Don’t Throw the Bus Under the Bus Just Yet

Don’t Throw the Bus Under the Bus Just Yet

The wheels on the bus go round and round. But who wants to take it? Not me and probably not you. Nearly 90 percent of Americans drive to work, while just 5 percent take public transit. For most people, it’s a matter of convenience: Take the bus? Are you kidding me? The idea of being packed in like sardines, moving at a snail’s pace while eau de gas fumes waft through the air is not exactly how most people like to start their day.

Now imagine if you lived in a city where bus lines were created spontaneously in response to riders’ needs: you’d never have to walk very far or wait more than a few minutes – and you’d be guaranteed a seat on a luxury bus that offers Wi-Fi.

That’s the vision of a startup called Bridj that uses big data to create on-demand public transportation routes. Bridj is the brainchild of Matthew George, a recent college graduate who came up with the idea to use algorithms to craft “pop-up” bus routes in and around Boston. It’s kind of like Waze for buses. Crowdsourced traffic routes.

Here’s how it works: When people sign up for Bridj they become data sources for the service. At its most basic level, Bridj notes the locations of customers and dispatches buses to pick them up every 10 minutes.

But things get really interesting when the system starts crunching some 100 million data points from 19 data streams (including Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare and LinkedIn) to find the optimal locations to pick up and drop off riders. If everything goes according to plan, no rider should have to walk more than 5 minutes to reach a pick-up spot.

As more customers are added and more data is collected, the system grows “smarter.” It’s less like a traditional public-transit system than it is a living, breathing thing, which makes a lot of sense if you consider the fact that George isn’t a transportation guy or a technologist. He was a biology major.

Bridj also incorporates real-time traffic and weather data to create optimal routes on the fly. And that’s what makes it a potential game-changer: an efficient public-transit service that adjusts itself to offer a fully optimized route. By always choosing the best routes, Bridj saves fuel, cuts emissions, reduces overall congestion on the roads and gets you where you’re going as quickly as you want to get there. That’s better for the environment and your commute.

Beyond the daily grind, Bridj is also an on-demand shuttle service. If customers start tweeting or posting to Facebook about a big concert downtown, the system creates one-time bus routes to ferry people to and from the event. And looking five years down the road, Matt George envisions a system of driverless buses shuttling customers to and from their destinations.

Bridj is marketed as a premium service and the cost of a ride is expected to be $5 to $8, or more than double the fare of Boston’s public transit system. But as the service expands, companies may even begin subsidizing their workers’ trips as a perk that could also increase productivity.

Bridj isn’t going to throw Boston’s transit system under the bus anytime soon, but that’s not the intention either. The goal is to convince daily drivers, who would never use public transportation in the first place, to leave the car keys at home and make everyone’s commute a little lighter, and brighter.

Paul Conley is a contributor to XPRIZE and an editorial consultant to brands, nonprofits and business publishers. He also writes about his unconventional approach to work, life and happiness at ABigFishinaSmallPond.com.

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