Extend Private Transportation Innovation to the Suburbs

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This past year, Boston and Bridj celebrated a transportation innovation victory: a successful partnership between public officials and a private data-driven bus enterprise. Bridj, a “smart” bus line, bases its route on electronically communicated customer needs.

Bridj experienced initial pushback from the Cambridge City Council, which called its early route maps “unacceptable.” The Council was concerned that the private bus system would interfere with and infringe upon the existing public bus and taxi system.

However, Bridj aimed not to steal customers away from existing businesses, but to fill a gap left open by existing transportation systems. By offering a shuttle system which considers its customer’s travel needs, Bridj was the bridge between private and public transportation. It introduced a new system to serve a different crowd: those in need of a personalized mode of transportation who do not wish to pay for a cab.

When Bridj proposed a pilot plan to Boston, lawmakers realized there was not a rule in existence to deal with companies like Bridj. Legislators could not have predicted a business like Bridj, one that relies on smartphones with internet and GPS capabilities. According to the law, Bridj was neither prohibited nor allowed. Boston, home of Fenway Park, gave the tie to the runner: it said yes to innovation and to Bridj.

With Boston as the example, Cambridge changed its tune. In November of 2015, a six-month pilot program was agreed upon with some restrictions: Bridj may not use the bus stop in front of Cambridge Rindge and Latin School or Main Street in Kendall Square because of traffic buildup. A Memorandum of Understanding between the Bridj and the Traffic, Parking, and Transportation Department required Bridj to conform to G.L.c. 159A, namely to ensure all vehicles are properly insured, inspected, permitted, and maintained.

Upon approval, Matt George, founder and CEO of Bridj, remarked: “Boston can be a shining light to not only the rest of the country, but to the world, in how to work collaboratively with the private sector to create a better city not only for our generation, but many generations to follow.” His words are starting to come true: Bridj, which has been operating between Boston, Brookline, and Cambridge since November of 2014, expanded service to Brighton and Washington Square in June and will be serving the D.C. area in August.

In founding Bridj, George aimed to reduce congestion and commute time and increase transportation accessibility and affordability in the city. His successful partnership with public officials has generated enormous benefits for those living in Boston and has many locals asking: in what other ways can private companies and public officials work together to improve the commute of those driving to Boston from the suburbs?

The commute to Boston is a long, frustrating affair. Traffic starts to build up as early as 6:30 AM. Those who wait for rush hour traffic can get stuck inching along the highway, bumper-to-bumper, for hours. If an accident lies ahead, commuters are trapped in deadlock, possibly in one of the 100,000 cars that pass through the section of I-495 between the Turnpike and Interstate 290.

This congestion is not only unnerving; it also has serious environmental, health, and economic consequences. According to an assessment conducted by the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis and the Harvard School of Public Health, nationwide emissions that resulted from congestion added 1.2 million tons of nitrogen oxide, 34,000 tons of sulfur oxide, and 23,000 tons of fine particulate matter to the atmosphere in 2005 alone. These chemicals may pass through the lungs to affect other organs, causing asthma, lung cancer, cardiovascular disease, and birth defects. In 2005, these emissions were estimated to cause 3,000 premature deaths. The total social costs of these impacts were estimated at $24 billion.

In this age of endless innovation, locals hope for a solution. But while computers and phones work faster, commuters drive to work slower, emitting chemicals into the atmosphere that harm the environment, public health, and the economy, not to mention their mood. Traffic has gotten worse, and the forecast is no better: the Metropolitan Area Planning Council predicted a 77 percent traffic increase in the next two decades between the junctions of Route 128 with the Massachusetts Turnpike and the highway with Route 3 in Burlington.

It’s not that no one has attempted to improve upon this inefficient, harmful, and potentially infuriating transportation system. In 2013, the 128 Corporate Alliance encouraged the Department of Transportation to fund a bus and rail transportation center near Route 128, but the Department of Transportation allocated no funding to the project. The Central Corridor Commission recommended hiring a consulting firm to study the addition of a Weston rail stop and bus depot to the Fitchburg line, but the $500,000 consulting price-tag was too high.

There remains the “bus on shoulder” idea, which originated in Minnesota in the early 1990’s. This “low-cost, innovative strategy allow[s] buses to bypass slow moving/backed-up vehicles in the main lanes. The strategy was to make buses a more attractive travel mode, move more people through congested locations, save travel time for transit patrons, help bus services maintain their schedules, increase transit ridership and reduce transit operating costs.”

The Department of Transportation is busy with a multitude of concerns and financial needs. Among the hundreds of current projects listed on the MassDOT website are repairing ubiquitous potholes, bridge rehabilitation, and the installation and refurbishment of crash cushion systems.

When extensive maintenance of current infrastructure is necessary, it is difficult to direct time and resources to new projects that are potentially beneficial, but not necessarily vital. The Boston Foundation and the Massachusetts Competitive Corporation expressed a similar concern in “The Cost of Doing Nothing – An Economic Case for Transportation Investment in Massachusetts” published in 2013:

”Competing funding priorities and strained government coffers are limiting the resources available to maintain the existing assets in a state of good repair and to expand and upgrade the system to keep pace with the Commonwealth‘s economy as it grows and evolves.”

It is understandable that MassDOT cannot devote all of its time and resources to solving commuting concerns. What, then, can commuters hope for in the future? Little, unless they change their habits by taking public transportation, carpooling, or moving closer to their jobs.

The reality is, though, that they haven’t changed their ways, and they probably won’t, unless they are presented with a better option. Real estate developers and managers are open to ideas. With 128 already widened as far as it can be, there is strong support for thinking creatively. Some of the ideas currently being discussed include some fix via mass transit, staggered work hours – or perhaps, the help of a start-up like Bridj.  Bridj has demonstrated that a new transportation provider entering to address this market demand can marry private profit and public benefit. It’s time to apply the model outside of the immediate Boston area.