Private transit services offer commutes with amenities

By Robbie Webber

Cities around the U.S. are seeing a new style of transit that is a cross between the (in)famous Google buses, smartphone-driven Uber and Lyft, and standard city transit systems. Neither exclusive to one company nor attempting to cover the city, these “pop-up bus services” are geared to those who live in certain neighborhoods and work downtown, have smartphones and a few extra dollars, and desire a direct commute and pleasant atmosphere.

These services are not necessarily faster than standard transit, especially for routes served by elevated rail or subway lines, but they do offer a guaranteed seat, reliable schedules, Wi-Fi, and comfort, all of which are lacking in many large city transit routes. So far, the routes offered are not from far-off suburbs, or even traditional streetcar suburbs, but from well-heeled, urban, residential neighborhoods. Unlike jitneys and dollar vans serving low-income neighborhoods on the east coast, these buses are both more expensive than standard transit and also run in neighborhoods that are already well-served by transit.

Users of these new services like the comfort and guaranteed schedule. Many large city transit services are suffering from a lack of funding, leading to crowded trains and buses, frequent service delays, and other irritations for people already late to work or eager to get home.

Bridj in Boston and Blackline in Chicago started service in the spring. Leap in San Francisco still promises “Summer 2014” on their website.  Currently, only morning commute service is offered, though all three promise quickly expanding route and time options. One-way fares are priced at $5.00-8.00, compared to the local transit service, which is $2.00-$2.50 per ride.

Bridj in the Boston area will provide a morning commute ride that is faster or about the same travel time as taking the T, and offers reserved seating and a direct ride from Brookline to three employment centers in downtown Boston and Cambridge. The service launched June 2nd and is free for the month of June. Chicago’s Blackline offers a similar experience and runs to three Loop stops from the Lincoln Park and Bucktown neighborhoods. In San Francisco Leap plans routes from the Marina District to downtown, mirroring the Muni’s 30X Marina Express.

Developers plan to use data streams from the census, Google Earth, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Foursquare, and other sources to schedule new routes, watching where and when people are traveling and offering an attractive alternative for these trips.

For now, they are using large motor coaches to link key residential neighborhoods to major employment centers. But Bridj and Blackline plan to continue analyzing data and rider preferences to offer rides that take them closer to their destinations on both ends of the trip. They will then be able to use smaller shuttles or vans as the routes become more customized.

The entrepreneurs developing the services claim that they are not competing with traditional transit, but simply taking pressure off an overburdened system. Yet not all transit advocates are thrilled with the privatization of transit. In addition, using public transit stops has led to charges that, like the Google buses, they are further slowing existing service in crowded cities.

These private transit options appear to mirror the rise of other tech-driven transportation options popular with Millennials, all offering more upscale service and online scheduling. From curbside intercity buses to ridesharing with Uber, Lyft, and Sidecar, popular new alternatives are emerging throughout the country, often faster than cities and states can adapt with regulations.

Robbie Webber is a Senior Associate at SSTI.