by Ben Adlin
Trying to get from one place to another in the South End? A newly refreshed service from King County Metro offers on-demand rides in much of South Seattle and the surrounding region — all for the price of a bus ticket.
The program is meant to fill gaps in Metro’s existing bus and rail service, using minivans to carry riders across parts of the county where traditional transit stops are scarce. It’s an affordable, although 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 spot, 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 under can ride Metro for free, a policy that includes the new service.
“We are a public transit agency that believes in mobility for all, 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 operates doesn’t always make sense.”
It’s an idea King County Metro has been experimenting with in recent years, launching various on-demand pilot programs across King County beginning 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 the private contractor Via Transportation.
“We tried on different models, and we tried to learn from them, adapt from them,” O’Claire said. “What we have now is the best of all of these models consolidated into a really strong, innovative service.”
The service is available either through a smartphone app (Android or iOS) or by calling 206-258-7739.
Despite its obvious similarities to ridesharing apps, Metro Flex has some noteworthy limitations. The biggest is geographic: The program is available only 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 adjacent, the service doesn’t offer trips from one zone to another.
Rides are also only available during certain hours, which vary by service area. The four South Seattle-area regions have service from 5 a.m. to 1 a.m. Monday through Saturday and 6 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 under 15 minutes, although the agency’s FAQ section also notes that some requests might not be accepted during periods of high demand. You might also share your ride with other passengers. And the app will reject a request if it determines the trip could be completed on an existing transit route.
O’Claire told the Emerald the goal of the program isn’t 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 that is 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 employees take early morning trips to work, she says Metro made sure to prioritize rides starting at 5 a.m.
“We kind of built the program to help address certain needs, and they’re proving to address those needs,” Miskell said. “If someone wants to go from Skyway to Tukwila, great! Jump on the light rail and go to Tukwila. … We’re really, really actively trying to manage that balance of not taking 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 that aren’t near frequently run bus or rail service.”
Officials say the service was specifically designed to serve areas, like South Seattle, with high populations of People of Color, low-income households, people with disabilities, immigrants, refugees, people for whom English isn’t their first language, and unhoused people. Nearly a third of the approximately 6,200 weekly rides on Metro Flex’s precursor programs, they note, were taken by people enrolled in reduced-fare programs.
“On-demand services have resoundingly woven themselves into the mobility choices of the communities they serve,” the agency said, “helping customers get to appointments, school, stores, and work, as well as transfer to and from buses and light rail.”
Why address transportation disparities with on-demand services instead of more fixed-route lines, like buses? In part, Metro representatives say, it’s about finding the right tool to address an immediate need. Some areas might indeed benefit from more fully built-out bus routes, but others simply don’t have enough demand to make a frequent, dedicated route worthwhile.
“Our long-range vision does state that there’s an area of service that we’re going to call flexible — we don’t quite know what it is yet,” O’Claire said. She emphasizes that Metro is working to expand major transit, such as by adding the new RapidRide H Line, which runs from Burien to Downtown Seattle, but says a broader array of services is needed to meet needs where they are. That might be through Metro Flex, community shuttles, or more holistic transportation improvements, like better sidewalks and lighting.
Metro says it’s closely monitoring community feedback on the program and will be analyzing data as it becomes available. Both will help determine how Metro Flex evolves. “This is meant to supplement our service, to connect people in,” O’Claire said, “but it’s also meant to grow up into something that is 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 have 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 buggy new software experience.
If you do download the app, be sure to spend some time exploring it before hailing 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 that’s 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 that some riders had encountered problems with the minivans not having car seats or booster seats, making it more difficult to travel with young children — an issue echoed by users on Twitter.
While the Metro Flex app does include ways for riders to indicate they’re traveling with a wheelchair or bicycle, there 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’s always loved using Via’s on-demand service when traveling in Othello. “When I have traveled in South King County, Via has always been wheelchair accessible, or they find a taxi that is,” Sawyckyj said. “I love the way I am kept up to date with arrival of the vehicle via an app on the phone.”
She says she’s upset, however, that Metro Flex doesn’t 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 employ Metro drivers, the on-demand services are contracted out through the private company Via Transportation.
Ken Price, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 587, says that while the lower overall costs of contractors might be appealing to officials, past on-demand services have had a higher per-trip cost than traditional transit.
“It offers additional options for transit, which is a positive development,” he said in an email. “However, I cannot ignore the fact that this new merger is the rebranded expensive cost per ride of the past. Currently, essentially an Uber or Lyft funded by public funds.”
Asked about the per-trip costs to Metro, a public information officer replied that many of the Metro flex service areas “are places where a fixed route cannot operate, and we are intentionally serving underserved communities. 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 through Via are paid significantly less than drivers who are unionized and employed directly through Metro. The new program isn’t truly supporting the community in a sustainable way, he says, if it fails to pay workers a living wage.
“We need to ensure that these services we are offering are cost effective and ethical,” he said. “In my opinion, the ethical thing to do is to bring this service in-house, whereby we can pay a livable wage, offer medical insurance, and ensure that we are supporting 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 per hour after expenses.
That’s a reference to King County’s so-called living wage ordinance, which requires contractors for the county to pay employees a specified minimum wage. The amount for 2023 is $18.69, the same as the minimum wage within Seattle city limits.
Notwithstanding the ordinance’s title, 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 with no children is $22.77 per 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 hourly.
Ben Adlin is a reporter and editor who grew up in the Pacific Northwest and currently lives on Capitol Hill. He’s covered politics and legal affairs from Seattle and Los Angeles 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.
Before you move on to the next story … The South Seattle Emerald is brought to you by Rainmakers. Rainmakers give recurring gifts at any amount. With over 1,000 Rainmakers, the Emerald is truly community-driven local media. Help us keep BIPOC-led media free and accessible. If just half of our readers signed up to give $6 a month, we wouldn't have to fundraise for the rest of the year. Small amounts make a difference. We cannot do this work without you. Become a Rainmaker today!