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Ford is launching an on-demand bus service in Kansas City

The carmaker is teaming up with Bridj, a pop-up bus service from Boston

Public transportation in Kansas City is about to get a lot brand-ier. Next month, Ford is teaming up with Bridj, a data-driven pop-up bus company, and the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority (KCATA) to roll out a fleet of shuttle vans that residents can summon with the tap of an app. Ten Ford Transit shuttle buses, manufactured in Kansas City and sporting both Ford and Bridj's logos, will start picking up and dropping off passengers in those KC neighborhoods underserved by existing public transportation.

This is how it will work: Kansas City residents call up the Bridj app (available in iOS and Android), input their location and their destination, and then choose from a list of available prearranged times that one of Ford's shuttles will arrive at a nearby pop-up bus stop. By selecting one of the times, the rider is reserving a seat on that shuttle, each of which can only carry 14 passengers.

The one-year pilot program initially will include downtown Kansas City, the near east and west sides, Hospital Hill, Crown Center, portions of Midtown, University of Kansas Medical Center, and the Historic 18th and Vine Jazz district. As more riders use the service and more data is collected, more neighborhoods will be added, the organizers say. The service will essentially operate as an on-demand private bus service with a blessing from the city's public transportation agency.

"It's not superfluous, it's a core service."

"This is not supplementing existing transportation," Matt George, founder of the Boston-based Bridj, told The Verge. "We're just providing the end-user with another option." The new (and rather awkwardly named) Ride KC: Bridj project will utilize drivers who are working for KCATA in shuttle buses owned by the city, he said. "It's not superfluous, it's a core service," George added.

Ford, Bridj, and KCATA are pitching this project as the "first U.S. public-private collaboration [to] bring together a major US transit system, an automaker, and an urban technology company to enhance existing mass transit." Robbie Makinen, president and CEO of KCATA, called the project "microtransit" insofar as it creates "a seamless and borderless transportation network for our residents that is easy to use, comfortable, and affordable."

It will also serve as the first big test for Ford's Smart Mobility Initiative, which the carkmaker bills as its marquee effort to reduce car traffic, solve transportation challenges, and hopefully sell some vehicles in the process. Previously, that initiative has featured an on-demand shuttle service at Ford's Dearborn, Michigan, campus, and ridesharing pilots in New York, London, India, and Germany. Ride KC: Bridj will be the latest plank in that initiative.

A sign of the times for public transportation

Ford is not the only legacy automaker to dip its toes into ridesharing and public transit. Last month, General Motors announced it was launching a new car-sharing service called Maven in Ann Arbor, Michigan. This spurt of activity is meant to signal that the auto industry does not intend to let Uber, Lyft, and all those millennials trending away from car ownership and toward ride- and car-sharing negatively effect into its bottom line.

It also could be a sign of the times for public transportation agencies, which are facing hundreds of billions of dollars in repairs while their taxpayer-funded budgets dry up. If a deep-pocketed car company and a fancy, out-of-state tech firm come along and offer to help pay for expanded service, what transit agency could possibly say no?

Ride KC: Bridj will just be the latest new transit option for Kansas City residents, who are about to get a shiny new streetcar for their downtown's main drag. The KC Streetcar is expected to start operating this spring, although the new service keeps getting held up by cars parking on the tracks.