Free Enterprise Staff  | June 13, 2014

Bridj: A Bridge to a New Kind of Mass Transit

Commuting to and from work can be—and often is—painful. Sprinting for a train only to have its doors snap shut on your outstretched hand; sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic from which there is no escape; stopping every two minutes while traveling along the circuitous route your bus takes—these are just a few of the indignities we all suffer on a weekly basis at the hands of our cruel, mass transit overlords.

But what if we didn’t have to anymore?

That’s an idea that has gripped Matthew George’s young mind since his undergrad days at Vermont’s Middlebury College, where he studied biology and served in student government. One of the most troublesome problems that faced the college, he says, was how it could best provide students with transportation to and from school. After some false starts, George says he started to “use data to really figure out how to do a more targeted mass transportation system.”

George’s pet project turned out to be far more successful than he had ever imagined, and eventually it turned into a standalone company that still exists, That business paved the way for Bridj, George’s latest venture that has the not-at-all ambitious goal of revolutionizing mass transit.

Since the first mass transit system in the U.S. opened in Boston just before the turn of the 20th century, little has changed in terms of innovation, says George, whose startup is launching a pilot program this month. Fittingly, Boston serves as the backdrop for the company, which is headquartered across the Charles River in Cambridge. Employing the method George perfected while in college, Bridj offers its users more precise mass transit routes based on how they actually travel to and from work, he says.

With its fleet of air conditioned, Wi-Fi-enabled luxury buses, Bridj also provides a more comfortable, direct ride for its users. This smart approach to mass transit, argues George, will enable Bridj users to save up to an hour per day they’d otherwise have spent commuting. That one hour is more significant than you might think: People with longer commutes are more likely to report having health problems, a Gallop survey found, while couples in which one person’s commute exceeds 45 minutes are 40% more likely to divorce, according to another study.

Free Enterprise spoke with George about his background and how, exactly, Bridj is going to change mass transit.

FE: What led you to start Bridj?

“We sort of fell into this. When we were creating mass transportation networks for colleges and universities, we started to realize that we were creating mass transportation networks that didn’t exist before. It’s not so much that we had an epiphany moment—as much as I would love to tell that story that we set out to disrupt mass transportation. We just sort of realized through the college and university pop-up transportation networks that we were doing that there was a huge unmet need and that mass transportation and public transportation hadn’t really changed in 100 years. I mean you had Boston that laid down the first underground subway and really the service delivery model hasn’t significantly changed since then. Once we started to realize that and the big mark-up opportunity, we jumped in.”

FE: “Big data” is a term we hear a lot these days. Where does the data you use come from?

“When we say ‘big data,’ we actually mean big data in the fact that when we go into a new city like Boston, we’re collecting data sources from about 19 different data streams, with millions and millions of data points coming from each one of those streams. Things like social media networks, census data, existing public transportation data, demographic data, housing data—we put that all together through a proprietary algorithm we have and through that we can determine how a city moves and where the biggest pain points are. When users sign up, we get their home address and work address and we’re able to introduce new routes based on our direct response user algorithms. We’re using both predictive data and user-generated data to drive a smart and dynamic mass transportation system.”

FE: Why’d you choose to start in Boston?

“Boston was sort of a natural extension from where we were in Vermont. We came down here because this is where a lot of transportation technology is started. I would argue that Cambridge is the technology hub of the East Coast and it’s also the hub of where people have started and grown transportation technology businesses. It was a pretty natural fit for us.”

FE: Is the model scalable and workable in other cities? 

“We will go wherever there is significant data. [For example,] I always talk about Patriots games. We can predict when people need to go to these mass events and then introduce new networks that match those mass events. The end goal is to get down to smaller and smaller vehicles so we can more closely match origin and destination periods.

We are launching here in Boston for about two months and then we’re actively in the process of going into a second city. We’ll be in a second city in about two or three months from now and then, once we get about three cities under our belt, we’re going to be rolling out in a new city about once every month-and-a-half. We collect that same data from a bunch of different cities and then compare it all to see who are next best targets are.”