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Can L.A. mimic the success of Uber and Lyft by building an on-demand minibus system?

Can L.A. mimic the success of Uber and Lyft by building an on-demand minibus system?
Bus riders in Los Angeles on July 13. (Los Angeles Times)

Having set itself an ambitious goal to triple the number of commuters who regularly use public transit at a time when subway and bus ridership is actually moving in the other direction, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority may finally be taking to heart Silicon Valley’s old mantra: innovate or die.

Metro this month announced that it is looking for a private-sector partner to design a micro-transit service for the agency. The idea is to combine the best of Uber and Lyft, which offer fast, convenient, on-demand services, with public transit, which has a mission of providing subsidized, handicap-accessible transportation to all communities, including people who do not have a smartphone or credit card.

As envisioned, customers would be able to summon a handicap-accessible minibus to their location — and they would be dropped off near their destination. They would share the vehicle with other passengers. The bus would have no preplanned schedule or stops; its route would be mapped out in real time. It would be similar to a pooled Uber ride or a SuperShuttle to the airport, but presumably would cost less and serve more Angelenos.

The price has not been set, but it would be more than Metro's standard $1.75 bus fare and less than a single-person trip in an Uber or Lyft, officials said.

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This is a radical departure from the traditional public transportation model with fixed bus and rail lines, which often can't serve all the need in sprawling Los Angeles. The goal is to test whether on-demand vehicles and flexible routing can become a viable public transit service. If the pilot program is successful, Metro officials hope the minibuses could entice more people to use public transit and help slow the exodus of riders, many of whom have given up transit and started driving cars. The fewer people who drive alone in their cars, spewing greenhouse gases and clogging traffic, the better.

If the pilot project proves fast and cost-effective, micro-transit could ultimately be a solution to the "first mile, last mile" problem that makes public transit time-consuming and inconvenient for many Angelenos. Too many riders live too far away to easily walk or bike to a rail station and a regular bus connection may not be convenient or frequent enough. Having on-demand minibuses connecting riders to stations could fill that gap; free transfers would be provided.

Frankly, Metro has to get creative to reverse the trend of rapidly declining ridership. Bus, light rail and subway line boardings are down about 15% from 2014, when ridership began to fall. The total number of riders in the system has dropped even as Metro has expanded service with the Expo Line and Gold Line extensions.

Metro isn't unique; transit agencies across the country are facing similar ridership declines. Why? Gas is cheap and many people choose the convenience of the car over transit, despite its effects on traffic and pollution. The growth in ride hailing offered by Uber, Lyft and other private companies is siphoning off transit users as well, adding more cars to already clogged roads.

If an on-demand minibus works, it will give L.A. commuters one more alternative to driving.


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And companies are looking to steal away even more public transit riders. This year Lyft announced it would start a fixed-route, shared-ride service called Shuttle, which sounded an awful lot like a bus. Critics said the company was targeting riders in wealthier neighborhoods and potentially cannibalizing traditional transit service. This could lead to two transportation systems: a private one primarily serving the affluent and a public one for lower-income passengers.

Transit agencies need to realize they are operating in an increasingly competitive marketplace, and they've got to deliver high-quality, convenient services to keep riders and attract new ones.

There are, of course, a lot of unanswered questions. Metro's request for proposals is purposely vague in order to let companies put forth innovative ideas. A private company would design the system, but Metro would operate it employing the agency's union drivers. One potential problem: With the added expense of drivers and vehicles, it's hard to see how Metro can compete on fares with carpooling apps.

Nevertheless, this is a worthy experiment. If the on-demand minibus works, it will give commuters one more alternative to driving.

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