Are Uber and Bridj converging?

I’m terrible at predictions.  I know a lot of people who can look at the state of an industry and predict, with only slightly more confidence than accuracy, the future.  I’ve never been one of those people.

But as an avid user of Uber, and an interested observer of Bridj, I can make my first prediction: these two companies are solving an incredibly similar problem.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you probably know what Uber is – the on-demand private ride service that acts as an alternative to hailing a taxi.

Perhaps you are not as familiar with Bridj – a private bus service that began about a year ago, serving routes in Boston not otherwise well served by public transportation.  Brookline to Kendall Sq., for example.

The thing is, Uber just introduced UberPool in Boston, which is just like Uber – except you share your ride with someone else who is going roughly where you are going.  You get a discount and a new friend.

And Bridj doesn’t seem to have fixed routes as much as parts of the city it drives between, as determined by where people request rides.

So they seem to be trying to solve the same problem: How to get multiple people where they want to go as efficiently as possible, in a less permanent way than the transit system.

There’s been a lot of discussion about how Uber is part of the on-demand economy – that it will eventually begin to converge with services like InstaCart, Google Express, Amazon Prime Now, and my personal favorite, Favor (the only way I’ve found to get my favorite restaurant, Life Alive, to deliver to the South End).  But I think they are also trying to solve an additional problem – mass people movement.

The criticisms against Uber are familiar to most people – undercutting the taxi industry, taking jobs away from taxi drivers, etc.  I don’t buy those – I haven’t had Uber drivers who didn’t also need the money – it’s creating jobs for people too.  And the taxi industry in Boston is messed up – you can’t call a cab and have it show up reliably, you can’t always hail them, and the credit card machines are “broken” most of the time.

But Bridj nags at me in a different way – it seems to be taking money away from the public transportation system, in a way that can adversely affect the people who need it most.  If all the affluent people in Boston begin taking private busses, what happens to MBTA revenue necessary to keep public busses running?  You actually can get from Brookline to Kendall via the CT2 bus.  It’s just that affluent people in Boston don’t seem to like the bus.

All that aside, the problem they are both trying to solve is interesting.  It’s mathematically complex to solve perfectly, and still a good logistical challenge to solve imperfectly.  I’ll be keeping my eye on this.

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