A $1 trip on Metro costs $43. Why do some people want to continue?

Ana Castro scrolls through her phone as a Metro Micro truck stops next to her retail job in the Lynwood Plaza Mexico shopping center. She is nervous about driving after her car breaks down and is anxious about traveling alone on the bus, an inexpensive ride-sharing service He was a lifesaver for the Watts teenager.

It’s clean, air-conditioned, picks her up right at her front door, and takes a fraction of the time it takes to travel by bus to school or work. It’s like Lyft or Uber ride-sharing with one big difference: it costs a dollar.

“Since I found this, I thank God,” Castro said. “I use it all the time.”

The problem is that while riders pay just $1 for the on-demand service called Metro Micro, the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority pays about $43 per ride.

Public transport has always been heavily subsidized, but the cost is more than four times that of providing a bus journey. The expenditures have angered some inside Metro, which runs the pilot truck program, and raised larger questions about service quality, equity and the future of public transit.

A Metro Micro truck drives through Compton to pick up a passenger.

(Wally Scalig/Los Angeles Times)

“It’s a financial loss for Metro,” Janice Hahn, a Los Angeles County Supervisor and Metro board member, said during a commission meeting last month.

The nearly 3-year-old, $31 million-a-year program is set to end this month, but some hope it will be extended or even made permanent.

The program, which began as an experiment in on-demand service, became a solution to gaps in the Metro network.

Planners placed it in eight areas near 14 bus routes that have been completely or partially canceled. The trucks could carry up to eight passengers and were intended to operate on short trips in areas of less than 30 square miles. But it has failed to attract significant numbers of passengers even as a group of loyal users praise it as a safe alternative to the metro’s train and bus system.

A map of eight micro-metro areas near 14 bus lines that have been completely or partially canceled.

Metro Micro is operating in certain areas of Los Angeles, including eight areas near 14 bus routes that have been completely or partially canceled.

(Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority)

“I don’t really know what this is going to do for us, except that we offer some rides, some dollar rides for people, but it’s a huge cost to do that,” Hahn said.

The biggest problem Metro Micro faces is attracting more passengers. The decrease in passenger numbers increases the cost because it essentially becomes a personal trip rather than a shared trip. Costs rose during its infancy when weekday rides averaged only 350 people and the operating cost was $324 a ride.

“We are learning our lessons in terms of where we can cut costs,” said Conan Cheung, Metro’s chief operating officer. The agency is now looking at different business models and trying to eliminate duplicate services from the program.

“It won’t be as efficient (as a bus),” Cheung said. “But it’s a better service for people.”

The service has provided more than 1 million rides, and about 11% of users surveyed are new to public transportation, according to a Metro survey. Passengers are younger, and there is a greater proportion of female passengers than on the bus.

Prem Gururajan, CEO of RideCo, the fleet management and software company Metro uses to run the service, said the program has experienced some growing pains.

“Metro has done something that is an industry first on this scale,” he said. “They’ve got some lessons that we’ve been repeating. They’ve got a lot of things right. They’re moving very quickly and learning how to improve that.”

The contract between Metro and RideCo was actually under budget, he said, adding that Metro kept costs lower than other transit agencies.

“This is really the future,” he added.

Transportation agencies from Washington, D.C., to Silicon Valley are trying software-driven taxi-like services to connect passengers in hard-to-reach areas. And in places like Indian reservations in Oklahoma or the mountains of Utah, the technology is being embraced because the service covers a larger area — and goes where traditional buses haven’t.

“I’ve been in rural transit for nearly 20 years, and I’ve never seen anything like what micromobility has accomplished for us,” said Carolyn Rodriguez, executive director of High Valley Transit, which operates around Park City, Utah. “We are literally enabling employers to fill their vacancies because we have reduced the barriers to relocation.”

High Valley’s free service meets the needs of service workers who often live away from their work, she said. Many relied on expensive Ubers or couldn’t afford jobs far from home.

In Palo Alto, microtransit now does much of the work that parked shuttles once did.

