When Bridj launched this past June, they put the Mercedes Sprinter (their vehicle of choice) before the wheel, so to speak. One of the company’s first routes traversed three cities—Cambridge, Boston and Brookline—before it had been awarded licenses to technically operate in any of them.
“It was very important for us to get rubber on the ground and start operating,” says Ryan Kelly, marketing manager at the new tech-based transportation start-up based in Kendall Square. Although Bridj has been adamant about starting operations immediately, it’s also been committed to working closely with municipal governments, making each aware that they were both operating and seeking the proper paperwork simultaneously. Boston and Brookline quickly awarded Bridj jitney licenses, but it was in Cambridge that the company hit its first bump in the road.
“Everyone wants to be able to provide better transportation options for their constituents, for their citizens, for their residents,” says Kelly. “[Cambridge officials] just have different ideas about it and how the process should go throughout those ideas.”
Bridj works by using 19 different data streams, from publicly available location markers on social media to direct user responses, to make educated decisions about how many vehicles to deploy. Eventually, the company hopes to create a responsive service that will throw traditional routes out the window by using data to take the vehicles where they are needed.
Bridj applied for a jitney license in Cambridge back in August, and while they weren’t flat-out denied, they did receive a list of conditions with their approval, which is only for a six-month pilot period. Kelly says he found Cambridge officials to be more hesitant than others about the service, but according to Andrea Jackson, Chair of the License Commission, Cambridge is just being intentional.
“It was simply a matter of, where were the best places for the Bridj vehicles.” says Jackson, citing one example of how the conditions of Bridj’s pilot period are meant to steer the service for the better. Jackson says, for example, that one of Bridj’s proposed stops in Central Square is already extremely congested by several MBTA bus lines. So they had Bridj move the stop down the street to City Hall.
After the pilot period concludes, Bridj will meet with city officials to review how well the company adhered to the conditions. The city will be watching for times that Bridj has interfered with MBTA or bicycle traffic and any accidents that occurred with Bridj vehicles. They’ll also review complaints from residents. Jackson says that should a problem arise, they hope to find a solution rather than shutting down the service.
“I’m going in with the spirit of, this is going to work. After six months, they’ll come in for the review, and we’ll see where we need to tweak,” says Jackson.
Kelly says that Bridj’s mission is to make it easier for the citizens of the Greater Boston Area to connect with their city. He hopes they will fill the gaps in service that are left by an underfunded—and indebted—city transit. A 20-minute trip from Coolidge to Kendall, something easily achievable by Bridj’s route, might be a reality in some very far-off future for the MBTA. But there’s no way, says Kelly, that the MBTA, with so few resources, can quickly adapt to serve the demand that exists today.
“A lot of public transit systems are so overburdened, they’re underfunded, and there are no investments going into them,” Kelly says. “On the other hand, if the MBTA would consider a fare hike of even a dollar, I’m sure there would be public outcry. So it’s a catch-22. What can they do?”
Kelly says that he doesn’t see Bridj as any kind of singular solution—and they’re not trying to be. They hope to work within the existing and growing tapestry of private solutions to public transit.
“It’s all about being multimodal. And cities see that,” Kelly says. “You could maybe take an Uber when you want to get somewhere really fast and you might not have time to wait for Bridj or the bus, or if it’s nice out during the summer, you could take a Hubway to work. And maybe you take the T to an area that we don’t serve because it’s too far out. It’s just about being part of the solution, and I think cities see that.”
“We think it’s a great partnership,” echos Jackson. “We’re looking forward to it.”