to be a lot more reliable.

The service itself was flawless, although the app needs to work out a few kinks. For instance, even though I would take the same route every day, there is no way to bookmark that route, so I have to type it in every time. In addition, I had trouble finding the pick-up location on the app the first time I used it (Click on the little gray guy in the top right-hand corner.). Fortunately, customer service replied to my email in four minutes.

It doesn’t surprise me that Bridj is in Boston and DC. Both cities have a large number of professionals who live near the city center/limits. Boston’s subway is falling apart, while DC’s is lovely but expensive. I’m hoping that the model is profitable enough that it will expand to other cities. Bridj claims not to be competing for public transportation’s core customers, but I could easily see it becoming an alternative to the T. It’s faster, cheaper and more comfortable. What else can I ask for?

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