Business & Tech

Bridj, local on-demand bus service, is shutting down

Matthew George, the 26-year-old founder and owner of Bridj, loaded a truck with packages for delivery in August 2016.

Katherine Taylor for The Boston Globe/File

Matthew George, the 26-year-old founder and owner of Bridj, loaded a truck with packages for delivery in August 2016.

Bridj, a Boston startup that tried to merge the ease of hailing an Uber with the efficiency of commuter vans, abruptly shut down this weekend after funding talks fell apart, leaving thousands of riders looking for another way to get to work.

The company, which had been praised for its innovative take on urban transportation, had been in extended negotiations with a car manufacturer, chief executive Matthew George said Sunday.

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“It went from clear skies to a hurricane in about 24 hours,” George said, declining to name the carmaker. “Functionally, Bridj is no more.”

Bridj was launched in 2014, with ambitions to reinvent the old-school city bus. Instead of lumbering coaches, the company used sleek commuter vans equipped with wireless Internet access to ferry commuters around the Boston area.

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Routes were determined, in part, by the amount of demand in a given area from users of Bridj’s smartphone app. Fares were based on demand, ranging between $1.50 and $7, according to its website.

Despite early signs of promise, including a recent one-year pilot project with Ford Motor Co. and transit officials in Kansas City, Mo., Bridj was unable to build a sustainable business. The Kansas City test was not extended.

George said that financing from the car company would have given Bridj a big vote of confidence among investors and helped it to raise additional money. Bridj has about 50 employees and had raised $11 million from investors.

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“Both sides had every expectation that the transaction would close. Despite assurances, and all parties acting in the best of faith, that didn’t happen,” he wrote in a blog post announcing the shutdown.

Boston was Bridj’s largest market, with as many as 50 vehicles operating at a time. In Boston, Bridj served Allston, Brighton, the Back Bay, downtown, South Boston, and the Seaport, along with Kendall Square in Cambridge and Brookline.

George said the company transported thousands of customers per week in the Boston area. Bridj also offered service in Washington, D.C.

Jim Aloisi, a former state transportation secretary who still closely monitors transit in Boston, said the public clearly has an appetite for finding ways to use technology to improve transportation. Big companies have taken notice, too: Last year, Ford acquired Chariot, of San Francisco, which offered a service like Bridj’s.

“For everyone who wonders why public transportation has historically required a subsidy, this is the answer to their question,” Aloisi said. “Mobility is expensive, and it doesn’t make a profit.”

The cities of Boston and Cambridge and the state Department of Transportation, did not respond to requests for comment Sunday night.

George said Bridj was on track to exceed $10 million in revenue this year, but like many startup companies was operating with little margin for error as it attempted to expand its business to a scale that would generate profits.

Unlike tech startups that rely on contractors to provide their labor force, Bridj hired its drivers as full-time employees, offered them health care benefits, and paid them a $15-per-hour minimum wage. George said he expects opponents of the national push for a higher minimum wage to point to labor costs as part of Bridj’s demise, but he said the good pay actually helped Bridj.

“The fact that we were paying drivers a living, workable wage had zero to do with the outcome here of whether we made it or not,” he said. “Paying $15 an hour was one of the best economic decisions we made. We were able to recruit great people, and we were able to retain great people.”

Bridj had broader ambitions, as well. The company sought to partner with the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority for late-night weekend service, and George expressed interest in offering paratransit services. Last year, Bridj said it planned to deliver packages with its shuttles and wanted to use a cargo-carrying robot to complete the delivery to the customer’s door.

But Sunday night, those big plans permanently shelved, George said he was most concerned with trying to find new jobs for the company’s drivers.

“Those are the kind of folks who sometimes get lost in these kind of situations,” he said. “When a technology company shuts its doors and winds down, the engineers and the folks on the technical side of the house can be employed tomorrow, if they really wanted to be.”

Casey Vemis, of South Boston, said she started using Bridj after she became pregnant and grew increasingly frustrated with crowded city buses.

“I can wake up in the morning and reserve my seat and just know that I was going to have a comfortable ride to work,” she said.

For Vemis and others who relied on the startup, Monday’s commute will be back to the ordinary.

Curt Woodward can be reached at curt.woodward@globe.com.Follow him on Twitter @curtwoodward. Adam Vaccaro can be reached atadam.vaccaro@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @adamtvaccaro. Felicia Gans can be reached atfelicia.gans@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @FeliciaGans.
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