Bringing Bridj to Kansas City seemed like a no-brainer to transit officials. For just $1.50, anyone could use an app to summon a ride downtown in van that would follow a route calculated on the fly by an algorithm. No one within the service area was ever more than a 10 minute walk from a stop, and as an added incentive, your first 10 rides were free.
It flopped. Just 1,480 people rode on a Bridj van, a laughably small figure in a city of 2 million people. The city launched the program with the Boston mobility startup in March 2016, and in the past six months just one-third of riders took more than 10 rides. The one-year, $1.3 million project ended Friday. You might call it a failure.
Government officials and transit researchers call it a success.
“I’ll be honest: The ridership was not the top priority,” says Jameson Auten, who leads the innovation division of the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority. “The top priority for us was learning who uses on demand. Really, the big goal for us was learning itself.”
Transit agencies nationwide hope to learn from it, too. Many of them think on-demand, app-driven transportation services could make public transit cheaper, more accessible, and more convenient. The typical rider can reach just 30 percent of local jobs jobs on mass transit, and rides can last 90 minutes. So Uber drivers are getting folks in Summit, New Jersey, to the train station. Lyft provides residents of Centennial, Colorado, with lifts to light rail. Both companies work with the city of Boston to serve those with disabilities.
The Bridj project was a bit different, in that it used unionized transit employees driving American Disabilities Act-compliant vehicles. “I think this was a bridge to inspiring a lot of transit agencies to start looking at public-private partnership,” says Susan Shaheen, a UC-Berkeley civil engineer who studies mobility innovation. The results, however, prove the model needs revising, and a lot more data.
Everything’s Up to Date in Kansas City
Research suggests Bridj faced two problems in Missouri: Marketing and geography. A survey conducted six months into the experiment found that 40 percent of the people being serviced by Bridj didn’t know about it. And among those who signed up, most didn’t use the service regularly because it didn’t go where they wanted or operate when they most needed it, like late at night.
The data also revealed that Bridj reached an unusual audience. “The demographics of the riders for Bridj are different from the riders for our other services,” says Auten. He means younger and richer: 55 percent of riders were between 19 and 35, and more than 80 percent earned more than the local median income of $46,000.
Transit officials see three takeaways here. First, marketing matters. Second, any public transportation service should probably know ahead of time where people need to go, when they want to go, and how quickly they want to get there. And third, you can pull off a quick public-private partnership working totally by the book. “We tried to prove that the public sector and private sector can work together in a utility relationship,” says Bridj CEO Matt George. “You’re fighting a headwind in a place like Kansas City, where the entire system has been built around requiring someone to have a car.”
This summer, the transit agency will use what’s its learned to launch an app that lets riders with disabilities summon subsidized on-demand rides. Anyone else can ride too, but they’ll pay full fare, and a phone booking system will serve those without a smartphone. Bridj, meanwhile, will continue its private service in Boston and Washington, DC, while seeking more transit partners.
The federal government dug the pilot’s approach. “Research is all about learning, and we see value in experimenting with new ways of providing mobility,” says a Federal Transit Administration spokesperson. “Every pilot project provides lessons from which future entrepreneurs can learn.” The agency so loves the idea that it launched an $8 million funding program last fall that awarded grants to projects that will, among other things, help San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit integrate carpool and the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority provide on-demand service through Lyft.
The future of public transit is a question mark, and it’s hard to say right now whether spending money on tech companies’ services or on luddite-friendly infrastructure (like sidewalks and cycling lanes) will move more people around more efficiently. Probably both. But today, more city governments are getting comfortable with turning their roads into laboratories, and more might be willing to fail. In the end, that failure might be good for them—if they learn from their mistakes.