Public transit agencies are not known for their flashy, up-to-date technology. In many cities, you’re lucky if your diesel bus shows up on time. But this week, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority is trying something new.
Starting today, riders who live near three Metro stations will be able to download an app, tap a few times, and have a car show up at their door—or at least within a few blocks—and take them to that station. The service, provided by ride-hail company Via, will cost riders with the system’s TAP cards $1.75, though it will be free for those who already use Metro’s low-income subsidy programs. Riders will share their car trips with between two and five others, but the agency says they shouldn’t have to wait longer than 10 minutes for a pick-up.
If LA has its way, the one-year experiment with on-demand service will solve the devious first-mile, last-mile problem, connecting those who live just a touch too far away from stations to get there. The idea is to make it easier for a whole new group of people to use mass transit. “We’ve created an additional layer of public transportation,” says Chris Snyder, Via’s head of global expansion. “It’s complementary.”
The timing is fortuitous: American cities and their transit agencies are hankering for innovation. In Southern California, more and more people are buying their own cars, which has put a dent in transit ridership. Plus, the agencies have felt the squeeze from tech-enabled transportation services like Uber and Lyft, and have openly fretted about the effects that autonomous vehicles (whenever they arrive) might have on their service. According to research released this month by civil engineers with the University of Kentucky, heavy-rail ridership decreases 1.3 percent each year after ride-hail companies enter the average metro, and bus ridership drops 1.7 percent. To claw back some of those fares, agencies would love to replicate the ease and convenience of ride-hail—without the expense.
For cities, moving more people into buses, trains, and shared rides isn’t just a way to cut down on traffic complaints. It’s a pathway to meeting aggressive emissions goals and giving even those who don’t drive or can’t afford cars new ways to get around. But in sprawling areas like LA, it’s not easy to walk or bike to bus and train stations. That’s why the city has turned to Via and its flexible routing software.
The year-long pilot project will focus on the El Monte, Artesia, and North Hollywood Metro stations, all of which are in minority and relatively low-income communities. People without smartphones will able to hail rides by telephone, and those without access to credit cards will be able to pay through debit or prepaid cards. “The whole idea of this is to make sure this is open to communities that don’t have great access to [ride-share services] right now,” says Joshua Schank, the chief innovation officer inside LA Metro’s Office of Extraordinary Innovation, which is overseeing the pilot.
LA is not the first city to attempt Uber-like convenience on a mass transit budget, and the idea’s track record is not great. A short-lived collaboration between Kansas City and the on-demand van service Bridj ended amidst terrible ridership numbers, as the city’s agencies admitted they did a subpar job marketing the service. The city of Centennial, Colorado, ended a one-year pilot offering riders on-demand Lyft trips to transit in late 2017, after finding that the service cost twice as much as its old call-a-ride option and provided only about 10 trips a day.
Critics argue that these services aren’t financially viable for agencies or even close to efficient—imagine your bus wandering around town trying to drop everyone else off close to their homes. Plus, the model might not even be that new. It could turn out that these new apps are just replicas of the decades-old “call-a-ride” model, which allows riders without access to transit to reserve trips over the phone. Such services are notoriously expensive and torturously slow.
But agencies have seen limited successes. The San Francisco Bay Area’s AC Transit replaced one low-ridership bus route and supplemented another in less dense areas with an on-demand option (still driven by the agency’s unionized drivers). Seven hundred customers completed 23,000 trips in the project’s first year, with 94 percent of riders saying they preferred the on-demand option over more traditional bus service. Still, an average of just three riders used the service each hour, down from seven with a traditional bus—which means the agency is shelling out a lot of money for a small number of riders.
Which means setting up this pilot is a tricky thing. LA Metro is ready to cop to that. It pushed back its launch date by six extra months because negotiating an agreement between public and private sector entities “takes longer than people think,” says Schank. In the end, this contract with Via will cost Metro $2.5 million, with some of that money paid for by a $1.35 million grant from the Federal Transit Administration. (The feds have dedicated at least $8 million to exploring how new technology might be used by public transit agencies.) Via, for its part, won’t make money on this until they transport a sufficient number of passengers per hour.
Via will also have to hand over some of its trip data—a sticking point that scuttled an earlier LA Metro partnership with Lyft. Via will give Metro anonymized info on where and when its riders are using the on-demand service, and how many are requesting wheelchair-accessible cars. (Legally, Metro must provide all riders the same level of service, regardless of disability.)
“We’re super sensitive about the technology we’ve built,” says Via’s Snyder. “But there are ways to share data that provide real value to agencies without compromising our secret sauce.”
Via has also agreed to lead the marketing effort for the new service—something the company believes is critical to its success in LA. “Because this is an app-based service, you have to make people aware of it and get them to sign up and try a ride. And once they do all that, it has to be a great product,” Snyder notes. He says the company has been tweaking its marketing playbook to take account of the population Metro is targeting with this project, translating its materials and preparing for old-fashioned paper flier distribution.
Will it work? Well, it’s an experiment. “The entire premise of this pilot is based on learning from past experiences and trying to do something better,” Schank says. In the end, LA will decide whether it’s worth teaching an old agency new tricks.