Local Journalism Happens With YouSupport

Why Haven’t You Tried LA’s $1 Rideshare App Yet?

Metro Micro serves as an affordable alternative to rideshare apps like Lyft and Uber in parts of the city.

a blue passenger van labeled Metro Micro
Image: Juliet Bennet-Rylah | Knock LA

Imagine taking an Uber or Lyft that cost $1 and was run by your local transit agency, not a Silicon Valley tech company.

That’s essentially the Metro Micro, an on-demand rideshare program Metro is currently piloting in a handful of zones across the county. Depending on where you spend your time, you may have even seen the dark blue vans cruising around. 

The three-year pilot launched in December 2020 and is set to end in December of 2023, Metro Special Projects senior director Rani Narula-Woods told Knock LA.

At that point, she doesn’t anticipate a drop in service, but a “Micro 2.0” with more family-focused customization options and, hopefully, a permanent program.

“I don’t think we are at a point where we know enough that even by 2023, we will have in full addressed whether the model is a permanent model for Metro,” she said.

The biggest issue has been, perhaps obviously, the pandemic. It’s hard to know how people might normally use a public rideshare service when people haven’t been moving around normally.

At the onset of the pandemic, when people were told to stay home except for essential trips, that’s what they used it for. As the vaccine rolled out and cases dropped, people began using Metro Micro to get to school-related activities and to go out. The omicron surge saw ridership drop, but now it’s back up.

The instability makes it hard to conduct many of the planned experiments, but Metro does know one thing.

“We’ve found that this service can change people’s lives,” Narula-Woods said.

It’s Kind of a Game-Changer 

If you don’t drive, you’ve probably been stuck waiting for a late bus or train for over 45 minutes on multiple occasions. Even on a good day, it sometimes takes well over an hour to get to a place you could drive to in 15 minutes.

For example, a trip from Highland Park to downtown Glendale would take about 45 minutes to an hour by bus. Yet all three areas are included in a single Micro Metro zone, and those trips take half the time.

The exact ETA varies based on whether there are other passengers to pick up or drop off, so think of it as an Uber Pool — except it costs $1. 

Yet despite promotional signage and mailers, Micro sometimes feels like Metro’s best-kept secret. Crowdsourcing feedback about the service has revealed many people who could only ask, “What is it?” But perhaps the better question would be… 

Where Is It? 

Micro 1.0, if you will, serves the following eight zones: 

  • UCLA/Westwood/VA Medical Center (Mon–Fri, 9 AM to 9 PM) 
  • Northwest San Fernando Valley (Mon–Sun, 5:30 AM to 10 PM) 
  • Altadena/Pasadena/Sierra Madre (Mon–Sun, 5:30 AM to 10 PM) 
  • Highland Park/Eagle Rock/Glendale (Mon–Sun, 5:30 AM to 10 PM) 
  • El Monte (Mon–Fri, 6 AM to 10 PM; Sat–Sun, 10 AM to 10 PM)
  • North Hollywood/Burbank (Mon–Fri, 6 AM to 10 PM; Sat–Sun 10 AM to 10 PM)
  • LAX/Inglewood (Mon–Sun, 5 AM to 9 PM)
  • Watts/Compton (Mon–Fri, 5 AM to 11 PM; Sat–Sun, 5:30 AM to 9:30 PM)

When choosing these zones, Narula-Woods said they considered which areas of Los Angeles had the most pressing needs. 

“We already had this existing landscape of the public sector, whether it’s Metro or whether it’s local or regional partners. And the point is, we didn’t want to go and compete with those,” she said. “So the question is, ‘Where were the actual gaps across LA County?’” 

Other questions included who the riders would be, how might they use the service, and how often. Which needs could be serviced by what’s essentially a small passenger van? Within each zone, they came up with a handful of use cases.

For example, the Highland Park/Eagle Rock/Glendale zone has tight, hilly roads not easily served by city buses. It’s also home to a busy dining and retail scene. A third consideration was low car ownership among students attending Occidental College. 

The Watts/Willowbrook zone, before it merged with the former Compton/Artesia zone to become the 35-square-mile Watts/Compton zone, had 42 schools in it.

“[We wanted to know] would kids want to use it for school or for after-school activities,” Narula-Woods said. “And now… would parents or caregivers have more access to opportunity as a result of not being the person that has to shuttle that kid around?”

