Need a Ride? Metro Program Will Send You a Minivan for the Price of Bus Fare

Need a Ride? Metro Program Will Send You a Minivan for the Price of Bus Fare

by Ben Adlin

Trying to get from one place to another in the South End? A newly revamped King County Metro service offers on-demand rides throughout much of South Seattle and the surrounding region — all for the price of a bus ticket.

The program is intended to fill gaps in Metro’s existing bus and rail service, using minibuses to transport riders across parts of the country where traditional transit stops are rare. It’s an affordable, if somewhat limited, alternative to apps like Lyft or Uber for short trips around the neighborhood.

Called Metro Flex, the program is simple in concept: Request a ride, meet at a nearby pickup location, and be driven to your destination. Door-to-door service is available for people with mobility needs as well as for all passengers during late night and early morning hours.

Full-price fare for adults is $2.75, while low-income people, seniors and people with disabilities pay $1. Using an ORCA card includes a transfer for buses and light rail. And as of last fall, anyone 18 or younger can ride Metro for free, a policy that includes the new service.

“We’re a public transit agency that believes in mobility for everyone, and we believe that mobility should be a human right,” Chris O’Claire, King County Metro’s director of mobility, told the South Seattle Emerald. “But we also understand that that balance of where a big bus works doesn’t always make sense.”

It’s an idea King County Metro has been experimenting with for the past few years, launching several on-demand pilot programs across King County starting in 2019. Metro Flex actually combines three of the agency’s existing on-demand programs — Via to Transit, Ride Pingo to Transit , and Community Ride — into one, operated by private contractor Via Transportation.

“We’ve tried different models, and we’ve tried to learn from them, adapt to them,” O’Claire said. “What we have now is the best of all these models consolidated into a very strong, innovative service.”

The service is available through a smartphone app (Android or iOS) or by calling 206-258-7739.

Despite its obvious similarities to ride-sharing apps, Metro Flex has some notable limitations. The biggest is geographic: The program is only available within seven specific service areas across King County, and trips must stay within a single zone. While four service areas — Othello, Rainier Beach/Skyway, Renton Highlands and Tukwila — are contiguous, the service does not offer trips from one zone to another.

Image of King County

Rides are also only available during certain hours, which vary by service area. The four regions in south Seattle have service from 5:00 a.m. to 1:00 a.m. Monday through Saturday and 6:00 a.m. to midnight on Sundays. Service areas in Kent, Juanita and Sammamish have more limited hours.

Metro representatives say the target wait time for a ride is less than 15 minutes, although the agency’s FAQ section also notes that some requests may not be accepted during periods of high demand. You can also share your ride with other passengers. And the app will reject a request if it determines that the trip can be completed on an existing transportation route.

O’Claire told the Emerald that the goal of the program is not to create a competitor to Lyft or Uber, nor is it to duplicate service provided by Metro’s existing transportation options. “We’re a public transit agency trying to use our limited resources to maximize the value of mobility across the region,” she said.

Allison Miskell, a transportation planner who administers the Metro Flex program, says the on-demand service is meant to be tailored to each zone’s needs. In Kent, for example, where many warehouse workers take early morning trips to work, she says Metro has made sure that trips from 5 am.

“We kind of built the program to help address certain needs, and they’ve proven to address those needs,” Miskell said. “If someone wants to go from Skyway to Tukwila, great! Hop on the light rail and head to Tukwila. … We’re really actively trying to manage that balance to not take people off a good fixed-route system.”

But Metro also acknowledges that Metro Flex service areas often lack good transit infrastructure. In its press release about the program, the agency says the programs were created to “advance equity” by “providing safe, reliable transportation for people and places not close to regular bus or rail service.”

Officials say the service is specifically designed to serve areas, such as South Seattle, with high populations of people of color, low-income households, people with disabilities, immigrants, refugees, people for whom English is not their first language , and homeless people. Nearly a third of the roughly 6,200 weekly rides on Metro Flex’s flagship programs, they note, were taken by people enrolled in reduced-fare programs.

“On-demand services have woven themselves resoundingly into the mobility choices of the communities they serve,” the agency said, “helping customers get to appointments, school, stores and work, as well as transferring to and from buses and light rail.”

Why address transport differences with on-demand services instead of more fixed route lines, such as buses? In part, Metro representatives say, it’s about finding the right tool to address an immediate need. Some areas could indeed benefit from more fully developed bus routes, but others simply do not have enough demand to make a regular, dedicated route worthwhile.

