Transit startup Bridj facing regulation in Cambridge, to the surprise of founders and city officials

Bridj founder Matt George via JOANNE RATHE/GLOBE STAFF/FILE
Bridj founder Matt George via JOANNE RATHE/GLOBE STAFF/FILE

The Cambridge transportation department sent on-demand bus startup Bridj a letter Thursday outlining regulations that founder Matt George says would “essentially ban Bridj” in the city.

The company has been testing its “data driven” bus routes for two months and plans to launch its full blown transit system in October. Bridj uses shuttle buses whose routes are adjusted depending on demand and charges discounted fares of $1 to $3. It filed a jitney license with the city and received a letter from Susan Clippinger, the director of the transportation department, that said the company could not use many of its proposed stops in and around Harvard Square, Kendall Square, and Central Square, the most populous sections of the city.

George, who describes Bridj as a cross between a bus and a taxi service, said that the company doesn’t fall under any distinct regulatory structure. “When the jitney and transportation regulations were written, there was no concept of a “smart bus” that wasn’t a bus and wasn’t a taxi,” he explained.

This is not the first time this year that a transportation startup has run into regulatory issues in Cambridge. In June, the Cambridge License Commission proposed rules that would make Uber follow the same regulations as taxi cabs. What was essentially a draft to start a conversation into how to approach Uber and other ride-sharing apps caused quite a stir for many who thought the city was overstepping its bounds and hampering innovation.

There are two major differences in the cause for Bridj.

One, Bridj is a local company, which, believe it or not, is based in Cambridge.

Two, Bridj has worked extensively with the city of Cambridge — as it has in both Boston and Brookline, where the company has been given the green light to operate — to make sure it followed all the rules of law and didn’t try to force its innovative transit solution on the city like Uber and Haystack have in the past.

So today’s letter came as a bit of a surprise to the company — as well as to other Cambridge city officials.

“We must continue to seek these alternative modes of transportation if we hope to positively impact climate change and reduce the burden on our public transit services,” said Cambridge Mayor David Maher.

Cambridge City Councilor Leland Cheung said that the council was not aware of the concerns of the Traffic, Parking and Transportation Department.

“This is not a reflection of the views of Cambridge’s elected officials,” he said. “We are a bit caught off guard because all the conversations we’ve been having were positive; we were not previously told that there was an issue that we’d need to pursue.”

Cheung added that the city’s administrators have a responsibility to laws as they are currently written. “The city’s regulations are outdated and need to be modernized, and that is what the council and the city manager need to do.”

Cheung commended Bridj for being a partner with the city for trying to operate in the right way.

Bridj founder George made comments that mirrored Leung’s, “We have a fantastic relationship with the City of Cambridge including close collaboration with both Mayor Maher and council members like Leland Cheung. Both have been incredibly supportive of things that make it easy for Cantabridgians to get around without a car, and supportive of constructive innovation within our city.”

George added that the company plans to continue its operations as they currently exist and still aims for the widespread launch of the service this fall.

Dennis Keohane was a Senior Staff Writer for BetaBoston.
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