A discussion with Axel Hellman, co-founder of OurBus, on his startup and the new transport frontier in 2019.
What’s your daily commute like?
If you’re like a lot of people who work in a major city, especially if you live in one of the commuter towns on its outskirts, you probably shudder just thinking about it.
Depending on your location, you might have to walk or travel a fair distance just to get to your pick-up location. From there, you’ll hop on a bus, but you almost certainly won’t stay on it. Chances are, you will either have to transfer to another bus (and you might have to wait an extra 10 to 15 minutes for it to show up) or you will have to rush to a subway station and ride the rest of the way underground. And if your stop isn’t close enough to where you work or live, you’ll have to cap off that long, dull commute with a more expensive ride in a can or load your ridesharing app and hope a driver can pick you up quickly.
It’s enough to drive anyone mad.
By the time you’ve made it to your workplace or back home, you can’t shake the feeling that so much of the time you spent getting there was simply wasted. And you’re not wrong.
The average commuter spends three hours a day in transit, but a lot of that commute time could be shaved off if the transit system was more efficient.
Axel Hellman – Source: Linkedin profile
If you’ve ever wondered whether a tech solution could make this whole process easier, more affordable, and a whole lot more convenient, you’re not alone. Axel Hellman had that very same vision. And along with his co-founders, Axel Hellman brought that vision to life with his transportation startup, OurBus.
Bringing Luxury and Efficiency to Intercity Travel
OurBus is a New York-based company that makes transit all about the rider. Instead of planning routes, pick-up spots, and stops based on existing infrastructure, OurBus relies on a crowdsourcing model to plan an experience to meet the riders’ needs. Any group of 100 or more commuters can request a route designed and mapped out specifically to accommodate them. It’s all enabled by a pair of OurBus apps – one designed for the customer and the other for the charter bus driver, breaking down barriers and enabling them to connect more easily.
Source: OurBus website
The result is a far more efficient travel with less wasted time, and it all takes place on a luxury coach instead of a crowded, uncomfortable subway car.
That makes it far easier to travel to a nearby city to visit friends and family or even just spend the day shopping. It’s also a huge benefit to commuters, who can spend more time with their families instead of running to catch the next bus. And they can say goodbye to waking up at 6am for their 90-minute ride to work.
How OurBus Began
Axel Hellman co-founded OurBus in the summer before his last year at the University of Southern California.
At that time, Narinder Singh, now the company’s CEO, reached out to Axel based on their shared interest in transportation.
Narinder and I met organically. He e-mailed my website, which was all about the private jitney buses that operate across northern New Jersey.
Soon, their big idea was born.
We started talking about private bus startup ideas and it went from there.
They then completed their team by bringing on board Mohit Mohan, now the company’s CTO. While Axel had an urban planning background and a passion for improving transit, his co-founders brought some business experience with them.
Narinder knew Mohit from a previous project they had worked on. They had both run their own companies for many years, and I was still in college at the time.
OurBus’s New Jersey Roots
Although OurBus’s headquarters are in New York, we can trace its story back to New Jersey.
Before studying urban planning at the University of Southern California, Axel saw first-hand how many people had to suffer through a terrible commute.
Growing up in Montclair, New Jersey, he met countless workers who spent a lot of their time and earnings commuting to New York for their jobs. Coming of age in that environment, it’s perhaps no surprise that Axel developed a life-long interest in transit and transportation.
New Jersey was also where OurBus’s services first launched. But instead of starting in Axel’s old stomping grounds or in a big city, the company first offered its services in Kendall Park, a small community most people outside the area have never heard of.
Kendall Park isn’t the type of place that would normally be on a tech startup’s radar. The population has yet to crack 10,000. It’s here that OurBus really took hold. Thanks to the tech startup, the residents of Kendall Park could ride to New York City every day on a luxury coach traveling a convenient route.
Communities like Kendall Park desperately needed a better transit option, and OurBus was the perfect solution to deliver it to them. But that doesn’t mean it was easy.
1 – Regulatory Obstacles
As soon as we got started, we found ourselves stuck in a complicated web or regulations and bureaucracies related to transportation, not just at the local level, but the state and federal levels as well.
No matter how well prepared they were, Axel and his co-founders soon faced an obstacle any company wishing to take a fresh and innovative approach to transit has to deal with: the existing legal infrastructure. If the transit systems weren’t built to meet the modern commuter’s needs, neither was the regulatory framework that supported it.
We have spent a lot of time learning about the regulations in this industry, but it is still an enormous challenge. Many of the regulations are outdated or were not designed with modern ways of doing business in mind.