“Our long-range vision does state that there is a service area that we’re going to call flexible — we don’t quite know what that is yet,” O’Claire said. She emphasizes that Metro is expanding major transit, such as by adding the new RapidRide H line, which runs from Burien to Downtown Seattle, but says a broader variety of services is needed to meet needs where they are . This could be through Metro Flex, community sharing devices, or more holistic transportation improvements, such as better sidewalks and lighting.

Metro says it is closely monitoring community feedback about the program and will analyze data as it becomes available. Both will help determine how Metro Flex evolves. “It’s meant to complement our service, to engage people,” O’Claire said, “but it’s also meant to grow into something much more like a traditional bus.”

In the first weeks after the program’s launch, some Metro Flex riders shared feedback through social media and other channels. Requests included expanding the coverage areas to include White Center, Arbor Heights and North Burien, as well as reconsidering the location of drop-off points. On Apple’s App Store, meanwhile, some users have complained about a lackluster new software experience.

If you do download the app, be sure to spend some time exploring it before you welcome your first ride. In particular, go to your account and enter any special settings, such as wheelchair accessibility, a low-income ORCA LIFT card, or hearing or vision impairments. You can also enter a credit or debit card, although this is not required to use the app.

Katie Wilson, co-founder and general secretary of the Transit Riders Union, shared comments from the group’s members, saying some riders have had issues with the minibuses not having car seats or booster seats, making it more difficult to travel with young children – an issue echoed by users on Twitter.

Although the Metro Flex app includes ways for riders to indicate they are traveling with a wheelchair or bicycle, it does not appear to be an option to indicate the need for a car seat.

Kristina Sawyckyj, disability and access officer for the Transit Riders Union, says she has always liked using Via’s on-demand service when traveling in Othello. “When I’ve traveled in South King County, Via has always been wheelchair accessible, or they get a cab that is,” Sawyckyj said. “I love the way I am kept informed of the arrival of the vehicle via an app on the phone.”

However, she says she is upset that Metro Flex does not offer service in Shoreline. Other riders have requested service extensions to West Seattle and surrounding areas.

Another issue for some critics is how the new program is staffed. Rather than employing Metro drivers, the on-demand services are contracted by the private company Via Transportation.

Ken Price, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 587, says that while the lower overall cost of contractors may appeal to officials, previous on-demand services have had a higher cost per trip than traditional transit .

“This provides additional options for transportation, which is a positive development,” he said in an email. “However, I cannot ignore the fact that this new merger is the rehashed expensive cost per trip of the past. Currently, it is essentially an Uber or Lyft funded by public funds.”

When asked about the cost per trip to the Metro, a public information officer replied that many of the Metro flex service areas “are places where a fixed route cannot function, and we deliberately serve communities that are weaker. Metro Flex per-trip costs are comparable to lower-performing, fixed-route, per-trip costs.”

Price at ATU says that comparison overlooks an important point: Metro Flex drivers contracted by Via are paid significantly less than unionized drivers employed directly by Metro. The new program doesn’t really support the community in a sustainable way, he says, if it fails to pay workers a living wage.

“We must ensure that these services we offer are cost-effective and ethical,” he said. “In my opinion, the ethical thing to do is to bring this service in-house, which allows us to pay a livable wage, provide medical insurance and ensure that we support the labor market.”

The Metro public information officer told the Emerald that the department’s contract with Via guarantees that Flex drivers “earn a net living wage.” Asked for clarification, he added the contract ensures drivers take home $18.69 an hour after expenses.

That’s a reference to King County’s so-called living wage ordinance, which requires contractors to pay county employees a specified minimum wage. The amount for 2023 is $18.69, the same as the minimum wage within Seattle city limits.

Despite the title of the ordinance, the term “living wage” typically refers to the amount needed for a worker to meet their basic needs. According to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Living Wage Calculator, the living wage in King County for an adult without children is $22.77 an hour, or $43.01 if that person has a child.

Metro says drivers for its fixed-route service, meanwhile, earn between $26.57 and $37.96 an hour.

Ben Adlin is a reporter and editor who grew up in the Pacific Northwest and currently lives on Capitol Hill. He has covered Seattle and Los Angeles politics and law for the past decade and has been an Emerald contributor since May 2020, writing about community and municipal news. Find him on Twitter at @badlin.

📸 Featured image from King County.

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