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L.A. Metro Launches ‘Metro Micro’ On-Demand Service

The newly launched service introduces on-demand, shared rides in two Los Angeles neighborhoods, providing Uber-like service for $1 a ride. The service will grow to nine zones by summer 2021.

A rider in a wheelchair disembarks from a Metro Micro van.
Courtesy LA Metro
One of the largest transit organizations in the country has launched what is billed as the most ambitious on-demand transit service, cementing the belief that public transportation must include a buffet of travel options to serve the changing ways Americans move through their urban areas. 

Los Angeles Metro launched Metro Micro last week as a companion to its sprawling bus, rail and bike travel options, offering residents in two neighborhoods the ability to tap into a nearly door-to-door transit option, much like the now-ubiquitous ride-hailing. 

“A lot of public agencies have attempted to do micro-transit in some form or another. And frankly, most of those efforts have failed,” said Joshua Schank, chief innovation officer for the Office of Extraordinary Innovation at L.A. Metro. 

“They’ve failed, in large part, because it is very difficult for the public sector to do this on its own. And it’s very difficult for the private sector to do this on its own, but we created a process that we hope will result in a much better outcome because of the fact that it’s been a true collaborative effort,” Schank added during a media briefing last Wednesday. L.A. Metro officials have described Metro Micro as “the largest publicly operated micro-transit service in the United States” when fully operational next year. 

Metro Micro is a public-private partnership between L.A. Metro and RideCo. The service is now operational in two zones: Watts/Willowbrook and LAX/Inglewood. Three more zones will be added in January 2021, with another four zones added in June. When fully operational, Metro Micro will include some 100 vehicles and 200 full- and part-time workers. At present, 16 vehicles — which include the Ford Transit 150 and Dodge Grand Caravan — are in operation. Rides are shared and are $1 each. 

The service is structured around a network of “virtual bus stops,” established largely by RideCo. These stops are dynamic and can be altered depending on demand, traffic or other concerns. The Watts/Willowbrook district includes some 110,000 residents, as well as job centers, four train stations and three medical centers. Metro Micro will transport riders anywhere within the zone. Buses in the area operate on a 15- to 30-minute frequency, which is often not convenient, coaxing riders into personal cars or ride-hailing.

“There are gaps in access to transit,” said Prem Gururajan, co-founder and CEO of RideCo. “For many residents in the zone, getting to a bus line involves a lot of walking, quite a bit of waiting, because routes are infrequent. And you probably need to transfer between bus lines to move within the zone. It’s not a great user experience.”  

Metro Micro is not L.A.’s first step into the small-scale, on-demand transit world. Metro has been experimenting with a pilot serving three zones with each ride starting or ending at transit stations within the service zones. 

Other transit agencies have tried this as well, like Sacramento Regional Transit in northern California, which offers an on-demand transit service in nine zones with 45 vehicles, many of which are electric vehicles. 

The system in Los Angeles is envisioned as an option to put riders in easier touch with the larger L.A. Metro network by connecting to areas like rail stations, but also serve as a transportation option for riders who may be left out of the general ride-hailing ecosystem served by Uber or Lyft. Those are riders who may be disabled, or lacking a smartphone or the resources to afford a ride with Uber. Metro Micro is accessible via mobile app, Web browser or by calling L.A. Metro’s call center. The vehicles are equipped to accommodate wheelchairs.  

“Uber and Lyft are relatively more expensive compared to what we are offering. And this is going to be a lot more convenient than a personal vehicle many times,” said Schank. “If there are short trips that are currently being made in single-occupancy vehicles, we think we’ve put a competitive alternative on the street, that it could potentially capture some of those trips.”  

The project is still structured as a pilot, and is set to run for three years, according to L.A. Metro officials. The finer details around operational costs — how much will the service cost L.A. Metro per rider, beyond the $1 fare — are not yet known, said Rani Narula-Woods, senior director of Metro Micro. 

“I think the important thing to focus on are the efficiencies that we are hoping to achieve,” Narula-Woods said, in response to questions from Government Technology related to operational costs, adding L.A. Metro will not be purchasing the vehicles. 

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.