King County has piloted several on-demand services that connect people with transit hubs. The services address first/last mile access issues up to three miles around transit centers. Recent data indicates that Via continues to perform well in the Rainier Valley with growing ridership and progressively declining average costs. Meanwhile, the Ride2 services in West Seattle and Bellevue have seen stubbornly low ridership and higher per-rider costs.
“Via to Transit” launched in April as a partnership with on-demand transportation provider Via. The service mostly operates in the Rainier Valley connecting riders to light rail service at Mount Baker, Columbia City, Othello, and Rainier Beach. A more limited version is available in Tukwila. Early results were promising and have gotten appreciably better as the program reached the six-month mark. Via now serves almost four riders per hour at a cost per rider just over $10. That’s above the average of Metro services, but is declining as ridership scales. It rates well against the coverage routes that are the more immediate alternative.
Ride2 launched in October 2018 around the Eastgate P&R in partnership with Chariot, a Ford subsidiary that withdrew from the market earlier this year. Operations transitioned to Hopelink in February after Ford quit the business. It now serves just over two riders per hour at a high $35 cost per rider. On the bright side, it has displaced driving, with a majority of riders surveyed saying they used to drive to either the transit center or their final destination. Service levels are also high with an average wait time under five minutes vs a program target of ten minutes.
Ride2 was extended to West Seattle last December as a one-year pilot, serving the bus hub at Alaska Junction and the Water Taxi terminal at Seacrest Park. There has been little rider interest, and the service carries fewer than one rider per vehicle per hour at a cost of over $80 per rider. The pilot seems unlikely to be extended.
Metro’s Community Connections program encompasses an array of alternatives to fixed route service. Most are in communities that lack the land use or density for fixed route services to be productive. Because it is conceived as a program for innovative services where traditional transit routes are not economically viable, some failures are to be expected. While none of the services have large ridership (otherwise there would be a bus), some have done remarkably well at cost-effectively connecting riders to transit. The best of the Community Shuttle routes operate at costs per rider comparable to the busiest fixed routes.
Via and some of the community shuttle services are more than cost-competitive with fixed routes, making them excellent candidates for ongoing funding after the grants run out. The economics of such small vehicle transit is tied to their low operating cost, so it’s likely they will continue to be implemented via partnerships with private companies. It’s not always clear why some routes work out and others don’t. Ride2 in West Seattle probably aligns too closely with fixed route service to the ferries. But why Via in the Rainier Valley and not Ride2 in Eastgate? Expect continued experimentation as long as the budget allows and while Metro remains capacity constrained on fixed routes.