Bridj, the data-driven pop-up bus service set to launch in MBTA territory in a few weeks, has hired away the transportation authority’s head of research and analysis.
David Block-Schachter, who has a doctorate in transportation from MIT, will be the head scientist for Bridj, which plans to use data from riders and social media postings to predict the most useful routes on a given day.
Block-Schachter made the switch after just three months at the MBTA because, he said, he wants to experiment with new technologies to help create a more flexible system that can get people where they need to go without multiple transfers and long waits.
Public transportation agencies like the T are not as free to innovate because they have a huge customer base that relies on their long-established routes, Block-Schachter said. But in the long run, he said, his former employer should be able to benefit from the innovations Bridj is tackling.
“Hopefully, we can get to the point where we can get in front of people’s demands and make sure that there are vehicles there for them,” he said. “The key thing is to show the way so that public transit agencies can adopt the things that work.”
The trick to anticipating passengers’ needs is collecting information about their transportation patterns. When riders sign up for Bridj, they contribute anonymous data about where they live and work, and can request new stops — as well as buy tickets and find buses — on the Bridj app.
Eventually, in exchange for discounts on fares — starting at $5 to $8 a trip — Bridj will ask people’s permission to use the GPS on their phones to anonymously track their movements across the city.
Bridj, based in Cambridge, has attracted a lot of attention in the months before its launch. More than 10,000 people have responded to a request for 350 riders for the trial run, and former executives and directors at the car-sharing company Zipcar have signed on as investors and board members. Zipcar, founded in Cambridge, was bought last year by the car rental giant Avis Budget Group of Parsippany, N.J.
Matthew George, the 23-year-old founder of Bridj, calls his new head scientist the “golden child of the MIT Transit Lab,” where Block-Schachter supervised graduate student research on automatic data collection for the MBTA. Block-Schachter’s dissertation focused on how the old Boston streetcar system shaped the city, including the vast majority of buses that still serve the same routes.
What Bridj plans to focus on, he said, are the mass transit demands that have popped up since.
The MBTA was so impressed with Block-Schachter that they created a new position for him, an appointment he calls his “dream job” — until George came calling. MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo said Block-Schachter “was here for about three months, and worked on a couple of projects. We wish him the best.”
Bridj’s parent company, GroupZOOM, has a staff of six in Cambridge and plans to grow to more than 20 by the end of the summer. George is considering candidates from many organizations, including more from the MBTA.