Google employee Leigh Weaver rides the bus from her New Jersey home into New York City every morning. But she wasn’t happy with the buses.
“We had issues with buses breaking down. The schedules were very unpredictable. Sometimes the buses would show up late, sometimes on time, sometimes early. I just never knew when I was going to get into the office. It also cost a lot of money, about $10 each way. When you spend about $5,000 a year, you expect a little bit more communication, i.e. customer service. And we were not getting that at all.”
Not your typical commuter bus
Then she read about a startup called OurBus, whose intention was to choose bus routes by popular demand—through crowdsourcing. Its offer: Find 100 people who’d be interested in a certain bus route, and they’ll put it together.
“I got the contact information for one of the co-founders,” she says, “and within 24 hours, we had a dialogue going.”
The result was a new OurBus route that served her town—Livingston, New Jersey. Now, she’s a very happy camper indeed.
“This is the complete opposite. It is a pleasure to ride. It’s clean. The drivers are friendly. I can track my bus [using their app, which lets you buy tickets and see your bus’s position on a map in real time]. I know if it’s going to be late. I never have to worry that it’s going to leave early.”
The OurBus bus is also not a typical commuter bus. Although the fare is about the same as traditional commuter buses ($7.75 each way), it’s a fairly plush ride, with soft, fabric, reclining seats; power outlets at every seat; and free WiFi. That’s because OurBus doesn’t actually own any buses. It supplies only the technology and software to existing bus companies—usually charter bus companies whose buses aren’t being used to their full capacity.
“Most of the charter companies that do day trips, summer camps, and that kind of travel—commuter runs are not their specialty,” says OurBus co-founder Axel Hellman. “It takes time, a lot of local knowledge, and a lot of technology and marketing to make a commuter bus route happen.”
Too good to be true?
On the day that I rode an OurBus route to try it out, our driver encountered a road closure—and to work around it, he skipped a stop.
“The OurBus technology platform isn’t just the app,” Hellman said. “There’s also a console for the driver, so when everyone buys a ticket, he can see at each stop who’s getting on and who’s getting off. So in this case, we had to make an unexpected turn off of the main road. But the driver console shows that no one is getting on at that next stop—nobody’s bought a ticket. So we’re skipping it.”
The whole business seemed a little too good to be true. Surely, I thought, there must be somebody who’s not pleased—New Jersey Transit, for example, or the existing commuter-bus companies.
In fact, Hellman told, men, “the mayor of West Orange actually had a quote in an article saying that he was thrilled to find out about us, and that we’re enhancing commuter convenience with the town.” So the powers that be seem to be OK with it.
As for the other commuter-bus companies: Hellman says they shouldn’t feel threatened by the arrival of OurBus. After all, they can always just sign up for OurBus’s services. “We’d love to provide our technology to them,” Hellman says.
At the moment, OurBus offers two commuter routes: one from Livingston and West Orange, New Jersey, and one from Kendall Park and Montgomery, New Jersey. They also run a route between New York, and Washington, DC, and points in between; fares for that route are $16 to $30, depending on demand.
OurBus, of course, intends to expand. Where, exactly, it can’t yet say. Because as the world’s first crowdsourced bus company, determining the next route is up to its customers.
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David Pogue, tech columnist for Yahoo Finance, is the author of “iPhone: The Missing Manual.” He welcomes nontoxic comments in the comments section below. On the web, he’s davidpogue.com. On Twitter, he’s @pogue. On email, he’s email@example.com. You can read all his articles here, or you can sign up to get his columns by email.