This would be in line with one of Metro’s Vision 2028 goals: Enhance communities and lives through mobility and access to opportunity. 

How It Works

Passengers can use the Metro Micro app — produced by Torrance-based transit software company RideCo — to schedule a ride inside a single zone. Just type in where you are, where you want to go, and when. Pickup and drop-off locations are not always directly in front of your start and end points, but usually only a block or so away. 

a screenshot of the metro micro app showing a map of potential pick-up locations
Image: Metro Micro

Metro will provide a 10-minute window during which your ride will arrive. When it’s time, go to your pickup spot and wait. If you’re not there already, Micro only waits for one minute, so don’t be late.

You pay in the app when you book your ride. Currently, it’s $1 per ride. Fare hikes are expected eventually, but not any time in 2022.

You can book for just yourself, or a group of people. (The vans fit up to 10 passengers.)

Passengers without smartphones can call to book (323.GO.METRO) and use their TAP card to pay inside the van.

Rides can be scheduled up to two days in advance and, while the system isn’t too crowded at this point, it’s typically best to schedule ASAP. Occasionally, everything will be full if you wait too long. 

A Few Other Things to Know:

  • Service animals are welcome; pets are not. 
  • Accessible seating is available. 
  • Each van has two bike racks, which you can book in advance. 
  • Children under eight must use car seats, which passengers must provide and install. (Narula-Woods hopes to incorporate car and booster seat booking into Micro 2.0.) 
  • If the place you want to go is just a little outside the zone, you’ll need to choose a dropoff location inside the zone or the app won’t let you book.

Also, if you want to go from one zone to another, you’ll have to find your own way in between. You can do that using Google or you could use Metro’s official app partner, Transit, which has integrated Micro into its suggested routes.

How Does That Work?

According to Stephen Miller, communications lead at Transit, agencies supply data including their transit schedules and GPS-enabled, real-time info — where a bus or train is physically located and its ETA. 

Transit also incorporates rideshare, scooters, bikes, buses, and trains. It only works as well as the data it gets, so it may not be perfect. Buses and vans get snarled in traffic, trains break down, and so forth. But if you cushion your connections, it’s probably your best bet for planning more complex routes.  

What’s Next? 

According to Narula-Woods, the next iteration of Micro will be “more about moving intergenerational families.” She’d also like to see a pay structure where regular users pay less.

“I would want to try to get people to use it more regularly for different trip types and kind of be able to reduce costs because of the usage, because ultimately, that’s gonna reduce the vehicle miles traveled on the streets,” she said.

But as far as Micro graduating from pilot to permanent, it’s all about Micro becoming efficient and making sure the customers are there. 

“We recognize that people are multimodal, so I think for Micro, it’s really figuring out what’s that shortlist of use cases and in what communities they’re really effective and if that utilization is going to be there,” Narula-Woods said. “I think that ultimately it’ll come down to whether or not people use this service to get to their destination and they also use this service to get into the fixed route.” 

Thus far, Micro has seen over 310,000 boardings, per data from Metro, while the app has been downloaded over 108,000 times. Watts/Compton and Altadena/Pasadena/Sierra Madre are currently the two top-performing zones.

By comparison, in 2019, ride-hail company Via and LA Metro announced a partnership in which Via would provide rides to or from the North Hollywood, El Monte, and Artesia stations in its six-passenger shuttles. 

The service deployed 18 vehicles between 8 AM and 6 PM on weekdays and found passengers typically used it to get to work, school, shopping centers, or recreational activities. 

In its first year, the service saw over 75,000 rides, and was ultimately extended six months. As for Micro, Narula-Woods expects the question of permanence to be answered closer to the 2028 Olympics, which Los Angeles is hosting.

The Olympics and the city’s participation in it is a whole other (sad) story, but Micro works for the people who live, work, and hang out in the communities it serves right now. It also works in such a way that even people who own cars and have historically been reluctant to use public transit should feel comfortable. Assuming your Point A and Point B are in the same zones, within the service’s operating hours, it’s as simple and convenient as any other rideshare, but cheaper. And you don’t have to worry about parking.

Miller, from Transit, has this advice: “Open up the app and plan a trip. If you live in or work in one of those zones, that’s the fastest way to discover if it can be helpful for you.”