News | Spotlight on USC Alum Axel Hellman

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Spotlight on USC Alum Axel Hellman

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

by Tim Labounko, USC, B.S. Urban Studies and Planning 2024

Thanks so much for sitting down with me, Let’s start with a bit about you!

My name is Axel Hellman. I finished my undergraduate degree in 2016 and my master’s degree in 2017. I completed a dual degree program – my undergraduate portion was a public policy major with a specialization in urban planning, and my master's part was in urban planning, with a transportation specialization.  The dual degree program means you actually are completing two degrees somewhat simultaneously, by the way. It is a great program and an honor to be accepted into it. I am now Vice President of Lines at Rally Ourbus, a private bus transit company.


Axel Hellman, USC Alumni and Vice President of Lines at Rally OurBus

source: OurBus


I can imagine that was a lot of work to complete two levels of degrees at the same time, yet you were also quite active outside of your courses.  Can you tell us about that?

The favorite club I was involved in was called “Sack of Troy,” and it is a publication that operates kind of like the Onion. It's a satirical newspaper, and they are quite active on Instagram in particular. Another club I was a part of and really enjoyed was the USC Branch of the LA Bike Coalition.  The Bike Coalition is a club dedicated to promoting biking and bike share in cities across the country.


I was also part of the METRANS Student Team and served as a copy editor.  I appreciated the experience and really learned how to quickly and efficiently catch and correct the inevitable mistakes we all make.


I also wrote journalism-style articles myself just for fun. One example is when Uber just began seeing sudden success, I would go and use it and report back how my experience went. That was a pretty interesting experience, and that was 2012/2013 when Lyft still had pink mustaches on their drivers’ cars.


Have you always wanted to pursue a career in transportation?

No, I actually considered real estate. I did a couple of real estate courses during undergraduate but realized I didn’t like real estate as much as I initially expected.  Certainly not like I do transportation.  So I began concentrating on transportation. 


After a while, I realized that I was particularly interested in busses as a business. Before venturing into the private sector of bus transportation I did an internship at a transit agency, NJ (New Jersey) Transit. It was interesting, but I did not feel I could really do or impact much. Looking back, I’d say this was due in no small part to a lack of funding and countless approval processes. After that experience, I realized that there was a good chance I could do quite more in the private sector, and decided to pursue that avenue.


You have definitely done more.  Can you tell us about how you came to launch Rally Ourbus?

You could say Rally Ourbus is my second bus company, believe it or not.  But before both of those, I started working on a different business while I was working on my master's in urban planning. After getting into that entrepreneurial state of mind from running my own business and then having my education in transportation, I knew that I wanted to combine the two and to get into transportation as a business – maybe even start my own bus business.  So, I started investigating options.


The first big step in my journey to creating my own bus business was making a website dedicated to jitney busses in New Jersey (Which can be found here - . To best run this website and service my users, I would read and respond to emails of course, in particular those with questions about jitneys that I could try to answer.  questions were generally things like, “I left my bag on the bus what do I do?” or “How do I get to (insert destination here?”  But one day was different. I received an email saying, “I’m doing this research on private bus start-ups, are you available for a call?” And we just got talking, and we sent all these emails about all these different ideas. Apparently, the writer thought I was a professor at USC because he kept saying things like, “The finals are coming up, you’ll be busy grading.” I was not, of course, but we got along well anyway, and, funny enough, he and I ended up being the two founders of Ourbus, a private bus system here on the East Coast. Basically, we started working together at that point.


After co-founding Ourbus with him, our next big step was deciding to merge with another bus company Rally.  We would always see them at all the bus conferences and they seemed to be the only other private bus tech-type startup company like us. Most charter bus companies are very old-school; we joke that half of them are run by some twice our age named Robert. And Robert has very different ways of looking at things than we do.


During the pandemic, we didn’t have much to do, and we always thought we had pretty good connections between the two of us, so we merged. It’s worked out really well, and we basically have become one leadership team. Within that company, my title is Vice President of Lines, I basically manage all of the Ourbus lines business. The former Ourbus side is now called the Lines division of Rally Ourbus.