“It’s more expensive than a bus,” said Nathan Byrd, the city’s director of transportation planning. “But it provides a lot of additional access at a reasonable price.”

It’s a pivotal moment for public agencies still trying to recover from the pandemic and adapt to new mobility needs.

Metro launched in 2020 after federal dollars became available to pilot the on-demand service. Dozens of Metro Micro trucks now provide near-door-to-door transportation in eight areas of the county where low-performing bus routes have been eliminated. Service covers the surrounding areas of Watts, Highland Park, Inglewood, El Monte, Sierra Madre, Westwood, Porter Ranch and Burbank.

Mismanagement marred the program early as Metro quarreled over whether RideCo provided it with adequate maintenance records. The Inspector General’s Office found errors in invoices RideCo sent to Metro and overcharges, and suggested the agency look deeper into $2 million in insurance costs that may have been overcharged.

But in some ways, the service has been a bright spot for Metro.

Woman sitting in a truck.

Ana Castro rides a Metro Micro truck to her work in South Los Angeles.

(Wally Scalig/Los Angeles Times)

Surveys conducted by the agency show that users feel safer, arrive faster and feel more comfortable in the gray Micro Truck.

Castro said she didn’t have to worry about men harassing her on the bus or while waiting at a stop not far from her home. She can call it early or late at night. “I feel more comfortable here,” Castro said.

As she spoke on a recent trip, driver Alicia Price turned off the radio to play R&B music on KJLH. She lives in Watts and has been driving trucks for two years. During the school year, the trucks are often filled with students or people going to work, she said.

She said that sometimes there is a glitch in the software or maintenance is needed, but most of the time things go smoothly and she enjoys the work.

She has driven buses for years for schools and the city, but it’s not something she wants to return to, with recent stories of bus passengers being stabbed, customers spitting on and other indignities. She prefers to clean buses when there is no one on them.

“I’m at the point in my life where I don’t have time for this,” she said.

It navigates the narrow streets of Compton, Watts and other parts of South Los Angeles that never see a bus.

By tracking demand patterns over a wide area, officials can identify neighborhoods that are in greatest need.

Some complain that when there are not enough trucks, the app will not work. But Castro says she has no problems and rarely waits more than 15 minutes.

These experiences are important and should be taken into account when evaluating transportation, said Suzanne Shaheen, co-director of the Transportation Sustainability Research Center, who has studied the issue.

“Trip quality is something that is not captured in fare box revenues or in the number of passengers per hour or the average cost of a trip,” she said.

Only about 2,000 riders ride Metro Micro vans on an average weekday compared to 877,000 bus and rail riders — numbers that are still below pre-pandemic levels.

Critics say funding vans depletes regular transit users.

“There’s no good evidence that it encourages people to take the minivan and connect to a commuter train on the other side,” said Chris Van Eken, director of research and policy at TransitCenter, an advocacy and research group.

Surveys show that about 19% of passengers use Metrolink, train or another form of public transportation.

“This money takes away from other things that could be done to improve bus service and increase ridership.”

The growth of these services has also hurt the unionized workforce, he said. Some moving agencies use independent contractors to keep their costs lower.

“The opportunity to reduce the costs of small-scale transportation will require a kind of race to the bottom in terms of labor,” he said.

But Joshua Shank, Metro’s former chief innovation officer and managing director at consulting firm InfraStrategies, points out that Metro Micro is unionized and riders need better options.

“There has to be a public alternative to Uber and Lyft that is sustainable and more affordable than Uber and Lyft,” he said. He started a small transportation program in his office.

Shank lives in the San Fernando Valley, where a four-mile bus ride can easily turn into an hour-long trip.

“If I want to move somewhere, I have to wait 20 minutes for the bus to arrive and then move to another location, where I have to wait another 30 minutes,” he said. “I could do it in a 10-minute drive and it would take me an hour. To me that seems unacceptable.”

Although the program was expensive, he believed it was “worth it if it would significantly improve people’s lives.”

“The concern should be: Are we using taxpayer money efficiently to provide the necessary service to people who need it, and I would say micromobility is a great way to do that,” he said.

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