The Center for Data Innovation spoke with David Block-Schachter, chief scientist at Bridj, a data-driven mass transit company based in Boston. Block-Schachter spoke about some of the insights Bridj’s analysis has uncovered and how the company works with academia to integrate new insights into practice.
Travis Korte: Can you introduce Bridj, what you offer, and who uses it?
David Block-Schachter: We like to think of Bridj as an everyday transportation system that adapts in real-time to where people live, work, and play. Powered by data, we use a network of express shuttles that offer efficient and flexible trips. For the typical commuter, more than two-thirds of jobs in the nation’s largest metro areas are inaccessible within an hour and a half by way of existing transit systems. We’re looking to fill that gap.
Korte: What are some of the insights you’ve come across in using data to understand commuter demand?
Block-Schachter: One of the most fascinating things we’ve seen is the extent to which, especially in Boston, geographic distance and travel time is often disconnected. For example, to get from Coolidge Corner in Brookline to Kendall Square in Cambridge is just over 2 miles. It takes a transfer and 40+ minutes (on a good day) by existing non-single occupancy vehicle (SOV) modes, or a $30 parking charge if you drive. In other words, the most efficient and reliable mode of transit, before Bridj, is walking. There is a lot of time and money out there for people to save. We think we can help with that.
Korte: You use a lot of data sources to figure this stuff out, which means you probably have quite a bit of data management on the backend to deal with. How do you reconcile all these data sources and get them all together in a usable form?
Block-Schachter: Our biggest challenge is how you reconcile the patterns we derive from looking at the anonymous sources of people who aren’t using our service yet with those who are already using it. That is, how do you find the right balance between trusting the overall patterns of the city with those of our fantastic beta testers. The key for us has been to break down travel to its core—which is time and location-based—and to let the rest of the data float around it.
Korte: Right now you’ve launched in fairly small areas. Do you see this being mainly a city-based endeavor in the future or could you see it nationwide?
Block-Schachter: The plan is to cast a city wide network that gives thousands more Bostonians the opportunity to take Bridj and then scale to other cities across the United States. We’re still very much so in the early stages of our beta! We only launched in Boston this past June.
Korte: This is a cool data source even from an academic perspective. Have you considered working with urban planners or other academics to study the data to learn more about city services?
Block-Schachter: Absolutely! This is incredibly important to me personally and to the company as a whole. I come out of an academic background. I got my doctorate at MIT and then worked on academic research with public transit agencies, both externally and internally, before coming to Bridj. We keep close informal ties throughout academia and spend a lot of time figuring out how we can take academic work and integrate it into practice. We think of ourselves as partners in not just understanding how cities move, but improving it. And working with academics is core to that mission.