Q&A: Metro’s future MicroTransit service

You might have heard some buzz that Metro is working to bring a new service known as “MicroTransit” to the region through a pilot program.

What exactly is it? Details are still being worked out — more on that below — but basically MicroTransit is a small vehicle that you can order (like you would a Lyft or Uber) that is not tied to a fixed route or even a fixed schedule. It is on-demand, when you want it, where you want it.

A Metro MicroTransit vehicle, unlike a standard bus, will follow turn-by-turn instructions from a navigation system that uses live traffic conditions and real-time requests for pick-ups and drop-offs to generate the most efficient possible trips for Metro riders. Unlike an Uber or Lyft, trips will be cheaper and designed to integrate with Metro’s larger transit network. Our hypothesis is that incorporating a service like MicroTransit into our wheelhouse could benefit our customers and support our broader mission to improve mobility in Los Angeles County.

Metro is gearing up to receive proposals from potential private sector partners to team up with the agency to design the new service. Metro will ultimately pick a team made up of tech firms, urban planners, and marketers that will work hand-in-hand with the agency  to design and run the new service.

The goal of this project for Metro is to determine whether an on-demand service like MicroTransit can provide a convenient new option for our current riders while also encouraging new riders to use the transit system. 

We know you probably have some questions…

So is MicroTransit just like Uber or Lyft?

Not exactly. Metro’s MicroTransit will use vehicles that are smaller than a typical 40-foot bus but larger than a five-passenger sedan, so essentially it’s a multi-passenger service. Also, it’s on-demand and not based on advanced scheduling or a fixed schedule with pre-determined stops.

Another feature is that it’s dynamically-routed — meaning the route is based on who is getting picked up and where they’re going within the service area or neighborhood

What will it be like to take Metro’s MicroTransit?

A lot of the details still need to be fleshed out. But there are some likely features. Imagine a transit experience in which you can be picked up and dropped off where you want when you want (called ‘virtual stops’). You will have an option for mobile payment and you can get reliable real-time information on your pick-up and drop-off times.

Maybe you’ll want to use this service to connect to a rail or bus line. Or maybe you’ll find that you can take an entire trip solely using Metro’s MicroTransit. The point is that the new service is flexible and convenient for customers no matter where you’re heading.

How much will riding Metro’s MicroTransit cost?

We don’t know yet. MicroTransit is considered a premium service, so the fare will likely be higher than our regular $1.75 bus or rail fare. But our MicroTransit also will likely be cheaper than a similar ride in a Lyft, Uber, taxis or other private mobility services.

Why not leave on-demand services to those who already provide them? Does Metro really think it can out-Uber Uber or out-Lyft Lyft?

We don’t see Uber, Lyft and other ridesharing companies as competitors.

There’s a place for private mobility services to operate alongside publicly provided services. We see a new transportation technology that has changed how many people travel, and we owe it to our customers and the taxpayers to be asking whether it, or any new technology, can play a positive role in Metro’s overall service.

We can potentially take advantage of that technology to serve our broader social goals – focusing on pooled rides and connections to other transit, accessibility for passengers with disabilities and service for those without smartphones or bank accounts. Finally, we intend to provide this service using Metro employees, not contract employees.

Where will Metro be testing MicroTransit?

That’s to be determined, based in part on the knowledge and expertise of the team we partner with.

That said, we envision Metro’s MicroTransit could be useful in parts of our region that aren’t quite dense enough to support frequent bus service, or in areas where getting to bus or rail stops can be tricky due to distance or multiple transfers.

We look forward to hearing from firms responding to our request for proposal which is set to be issued on Wednesday, October 25. 

Why does Metro want to test MicroTransit?

We’ve seen over the years that bus and rail service can perform quite well in our region — Metro, after all, runs the nation’s third busiest transit system.

But we also recognize that we’re serving a region where the number of people who drive has remained very high over the years — currently about 84 percent of those commuting to work in Los Angeles County. We believe that Metro has an obligation to test new services to give more people more options other than driving and to better connect people to local bus and rail networks.

Keep in mind, too, that advancements in technology — enabled by smart phones and cell coverage — have allowed new mobility services to emerge that meet customers’ needs in ways not previously possible. The MicroTransit Pilot can take advantage of new and emerging technology and connect more people to the investments we’re making in our region’s transit and road system. 

But won’t this just take away riders from our buses and rail services?

We don’t think so. Most research indicates MicroTransit has the potential to be complementary to transit.

We are more interested in determining if expanding our menu of options provides improved mobility for our customers, rather than whether it takes away ridership from other modes. If existing riders wind up preferring this service to our other services, that is very useful to know.

