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Seattle Transit Pilots Consolidate into Singular Service

The previous iteration of the Metro Flex on-demand service in King County, Wash., was a mix of three different pilot projects. It has since been reimagined as an easy-to-use transportation alternative for the Seattle metro area.

A King County, Wash., Metro Flex vehicle drops off a passenger.
A King County Metro Flex vehicle is photographed on Feb. 17, 2023, in Renton, Wash.
Submitted Photo: King County Metro
Three on-demand micro transit pilots serving the Seattle metro area have evolved into a singular, fully formed transportation option.

King County Metro launched its Metro Flex service March 6 following several years of fine-tuning the concept. The newest iteration of the offering merges three pilot services into one and features a single app and provider in what officials are calling a "turn-key solution." Via Transportation will provide not only the technology but also the drivers, and arrange for vehicles to be supplied by a third party.

“We adjusted and adapted based on all of those programs and pilots to provide something the community was asking for,” said Christina O’Claire, director of mobility at King County Metro. “This is a consolidated service, so that we can have one app to connect to people. And we can connect people into public transportation hubs, but also connect them around our communities.”

Metro Flex merges Ride Pingo, Community Ride and Via to Transit services across eight neighborhoods. Riders will be able to download the new Metro Flex app and book rides to transit hubs and other landmarks, as well as destinations with their own needs in mind, like a certain grocery store or school.

“That’s why we’re allowing more mobility in that way,” said Casey Gifford, a senior planner with King County Metro.

“That is a direct response from what we heard in the community,” she added.

The pilot programs, which first appeared around 2017 and launched in 2018, were teachable experiments, where transit officials heard from riders about what was working, and where improvements could be made. For starts, they were not always sure how the app worked or whether it would interface with their ORCA card, a regionwide account-based transit fare platform, said officials.

The consolidated approach, and the partnership with Via aimed to address some of these issues with the creation of a system that’s “easy to use, and an accessible connection, through the community, and into public transportation hubs,” said O’Claire.

“If we want people in King County to choose public transportation first, we have to make it as easy and as accessible as possible for everyone,” O’Claire remarked.

The program today addresses issues like language barriers by offering multiple language options. The vehicles are equipped with bike racks, and can accommodate wheelchairs. One piece of feedback heard from riders with visual impairments was the importance of using white vehicles because those are easier to see.

Fares on Metro Flex are the same as Metro bus fare, with discounts available for students, seniors and income qualified riders. Also, when using an ORCA card, transfers to bus and rail options are free.

The Metro Flex program is grounded in concepts like equity, with an emphasis on ensuring that it serves people in underserved communities, as well as sustainability, as zero-emissions vehicle solutions are being explored, said O’Claire. “We’re going to monitor ridership, how many vehicles we’re taking off the road, how accessible it is, etc.”

“The future is unknown. I don’t know — we don’t know — if on-demand is the future throughout the county or in portions of the county, or whether there’s something different and new,” she added. “But we do know that we need to continue to adapt and evolve as technology is, as service providers are [evolving].”
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.