Data Driven Driving

Bridj, a Boston-based transportation startup, is changing mass transit as we know it. Photo by Madeline Bilis

I look down at my phone as I stand on Harvard Street in Coolidge Corner. It’s 9:26 a.m. My Bridj should be here by now. My boarding pass says 9:30.

A black minibus pulls up at 9:27, to my relief. The door opens and I head inside. Normally it would take me about 40 minutes to get to Cambridge from Brookline via the T, but I’m traveling to Kendall Square using Bridj this morning.

Bridj is the world’s first pop-up mass transit system. It’s working to make commuting in Boston easier through the use of data.

“What allows Bridj to become a living, breathing, learning, smart mass transit system is the data that powers it,” says founder Matt George. “Data allows us to create a system that makes cities smarter by crunching millions of data points to see how people are traveling and conforms to meet their needs.”

I settle into a comfy black leather seat and look around. A strip of tiny blue lights line the ceiling of the vehicle, illuminating the wood flooring. It’s swanky— for me, at least.

The venture-backed startup launched in beta in June 2014 after much number crunching.

“There are two parts of the formula,” explains marketing manager Ryan Kelly. “On one hand we have a team here that uses up to 19 different data streams, like data from the census that’s publicly available to data from cell phones and social media.”

“On the other hand, we’re collecting data on our users, like where they live and where they want to go. We’re essentially combining all of these data sources, putting them into our algorithm, and out spits a route.”

Chief scientist David Block-Schachter, former director of research and analysis for the MBTA , leads a team of five data scientists who work on the data analysis and route development. There are currently four routes, each with a few stops in between: Coolidge to Kendall, Coolidge to Seaport via Copley and Downtown, Allston to Seaport via Copley and Downtown, and Southie to Longwood via Seaport and Downtown. These paths are based on data, customer demands, crowdsourcing, traffic times, and other factors which ultimately work to cut commute times in half.

My Bridj leaves exactly at 9:30 a.m. It’s the latest bus offered, so there aren’t many passengers on the 14-seater. One woman named Jocelyn Shrigley is visiting her husband while he’s working in Cambridge. He takes Bridj all the time, and she tells me she loves it, too.

“I think it’s so convenient. They have amazing prices and it’s so much more convenient and more comfortable than public transit,” she says.

Right now, Bridj tickets are $1. When it launches out of beta, prices will be “slightly more than the subway, but cheaper than a cab,” according to Kelly. This looks to be about $5 to $8.

The company raised $4 million in funding in September and hired the former head of transit for Chicago and Washington D.C., Gabe Klein, as Chief Operating Officer. It is thought that Klein will help Bridj as it fights regulations from local governments. Bridj is required to apply for jitney licenses in the towns that it services. It acquired licenses from Boston and Brookline fairly easily, but ran into trouble with Cambridge. In August, a memorandum was issued from Cambridge which put restrictions on Bridj’s pick-up and drop-off points. But on Nov. 10, the City of Cambridge decided to approve a six-month pilot program for Bridj. Klein’s know-how might be what is speeding things along.

I look out the tinted windows and see a green line train passing Boston University. Commuters clutching coffees are packed into the car like sardines. Then I stretch my legs out. Jocelyn is right; this has public transit beat. But then the bus hits a few bumps and my bag goes flying. It’s not a super smooth ride.

Bridj was born from a startup George created while attending Middlebury College. The biology major saw students struggling to get home during breaks and founded BreakShuttle to transport students when school wasn’t in session. Raking in six figures from a project that started in his dorm room was a good gig. After graduating in 2012, the beginnings of Bridj were formed.

I notice the driver has a cooler up front. I imagine it’s filled with hip locally-made drinks and snacks. Probably Spindrift soda or something. He’s a courteous, subcontracted driver. I see Jocelyn on her phone, making use of the Wi-Fi. I’m too busy to tweet.

“The minibus is sort of a cross between a much larger capacity bus and a small car, so we’re able to transport 13 or 14 people at a time,” explains Kelly. “It doesn’t cause a whole lot of noise like a large city bus and it’s more efficient than a car because of all the people we are seating.”

Kelly says the company will probably go with a lighter color once the buses are branded. I think that’s a good move.

“We’re able to provide a little bit of a premium environment. You’re always guaranteed a seat. It’s definitely a different experience than some other methods of transportation that are out there,” he says.

We pull over in Kendall Square at 9:43 a.m. That’s 13 minutes. Considering there was minimal traffic and rush hour was just about over, I’d say that’s pretty impressive. Kelly told me I could make the trip between Coolidge and Kendall in under 20 minutes and he was right.

“In an entire day, it can give you an hour back, which can be totally life changing,” he says.

Life changing for not just people going to work every day, but Emerson students, too. The Allston route makes stops at 640 Boylston St. and 40 Milk St, which are both 13 minute walks from campus.

George plugs his company, “Emerson students, faculty, and staff should give Bridj a try! The college is one of the few schools in Boston that's currently in our service area.”

Bridj tickets are available for purchase through bridj.com in a web browser, but a mobile application is set to release in late 2014 along with a list of solidified service areas. The company hopes to move to other cities sometime next year.

I step off and take a photo of the minibus. The driver gives me a thumbs up and takes off.