What does “success” look like?

Metro is putting this pilot project into place as part of our commitment to innovation and exploration of new ways of doing things.

For us, success looks like learning whether and how customers might use a service like this, what key service design factors matter most to customers and how we can operate in way that is financially sustainable. Answering those questions would be a huge win, as we identify innovative new ideas that help address our most pressing local transportation challenges.

So what makes Metro’s pilot special?

We did a lot of research when preparing this project, and deliberately put the customer experience (user experience) at the forefront of the planning process. MicroTransit has never been delivered by a transit agency on this scale. We spent a lot of hours speaking with a variety of stakeholders — both public and private — and soliciting input because we want to get this right.

How is Metro collaborating with the private sector on this project?

Metro hosted a pre-proposal industry forum to provide potential private sector partners information about the pilot. The industry forum allowed vendors to ask questions directly to Metro staff, provide feedback on the project and network with potential partners to build a team of technologists, planners, and marketers to respond to the solicitation. Over 300 individuals attended from an array of technology, planning, and outreach firms. Participants came from across the globe.

Later this month, on Wednesday, October 25th, Metro will be issuing a solicitation to partner on the design and implementation of the new service. The solicitation is divided into two parts. In part one, the private sector will support Metro with planning and design of the service. In part two, the private sector will help to guide Metro on the implementation and evaluation of the new service.

This approach to contracting is also testing a new way of doing business for the agency. In fact, Metro is utilizing a two-stage public-private contracting model for this pilot to share the risks and rewards with our private partner. We’re also exploring ways to tie compensation for the private sector to performance and service levels of the project.

While Metro certainly will be dealing with some unknowns as we move forward, we’re undaunted by the challenge and excited at the possibilities of this project and what we’ll learn.


Project Manager Rani Narula-Woods from Metro’s Office of Extraordinary Innovation (OEI) is leading the pilot program, along with a team of over 50 individuals from nearly all Metro departments. The MicroTransit Pilot (MTP) is an exciting undertaking as we explore and develop new ways to get around.

A few other details that may interest those curious about the project development side of things:

•Metro’s OEI has visited the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority, the Alameda Contra Costa Transit District, and the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency in the Bay Area for demonstrations on how these transit agencies piloted and worked with MicroTransit providers.

•OEI’s research team is finalizing  a white paper on case studies of public transit agencies who have already piloted MicroTransit. That research about what has worked — and not worked — has informed how Metro approaches the pilot. The Eno Center for Transportation will be publishing it soon.

•OEI also convened its Advisory Board’s Subcommittee on New Mobility, composed of a panel of transportation and innovation experts, to help advise the agency on this project.

•The Metro team looks forward to engaging even more partners in the months ahead to achieve an improved user-experience for current and future Metro riders.

•The MicroTransit Request for Proposal (RFP) will be posted on the metro.net Vendor Portal after about 2 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 25. Search for MicroTransit Pilot Project. If asked to sign in, enter your name. It is not necessary to be registered to view the RFP.

Metro Chief Innovation Officer Joshua Schank will take your questions live on Twitter to discuss the role of user-experience in the future of public transit. Submit your questions now to @LA_CoMotion and join the chat live on LA CoMotion’s Twitter page on Wednesday October 25, 11 a.m. Pacific Time.


13 replies

    • One clarification: the project is possibly intended for lower density areas. Details — including location of the pilot program — haven’t yet been determined!

      Steve Hymon
      Editor, The Source

  1. Given that Uber has fought hard against providing accessible vehicles, an ADA accessible ride-hailing service would fill a real need.

  2. The biggest gap right now is that Uber/Lyft do not connect to Metro to form a seamless ‘trip’.
    Sometimes ridehailing is going to be faster for the entirety of the trip. This can be calculated with google or Uber.
    Sometimes metro’s fixed route transport is going to be faster for the entirety of the trip. This can be calculated with google or Metro’s app.

    Sometimes though the fastest route is going to be a combination of the two to achieve the optimum result. Imagine you are at Pershing square and want to go to Burbank Airport at rush hour. Bus+Bus, Subway+Bus, Subway+Metrolink, or Ridehail the whole way? The fastest route is likely Subway+Ridehail, but what app will seamlessly calculate that? Will it be a single seamless payment? Will the ridehailing vehicle be waiting for you at NoHo station when you get out?

    If Metro isn’t looking to solve that problem, then they are just setting themselves up to compete with Uber and Lyft directly, while likely paying union wages and complying with ADA requirements. Massive money loser in the making.

