Gabe Klein, the former head of transportation in Chicago and D.C., talks about Bridj, his new bus ride-sharing venture and what's next for transit.
Whether it’s the private or public sectors, Gabe Klein knows transit.
His government experience includes stints as the head of transportation departments in Chicago (2011–2013), and Washington, D.C. (2009–2011). In the private sector Klein is a serial entrepreneur. He’s had his hand in different ventures for years, most notably as the vice president at Zipcar, back when it was a promising startup, disrupting industry standards with its hourly car rental rates and easy-access memberships.
Today, he’s rethinking transit again, this time, sitting in the driver’s seat of another new tech startup called Bridj. The service is attempting to launch an app — currently still in beta — that provides on-demand luxury shuttle bus service in Boston at rates as low as $3 to $5. With Wi-Fi, leather seating, direct service to rider destinations and algorithmically routed shuttles, the service offers features designed to entice users away from higher-priced Lyft and Uber options while fending off direct competitors for similar companies rising up in San Francisco, Chicago and elsewhere.
Klein sees Bridj, like other ventures, participating in a tech and transit revolution, one he likens to be as lasting as the Industrial Revolution — a game-changer recasting the methodologies of transit.
Gabe Klein, COO of Bridj and former transportation chief in both Chicago and Washington, D.C., also was a senior visiting fellow with the Urban Land Institute earlier in 2014. Photo courtesy of the Urban Land Institute.
Government Technology: Coming from a government background why did you head back into the private sector?
Gabe Klein: Well, it’s a little different than what you might think because I spent about 17 years in the private sector, mostly in startups, including my own companies, before I worked in government. So in many ways, the trip into government was more of a switch for me opposed to coming back to the private sector. Although I will say things have changed over the last few years in the private sector as well, particularly in transportation.
GT: How so?
Klein: I was with Zipcar in the early days for four years, from 2002 through 2006, and we were sort of at the front end of innovation in transportation — merging technology with transportation to allow people to share assets. So the stuff that Uber and Lyft, and even bike share companies, are going through now — whether it’s a regulatory environment or whether it’s having to invent your own technology to make a service work — these are all things that Zipcar pioneered.
But back then there were only a handful of companies doing it then. Now, since I’ve been in government, the number of companies and the exponential rate of innovation, particularly around the sharing space, has really just exploded. And I think the mobile technology has also improved so that everything can basically be smartphone enabled, and that’s made a huge difference to run services like Car2Go or Lyft. I saw this coming back then — and in fact, actually wrote a business plan for a point-to-point car sharing company when I left Zipcar. But it’s great to come out of the public sector and be here and to be in a position to help this company scale its business to the next level.
GT: How did you happen upon Bridj and how was the idea first conceived?
Klein: I’ve been watching the space for a while and there are a number of companies, a couple in the San Franisco Bay Area, one in Chicago and then there is Bridj, that are focused on this space of providing a better quality bus experience. The difference is that Bridj is the only one that I’ve seen really leverage data science and big data to figure out a more efficient way to provide service and that really has demand aggregation at its core.
The concept of having clusters of people gather in one place, pick them up, then drop them off in another place may sound simple, but when you look at it — whether it’s Dial-a-Ride in the 1970s or the Paratransit Service — they’ve been using some pretty simple algorithms for a long time. So the promise in the 1950s, when the buses came to replace the streetcars was, "Look at all the flexibility and efficiency we’re going to have with the bus," and we never got it. The buses of today, for the most part, are running the exact same route the streetcars ran in the 1920s, '40s, and '60s: a fixed route, fixed stop. So what attracted me to a full-time role with Bridj — and I work with a number of startups, many of which I still support — was the idea, one which is not an easy thing to figure out.
GT: What have you learned during your beta testing of Bridj?
Klein: What we’ve learned is that you have got these high-cost, high-flexibility services, whether it be to own your own car which is the most prevalent, or taxi or Uber for instance, and then you’ve got the really low-cost, low-flexibility services which is typically like the bus, right. And there’s this big gap in the middle where people are craving more flexibility and they’re willing to pay a little bit more for it particularly if they don’t have to switch modes; for example, if they don’t have to go from the train, to the bus, to a long walk. And so essentially at its core, what our technology is able to provide people is a service to pick them up five minutes from where they live. Charge them in the range of $3 to $5 and drop them off within [a] five-minute walk of where they need to go, and do it, in such a way that the customer’s experience is not only positive but it’s consistent, it’s positive, it’s reliable — and it’s sort of fun.
When you think of the bus — something I’ve asked a lot of people — most say, "Well I don’t take the bus because I don’t know where it goes." And to figure out where it goes I either have to go to a website or I have got to call somebody and ask how do I get from this place to that place. So, we’re not trying to displace the bus, we’re trying to complement the bus and often relieve capacity issues. There are many [streetcar and subway] lines in many cities, whether it’s the Green Line in Boston, the Red Line in Washington, D.C., or the Red Line in Chicago, that are either at capacity or very close and whether it’s bike share or encouraging people to walk or through services like Bridj … they can be a big help to a public agency that is basically maxed out.
GT: What are the next steps to the eventual launch and when are you planning to launch the app?
Klein: I think early next year you’ll see what we’re calling more of a full Bridj service. It’s going to look and feel more like the Bridj we envision and talk about with an enhanced user interface, even nicer buses, experienced drivers and another layer of back-end complexity that’s powering the system.
GT: What’s the competitive advantage against Uber and Lyft and their own multi-passenger and carpooling type-services?
Klein: Well look, I love the stuff Uber and Lyft are doing with their carpooling stuff. I think it’s great. But fundamentally in a car you can only get two people for the most part. Maybe you could try to squeeze three. But we’re talking about getting about seven to 15 people in a vehicle and a different format of vehicle. So we don’t really see ourselves as competing with Uber or Lyft. They provide a great way to get around sometimes, but our transportation landscape is getting more and more complex and we see this big gap. We think there is definitely an opportunity for a larger-format vehicle that’s smaller than a traditional bus that demand aggregates service at a very competitive price.
GT: How do you plan to work with municipalities and other government entities as you launch the app and Bridj progresses as a company?
Klein: I think I have relatively good reputation for being honest and trying to help cities. So I think some of our tactics are going to be very different from some of the for-profit entities in terms of approaching cities to partner versus taking on a more aggressive stance or tactic. I will say the ride sharing companies out there have changed government’s attitude toward it, which has been a real benefit to other companies. There has also been a downside. Sometimes tactics have been so aggressive, for example there is a lot of stuff circulating in the media about Uber and their tactics that also makes government skeptical. However, I think overall government remains open minded. We certainly were in Chicago and D.C. to allow new transportation options and ideas to flourish and not to stomp them out. I just think there are a lot of creative people in cities and they want to think of new ways of doing things and government is becoming more and more receptive. It’s becoming the new normal.
GT: How will transportation evolve in the future? Will it become more privatized or less?
Klein: That’s a great question. And I think what people don’t know is what’s powering our existing system. The reality is, it’s always been private…I think with public transit there is always this misconception that exists. For example, many believe the DC Circulator bus [system] here in D.C. is a publicly run bus service. And it is, in that the department oversees it, but it’s run by a private company called First Transit from the U.K. — who does a very good job by the way. But the fact is, for the majority of transit out there, if it’s not run by the city – for example with some of the older and bigger cities like New York and Chicago — in most of the country the transit is run by private companies. It’s run by Veolia, it’s run by Keolis, it’s run by First Transit and there a number of multi-billion dollar companies. So the reality is that most of the “public” transit people ride on is already privately operated.