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Data-driven bus service set to roll out

Venture aims to predict riders’ needs

Matthew George isn’t a typical tech entrepreneur. He has worked as an EMT and been a White House intern, majored in biology, and started a bus service while he was in college.

Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff

Matthew George isn’t a typical tech entrepreneur. He has worked as an EMT and been a White House intern, majored in biology, and started a bus service while he was in college.

Imagine a mass transit system that could figure out on a daily basis where people are and where they want to go, and then get them there — nonstop — on luxury buses for just a few dollars more than a T ride costs.

That’s the concept behind a first-of-its-kind “pop-up” bus service scheduled to begin trial runs in mid-May with at least four nonstop commuter routes in Brookline, Boston, and Cambridge. Within three months, buses on 18 routes could be shuttling commuters around in Boston and nearby suburbs, said founder Matthew George, and more are planned.

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The 23-year-old Middlebury College graduate, who started a college bus company from his dorm room, said he wants to create a “living, breathing” public transportation system for the 22d century. George said that by harnessing vast amounts of online data that show where people live, work, and play, his bus line — it’s called Bridj — can predict areas of peak demand on any given day and adjust its schedules accordingly.

“Instead of funneling people into traditional categories of public transit, we’re reinventing public transit to match where people actually are,” he said. “We want people to open their phones and say, ‘Hey, I want to go to the bar in Cambridgeport, I know other people going to the bar, there’s probably going to be a Bridj that goes from my area to the bar.’ ”

At $5 to $8 a trip, to start, Bridj will be pricier than MBTA buses and trains, but interest in the service — and its high-speed Wi-Fi, leather seats, and complimentary snacks — is already high. George placed an advertisement on Facebook last week looking for 350 people to try out the bus line. Twenty-four hours later, he had received more than 1,000 responses. As of Tuesday, they totalled 3,200.

Justin Miller, a 27-year-old marketing manager who lives near Coolidge Corner and commutes to the Back Bay, is among those selected for Bridj test runs. Miller doesn’t own a car, and he used to take the Green Line to work every day, but got fed up with crowded trains. Now he’s an Uber “power user,” spending up to $150 a month to get to work via the app-driven car service, an alternative to using taxis. Compared with the T crush or a $9 Uber ride, Miller said, a $5 nonstop bus seems like a bargain.

“I’m OK adding some extra expense if it means getting around the city in a comfortable way,” he said.

Bridj will use other companies’ licensed buses and is in the process of obtaining approvals from local transportation authorities.

George said he has secured more than $3 million from private investors and attracted the attention of several directors and executives at Zipcar, including former chief executive Scott Griffith, now a partner at the venture capital firm General Catalyst.

Transportation has gone through a “huge paradigm shift” in the past few years because of technology, George said, citing the growth of Zipcar and Uber. Bridj, he believes, is the next step.

The more people use the system, the “smarter” it will become, George said. Riders sign up online, and the company collects their home and work ZIP codes, eventually drilling down to specific streets. It also scours the Internet for Foursquare check-ins, tweets, and Facebook updates to gauge travel patterns and factors in significant events such as a Red Sox game. A software program crunches the real-time data to anticipate what routes need to be added, using smaller shuttles to serve less popular destinations.

With no stops along the way, travel times would be faster on Bridj than on the T, said George. He said it takes about 50 minutes to get from Coolidge Corner to Kendall Square on the train during peak travel times, but only about 18 minutes by car.

Jill Preotle, a former Zipcar board member and investor, said Bridj could be as big as the popular car-sharing company.

“It’s just the next phase of public transportation that needs a solution,” Preotle said. She also sits on the board of GroupZOOM, the company owned by George that operates Bridj.

Nigel Wilson, an MIT professor specializing in transportation who works closely with the MBTA, is intrigued by the potential of the high-end service but said serving areas already accessible by the T could put the two at odds.

“You don’t want to go into this expecting to get real opposition from the MBTA, because I think that could derail the thing very early,” he said, noting that George’s startup timetable is “wildly ambitious.”

George isn’t a typical tech entrepreneur. The Haddonfield, N.J., native worked as an emergency medical technician in high school and majored in biology at Middlebury College in Vermont. He took a year off to be a White House intern, where he worked with trend-predicting data.

As student government transportation director at Middlebury, he used those data skills to figure out more efficient bus routes for students headed home on school vacations. That exercise turned into BreakShuttle, which now generates $1 million a year in revenue and next year will serve 40 schools, George said.

The company runs on a program George created that uses algorithms, Google Earth, and geographic information systems software to help move people from one place to another. For instance, BreakShuttle gets about 9,000 Auburn University students to within 20 miles of their hometowns using just four routes.

Bridj, he said, is aiming for something even larger in scope.

“Boston was the first city to put a subway system in the city, and it’s going to be really cool because it’s going to be the first in the entire world to have a pop-up transit system,” said George, who was wearing orange-soled Pumas and clutching a sugar-free Rockstar energy drink at 10 a.m. on a recent weekday.

For now, the contagiously enthusiastic George is the only person in the Cambridge office of GroupZOOM. He works 90 hours a week from his desk on the 15th floor of the Cambridge Innovation Center, looking out over the tech offices in Kendall Square that he plans to serve. GroupZOOM has five employees in Vermont and two contractors in San Francisco, and it plans to hire 22 people in Boston within six months.

Young, tech-savvy riders who don’t own cars are a key target demographic. Of people ages 18 to 34 in Boston, 43 percent don’t have a vehicle, according to the American Public Transportation Association. Nationwide, the number of households without cars has risen nearly 65 percent in the past two decades, according to CNW Research, an Oregon firm. In 2012, about 9.3 percent were carless.

George considers Bridj a “relief valve” for the MBTA, not a competitor. He hopes to eventually reduce prices to $3 to $4 per ride for short trips — not that far off from the $2 to $2.50 cost of a single-ride T fare.

“What if you could redesign a system that has been relatively stagnant and hasn’t changed in 100 years?” George said. “If you look at Boston bus lines, they’re still following trolley tracks. It’s pretty nuts.”

MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo dismissed Bridj as a potential competitor, saying the price point is more in line with what taxis charge.

George, not content to stop with a semi-traditional bus service, is already thinking about what’s next: “By reinventing the way the world travels, we can use anything — from a small van to a large bus to a charter airplane to a driverless van to even a space ship — to match where people are with where they need to go.”

Katie Johnston can be reached at katie.johnston@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.
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