  3. In the late 90’s SCAG sponsored “smart shuttles” which were using cell phone technology and manual dispatching to provide a demand driven service. Towards the end they ended up running on streets with major bus routes a couple of minutes ahead of the big buses to poach riders and justify their existence, in places which are already transit rich like Koreatown and South Central. If the service is targeted to not compete with existing transit then this could be a worthy replacement to all of those once an hour routes that have high subsidy.

  4. This is great news. I believe Denver RTD has also begun to partner with Uber and Lyft to offer hefty discounts on rides if the origin or destination is a light rail stop. Very excited for what Metro can come up with regardless of whether the service is run by the agency or partnered with the private sector.

    • The pilot program in Denver involved one light rail station and provided free Lyft rides between 5:30 a.m. and 7 p.m. to those that lived in the service area. Interesting. More here: http://go.centennialco.gov/

      Steve Hymon
      Editor, The Source

  5. Your article states you will be using MTA employees yet also states you will be using contractors, which is it? What type of vehicle is being proposed? Is it a 30 foot bus or just a van? This is a city where a van in some instances will have trouble turning around on some streets. We have steep hills and winding roads. One goes up Argyle Ave. from Franklin and it’s a nice wide road until you reach the top two blocks up, then it’s a winding narrow street. Vendom Ave. south of Sunset Bl. is bib enough for buses to pass one another until you reach Del Monte Pl. then a regular sized van might have trouble navigating the divided roadway. We have streets like Fargo and Baxter which are extremely steep. Lastly, once the MTA purchases the equipment if the program fails will the equipment be suitable for other MTA uses or will it end up at division 12 up for sale like the failed 4000 series buses sitting there today?

    Most of Los Angeles County Cities already provide ride sharing service for those in need, how will this be different?

  6. Autonomous 15 passenger vans from Navya…. Hate to say it but these little boogers can possibly do all first and last mile and possibly replace the entire light rail subway if you have enough of them working together. They would be able to compute the following scenario. Pam and Ted live a few blocks away from CuCo and Sancho. They all work in the same area 10 miles away. This little van can with your cell phones permission gather your exact location and pick you up for your morning commute all the while calculating what route works best real time. The future of autonomous vehicles will radically shift transport in the right direction. Self driving semi trucks will drive all night and know to pull off congested morning and rush hour commutes to provide an assist in freeing up valuable freeway real estate. Metro should look at Skyway as well. If anything it looks like a promising way to not only moves humans but also transport goods from the port to DTLA. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UVHbUTsse98


  7. This is great to hear. I think this will be a great option in areas where there is little or no weekend/weekend evening service. Such as lines 264, 268, 256, 258, 267, 686, 687 & 177. Hopefully they will test it in Pasadena so I can get somewhere and not have to wait for service that runs on an hourly interval if it runs at all.
    Maybe someday in the distant future it will be driverless.

    • I’m glad to read the caveat “someday maybe” as a predictor of driverless car nonsense. It ain’t gonna happen, won’t reduce accidents, won’t reduce traffic congestion, won’t reduce fuel/energy consumption, won’t reduce travel-related costs of living, can’t be practically implemented. That said, the transit vehicle I’m hoping GM & Ford will eventually produce: a new model paratransit van, multi-door, low-floor for easy boarding, low-emission (plug-in hybrid & all-battery EVs) especially important for seniors and disabled. Or, municipalities could continue to purchase 1970’s tech vans as sufficiently profitable for GM & Ford stockholder millionaires who never take mass transit. The use of this new vehicle need not be “on demand” as much as a suitable replacement for maybe half of the roaring, fuming, jostling, jolting standard 40′ buses that are today’s standard and get only 4mpg. The new paratransit van could get an effective 30mpg, enough savings to justify retaining driver operation which is after all a rather successful safety device considering accidents are under 1% of all driving trips.

  8. Would it operate similar to a shared taxi ride? I see a lot of potential for this concept taking off if done right.

  9. It seems the Office of Extra-Ordinary Innovation team are looking to provide a service akin to “Bridj”, which shut down suddenly after the Venture Capital $ spigot ran dry, or “Chariot” which has “Big 2” Detroit automaker Ford as its owner.

    Indeed, it seems that Uber and Lyft can only run service competitive to the taxi industry if burning Venture Capital funding. One day, that will end and go the way of FedEx-Overnighted Kitty Litter (Google “Pets.com”). Unless the fully unstaffed robotic car can be created, which is very unlikely.

    Sure, there are the “Dollar Vans” which run in New York’s outer boroughs and also in Los Angeles. They played a key role during the last Metro Strike, but they fudge on things like insurance and safety inspections, so Metro would never ever be able to operate a service like this.

    I wish the team luck, and envy their position of getting to explore the unknown and the impossible.