2 – Traffic Congestion
Once they overcame the regulatory issues, the OurBus team still faced another, more fundamental problem.
In general, the United States has not devoted many resources to setting up a well-functioning transportation system. This is especially the case in the New York City area. We have to deal with extreme traffic congestion. It can take a bus over an hour to get through the Lincoln Tunnel that connects New Jersey with New York City. That adds enormous costs to doing business and it just makes bus travel less appealing.
This creates a vicious cycle that worsens the traffic problems instead of improving them.
The more congestion, the less appealing it is to travel by bus. And fewer people riding the bus in turn generates even more traffic!
3 – Car Culture
To succeed on a larger scale, OurBus also has to overcome the ingrained travel habits and attitudes of the people who could benefit from their services.
When planning a trip, many Americans don’t think of bus travel as an option.
While ridesharing companies like Uber and Lyft have disrupted the established taxi system in many parts of the United States, the same hasn’t happened yet for other forms of transport.
Surprisingly little has changed in the long-distance ground transportation sector. The only difference thus far is that people are less dependent on parking at the bus stop – many people simply use a ridehailing app to get to the stop instead of driving themselves. But most of the change is yet to come.
On top of that, many Americans are wary of the experience of traveling by bus.
Long-distance bus travel in general has a bit of a bad reputation.
Part of that bad reputation is due to the discomfort that comes from the stiff seats, sweltering heat, and tightly packed riders that many people associate with bus travel. But another reason has to do with the inconvenience of riding by bus.
In many places, there are simply no buses that stop there. And if buses are available, they’re often either too slow, too expensive, or too unreliable. We are trying to change that.
Today, OurBus Is Thriving
Despite these many serious obstacles, OurBus has pulled through. While many startups fizzle and die out quickly, OurBus has managed to expand and continues to do so. In 2017, OurBus expanded from its original commuter business model to one that combines commuter route and long-distance intercity routes.
At its start in 2016, it facilitated only one bus, which would ride back and forth between Kendall Park and New York City, serving around 80 customers. In only two short years, OurBus has expanded its services to over 30 cities and has improved the commute and travel experience for over 100,000 riders.
So far, OurBus’s expansion has been limited, but Axel and his co-founders have bigger plans.
On a busy day, up to 30 buses are in operation, through more than a dozen bus operating partners. Currently, we have worked with commuter bus routes and intercity bus routes. We have a lot of ambitious ideas that will have us expand beyond just these two sectors. There are many more types of businesses that you can use a bus for, and we are looking to facilitate this.
But they’re not jumping into it unprepared. They are taking a strategic approach to expanding into new markets.
Each of these businesses has its own challenges and require different approaches. We still have a lot of learning to do.
OurBus has also grown from its team of three to a full complement of employees. And they’re not the traditional slate of characters you’d find in an urban planning or transit office.
We have people from all kinds of professional and academic backgrounds. Often, people who are experienced in transportation are actually the least qualified to work for a transportation startup. They tend to have preconceived notions about how things are done.
Unsurprisingly, that doesn’t make them the best fit for working at a company that aims to completely change the system and put more control back in the hands of the riders.
Insights and Advice
Although Axel is a startup founder, he was not primarily motivated by the example of business luminaries or Silicon Valley disruptors, but from examples of transit done right. And while OurBus is a forward-thinking company that aims to improve the future of transit, Axel primarily draws from the past.
As mentioned, Axel Hellman was initiated quickly and recently into the business world. Although he partnered with experienced businessmen, he was still in the middle of his studies when he launched his company. But things move fast in the startup world, and Axel has already faced challenges, overcome them, and worked through strategies for expanding his company.
For those who, like him, see a problem and believe they have a way of solving it, he has some worthwhile advice.
Don’t be too attached to the first idea you have. If you try a business and it doesn’t work, change it. Or switch to a completely different business. Experimentation is valuable.
OurBus, video intro
The Future of Transit
Whether you have a commute that needs improving or simply want a better way to travel between cities, OurBus is a startup that is worth watching. It will surely change the way transit is done in the United States, putting the needs, comfort, and convenience of the rider first.
While there is often a negative attitude toward charter bus travel, we predict that startups like OurBus will change that completely.
Axel Hellman, Source: Facebook
So, in the coming months, you might download an app that will convince you that traveling by bus doesn’t have to be a painful experience and commuting to work doesn’t have to be an inefficient nightmare. And when you find yourself riding in a comfortable, luxurious coach that will pick you up near your home and drop you off at your desired location, you’ll have Axel Hellman to thank.