District is a crucible for transit creativity
Private innovators abound here, drawn by a magnetic reputation
The white shuttle bus with the bright red seal on the door eases to a stop at a Metrobus shelter on P Street NW, just west of Dupont Circle. Today, the driver is picking up a passenger bound for Capitol Hill. Tomorrow, who knows?
That’s because this bus has no fixed stops. Instead, its next pickup will depend on billions of bits of data that will be analyzed and parsed to determine the optimum spot for picking up and dropping off the next set of commuters looking for a ride.
The new service is called Bridj. Founder Matt George chose the District as the second location of his fledgling app-based, pop-up bus service because it has all the qualities the entrepreneur was looking for: a compact footprint with multiple destination neighborhoods and a population willing to experiment — and in some cases pay a premium — to get where it needs to go.
“D.C., to me, holds tremendous opportunity,” George said.
Washington may be considered to be a government town by many — it is the nation’s capital, after all— but it’s also moonlighting as a laboratory for companies experimenting with new ways to move people around.
In 2008, the District became the first jurisdiction in the country to launch a bike-sharing program. It was the first city the
founders of Zipcar chose for expansion outside their home base. Washington-area residents were early adopters of app-based ride booking services Uber, Lyft and Sidecar. The city has Relay Rides and Flight Car, services that allow vehicle owners to rent them out. There’s even an app — Ride Scout, the brainchild of an Arlington executive — that helps the commuters sort through many of these options. Ride Scout started here but is now available in dozens of cities.
Washington is “a metro area that’s ripe for new innovation and ways to advance mobility,” said Nicholas Ramfos, director of alternative commute programs at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.
Added Gabe Klein, former transportation chief in the District and Chicago who is now Bridj’s chief operating officer, says: “D.C. has gotten the formula right — leading when it needs to but showing that government can get out of the way and let the private sector lead.”
Last year, executives at appbased ride-booking services hailed Washington as a model after the D.C. Council approved some of the most industryfriendly rules of any U.S. city. The vote drew sharp criticism from the taxi industry, long a force in District politics, but cemented the District’s reputation for being open to new transportation ideas.
It’s an image many of its leaders have worked hard to cultivate.
“Our approach with these innovations is to have a dialogue and figure out how to support them, instead of saying, ‘ You don’t fit so you can’t operate,’ ” said Sam Zimbabwe, associate director of policy, planning and sustainability administration at the D.C. Department of Transportation. Start-ups have taken notice. “We found that there’s definitely an open door and ear for new ideas,” said Sunil Paul, chief executive officer of Sidecar, which launched in the District in 2013.
And there’s a population willing to try them.
According to an analysis by researchers at the University of Michigan, more than one-third of D.C. households don’t own a car. Much of the city’s recent population growth has been attributed to car-averse millennials, who tend to prefer biking, walking and public transportation.
“D.C. is one of the most [densely populated] cities in the United States,” Sidecar’s Paul notes. “With that kind of density, it’s easier to come up with new innovations, because you have the people.”
The thirst for such innovations might seem odd in a region that boasts more public transportation options than many other American cities. The Washington region is home to the nation’s second-busiest rail system, offers extensive regional bus service and has a bike-sharing service that has been a model for cities such as Chicago and New York. It has more taxicabs per resident than most U.S. cities.
Rather than deter innovation, however, experts say the existing infrastructure provides a convenient framework that entrepreneurs can build on, particularly when it falters.
“In a city like D.C., traffic is horrible and people can afford other alternatives besides the basic transportation offered by the government,” said Joshua L. Schank, president of the Eno Center for Transportation.
Take the May 11 Metro meltdown, which crippled service on three lines. With thousands of commuters left stranded and looking for transportation, Uber, using proprietary software that directs its drivers where the need is greatest, swept in offering desperate commuters an alternative for getting to work — provided that they were willing to pay premium prices.
Bridj’s success will hinge on just that — getting commuters to pay more for their cross-town ride by adding extras like plush seats, WiFi and the customer service that some say is sorely lacking in public transit.
A Bridj ride in D.C. costs $2 to $4, compared with $1.75 for Metrobus.
The District is the company’s second city. It launched in Boston, where the service has proven popular with commuters who endured a difficult winter with repeated shutdowns of that city’s subway system.
“It’s entrepreneurial,” said Mark Williams, executive-in-residence/master lecturer at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business, about Bridj’s model. “It’s not so much working with the local transportation system — it’s benefiting from their inefficiency.”
Schank sees potential in services like Bridj.
“Right now, the bus system is pretty much a relic of another era — buses running on fixed routes. It’s opaque, hard to understand and not very user-friendly,” he said.
Already, Bridj has demonstrated its nimbleness. More than a month after its launch, it has dropped the service it offered between Dupont Circle and Capitol Hill in favor of service between Foggy Bottom, Cathedral Heights, Glover Park and Metro Center. It also has moved its fare structure down from $5 a ride.
But the downside, Schank said, is that private operators are more focused on profits than the public sector.
Private operators “are not going to try and serve the underserved. They’re going to come in and serve the choice riders because they’re looking to make profits,” he said.
The flip side is that the innovation and competition might force legacy systems to improve their service, he said.
“I think we’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg,” Schank said. “How are transit agencies going to react? The taxi industry tried to shut down some of these services, but that didn’t work, so now they’re trying to adopt some of what [Uber] does.”
Emily Bastina, 25, left, and Jordan O’Connor, also 25, commute to work via a Bridj bus — such as the one above — from Independence Avenue on Capitol Hill to their workplaces on K Street in NorthwestWashington. Bridj, a pop-up system that was launched in Boston, responds to travel requests via an app, and uses rider information to tweak its pickup and arrival locations. Rides cost between $2 and $4.