What made Rally and Ourbus stand out in these bus conferences was that they promoted bus rideshare; However, they appealed to different customers than typical. Bus rideshare is the concept where a bus can pick up you and other people exactly where you want it to, and drop you off at the exact location you request it. The difference between the two companies was that the Rally people are looking to go to a specific event for a specific purpose, while the Ourbus people just want a route going from city to city. But now it's the same type of bus doing all of this stuff.


What made each of us on our team promote bus rideshare was that we each, in our own way, realized that it could use a lot of improvement in the United States. It has seen a lot of success in Latin America and European countries; However, it has not seen a big push yet in the United States. This could probably be due to our country's lack of investment in learning from others, which would be nice to see a change of pace in the future.


How did METRANS prepare you for your professional career?

I’m still very good at copy-editing, for starters!  And as a side note, I really encourage students to take advantage of all that the METRANS Student Team offers.  You are really learning valuable professional and career skills.


I particularly appreciated how METRANS brought scholars and professionals to campus so we could learn from more than our professors alone.  One of the more interesting METRANS events was a research seminar, and the interesting story is where it led for me.  There a professor visiting, hosted a METRANS seminar, named Dr. Joseph Schwieterman from the School of Public Service at DePaul University.  He gave a METRANS lunch seminar; those are always really good, by the way. Turns out he does a study every year about the inter-city bus sector. He is the only professor in the United States who does this, and I’m like huh. So I email him, “I’m interested in what you’re doing, do you want to go get coffee beforehand.” And he said yes!  So that was pretty cool, I got a high-level intro to it and you can be sure I’m there every year at his conferences.


By the way, being involved in the business of inter-city bus transportation, I would call myself a professional expert, but not an academic expert – I am not sure there are any academic experts, and let me tell you why. The reason why it's such an untouched academic field is that all the private bus companies are worried that someone is going to touch their data and that will harm them somehow. Like I’m not going to tell how many passengers I have on this route or that route, because then someone else is going to see it and use it against me.  What research can you do if there is no public data?


What’s the most influential class you took at USC, and why was it the best class you took?

I would have to cite Lisa Schweitzer Transit Systems class, a grad-level class. What made the class special was more about the professor than it was the material, even though the material was interesting. It was a class about theory, math, and formulas but she taught it as an open thought class even though it was a theory, math, and formulas class.


From my experience at USC, I’ve noticed that the professors tended to be more important than the classes; by that, I mean that it is really the professor who makes the difference. A lot of my grad-level courses were taught by adjunct professors, and I’d like to note how valuable they are as well.  it was so interesting to learn about what they are doing and their career stories  - often more valuable to me than what I could read in a textbook or academic paper.  So I highly encourage students to consider those adjunct-taught classes as well.


What is your team’s future vision for Rally Ourbus?

We need to add new routes. There has been a lot of recent disruption for bus companies, and many routes have been shut down. It's been a really neglected sector in the United States, so there is a lot of room for improvement.


We hope to, perhaps with the help of a new marketing lead for our company, be able to expand our bus routes across the country. We used to have one route that goes from Indiana to Chicago, and we've had a line in Florida that we are trying to relaunch. We’ve historically operated in the Northeast in states like New York, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut, so basically we operate in the most densely populated part of the country.


Do you have any suggestions for others who also want to take their knowledge of transportation and make it into a business?

Well, the way we survive is by trying new things and continuing to evolve. And you have to approach things by trying something out, you might fail, then you try something else.


Becoming an expert in a very niche subject is probably the best advice I ever got. When you do become an expert in such a specific field that probably no one has looked into, it's pretty easy to become an expert at that tiny thing.


How you can start on this journey depends on who the customer is. Like, if you ask a bunch of your peers if they want it and it doesn’t exist already, then it's a good idea. For instance, if your friends think it is good to get on our charter bus from LAX to USC, then I think it's a good idea to pursue and make it a reality.


About the Author:

Tim Labounko is a second-year student majoring in Urban Studies and Planning at the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy and minoring in Spatial Studies and Computer Programming. He works as a researcher, writer, and website designer for the METRANS student team.