Boston’s transit system is built around ideas that were developed in the ’90s — the 1890s. That’s when the city took a huge technological leap and launched the nation’s first subway, starting with a trip in 1897 that ran underneath Tremont Street.
From this innovative start, the Boston area now has a public transportation system that is often slow, overcrowded, and seemingly unresponsive. It is one of the most uncompetitive aspects of the Boston economy. Can it get it an assist from the private sector? A Cambridge startup called Bridj is testing the local transportation market with a luxury bus service that deploys big data to create on-demand transportation routes. Bridj’s founder, 23-year-old Matthew George, sees a market between the Uber-like car service alternatives and traditional MBTA options.
Instant communications and ever-expanding data crunching capabilities could easily get Bridj’s business model rolling. To determine when and where people need to go, the startup uses an algorithm — a proprietary “special sauce” — to analyze riders’ home and work zip codes, GPS data from their phones, Facebook updates, tweets, Foursquare check-ins, municipal records, the census, and other public sources. The startup is currently testing routes out of Coolidge Corner, where the Green Line’s C train creates cattle cars of innocent commuters. Interest in the service, which hasn’t announced its pricing yet but would likely be a few dollars more than a T fare, is strong. Bridj plans to expand service as demand grows.
The implications of reinventing public transportation with a customer focus that has the capacity to react in real time are profound. Only about 30 percent of jobs are accessible in the Boston metro area to the average citizen in 90 minutes via transit, according to a 2011 report by the Brookings Institute. And Boston has the third-highest share of households without cars in the country. If the service is capable of spreading out to the suburbs, it could do a lot to relieve highway congestion — for there is nothing more inefficient that a single occupant driving to work.
A Bridj-like service will never put the T out of business — low-cost transportation is an essential public service. But perhaps the T could learn something from new competition, and think about new ways to use data to improve it own customers’ experience.