Dis­trict is a cru­cible for transit cre­ativ­ity

Pri­vate in­no­va­tors abound here, drawn by a mag­netic rep­u­ta­tion

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY LORI ARATANI

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.”

PHOTOS BY ASTRID RIECKEN FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

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.

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