With a cost to LA Metro of $42 every time a passenger boards one of its e-taxi vans, called Metro MicroTransit, the subsidy amounts to five times what the transit agency pays per ride on a typical fixed-route Metro bus.
While some question this as a waste of taxpayer dollars, including board member and Supervisor Janice Hahn who called it “a money loser” in July, the Metro board of directors voted 12-0 on Thursday to extend the program for another year — but with an eye to bringing down costs.
“It is providing a very valuable service to a lot of people,” said Hahn on Thursday. “But I don’t know how much more we can sustain it at over $40 a ride.”
While subsidies are nothing new to the giant public transit agency that uses tax revenues and grant dollars to keep its trains and buses running, some have questioned the cost-efficiency of Metro MicroTransit, saying it’s money spent that could be used to beef up fixed-route bus service or improve public safety.
MicroTransit runs blue vans that pick up individuals in eight zones in L.A. County: North San Fernando Valley; North Hollywood/Burbank; Highland Park/Eagle Rock/Glendale; Pasadena/Altadena/Sierra Madre; El Monte; UCLA/Westwood; LAX/Inglewood; and Watts/Compton.
Customers summon a ride using a smartphone app, much like the private ride-hailing services of Uber and Lyft, only at a much-reduced fare. The fare is $1 per ride, and the rides must be within their zone. The fare is even lower than the $1.75 fare to ride a Metro bus or train.
The total cost of the program is $31 million a year. Metro started with two zones in December 2020 and gradually amped up to eight. The zones were chosen where bus service was cut due to low-performing routes. The pilot MicroTransit program is intended to provide rides to connect people to other Metro services but it is also used as a dial-a-ride service to go shopping, go to doctor’s appointments or other destinations.
“There’s a huge concentration of seniors in Westwood who (use MicroTransit to) go to the hospital and to the VA,” said L.A. City Council member and Metro board member Katy Yaroslavsky.
Support also came from the Watts Labor Community Action Committee as well as Supervisor and Metro board member Holly Mitchell who said the Watts/Compton zone had the highest percentage of Black and Latino riders, 80% of whom do not own a car.
To reduce operating costs, Metro will look at:
• Discontinuing or curtailing service in low-performing zones. None have yet been identified.
• Reducing operating hours. Some zones now operate from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m., others stop at 10 p.m.
• Gradually raising fares to the level originally proposed — $2.50 per ride — possibly as soon as January.
• Add new marketing efforts to let more people know about the service to increase ridership.
Critics see the service as catering to wealthier, white riders who otherwise do not ride public transit. Surveys found that 11% are new to Metro.
Whites/Caucasians make up 28% of MicroTransit riders, and make up 12% of Metro’s overall ridership. Metro looked at income levels and found riders earning under $15,000 or less accounted for 19% in MicroTransit, compared to nearly 40% in overall Metro ridership. About 80% of Metro bus riders are low-income.
“If I am Metro and I’ve got $40 bucks to spend, do I spend it on one person, a white person, or on riders of color in low-income neighborhoods? Metro is letting poor people of color who depend on Metro suffer,” said Joe Linton, editor of LA Streets Blog on Friday, Sept. 29.
Metro officials said MicroTransit introduces people to Metro and fosters a public transit mentality. It also appeals to women who don’t feel comfortable riding the bus or train.
Whittier City Council member and Metro board member Fernando Dutra said, “I hope we can grow the number of passengers who can connect to fixed-route services.”
Linton doesn’t think that’s what’s happening and sees Metro as going after a niche already covered by Uber and Lyft.
“I think it is flushing money down the toilet and it is not really getting them into transit,” said Linton. “You get people onto transit when you have a bus that is dependable, not canceled. That way you can serve more people with that $42.”
To book a trip, download the Metro Micro mobile app or call for a ride at 323-466-3876.