At a time public-transit across America is losing customers to private ride-hailing rivals, Seattle-area governments are paying the Via transportation network company to shuttle more people toward Sound Transit trains.
Starting Tuesday, travelers can now download the Via to Transit app, or call 206-258-7739, to order rides to or from five light-rail stations in South Seattle and Tukwila. A black van ought to arrive in 10 to 15 minutes. Trips must begin or end at a transit station.
Pay the usual King County Metro adult fare of $2.75, or the student/low-income rate of $1.50 using an ORCA card, and then get a free transfer by tapping your card before boarding the train. Cash and paper transfers aren’t accepted, just ORCA fare cards or a Transit Go smartphone-based bus ticket.
As many as 18 vans serve five zones, around Mount Baker, Columbia City, Othello, Rainier Beach and Tukwila International Boulevard stations. The South Seattle zones cover nearly the whole east-west area between Interstate 5 and Lake Washington. The Tukwila territory reaches east to Interurban Avenue South.
“Seattle is one of the cities in America where transit use is actually increasing,” Mayor Jenny Durkan said Tuesday, “and we’ve seen if we make it available, people use it. Now, we could call this tap-and-ride. I just think it’s pretty cool and convenient.”
Via’s hours in Seattle are 5 a.m. to 1 a.m. Monday through Saturday, and 6 a.m. to midnight Sunday. Tukwila has weekday trips only, from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.
The one-year project requires a $3.25 million taxpayer subsidy, Metro said. Seattle is spending $2.7 million from its $60 car-tab fee for transit, while the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) is contributing $350,000, Sound Transit $100,000 and Metro $100,000.
FTA calls these mobility grants the Sandbox Program, underscoring their experimental nature. A shared grant for Seattle and L.A. was originally meant for Lyft but changed to Via, which operates in 60 cities worldwide.
Metro must dare to try new services and risk occasional failure, Metro planner Casey Gifford told the Washington State Ridesharing Organization in a speech last year. In particular, the agency is trying to solve the “first-mile/last-mile” problem that naturally occurs because transit hubs can’t be built everywhere.
Metro’s performance standards aim for at least 1,000 Via customers a week, which computes to about $6 operating cost per user.
Via is expected to make passengers wait only 10 minutes on average, for both standard and accessible vans. Three vans have wheelchair ramps in the rear that can lift 800 pounds. People can book those by choosing the “wheelchair accessibility” option when setting up the app account.
Success in these partnerships isn’t guaranteed. A new Metro shuttle called Ride 2 at Eastgate changed contractors when operator Ford Chariot shut down, while in West Seattle the lightly used Ride 2 vans, run by a nonprofit, overlap with Metro’s own minibuses on Routes 773 and 775.
However, the Via program reaches a different population under a different business model, Gifford said. The territory is bigger and home to more low-income and ethnic-minority residents, and interpreters are available by phone, she said.
In Tukwila, the Via app creates potential for vans to scoop people from hundreds of apartments next to the station, so they can zip to a train rather than walk the steep hill, or even drive a half-mile into the 600-stall park-and-ride lot, which often fills by 7 a.m.
Transit ridership in the Seattle region has risen 50 percent since 2002, by far the strongest U.S. increase, based on federal data analyzed by The Transport Politic website. Seattle and Houston are the only metros to increase transit use from 2015 to 2018. Besides lousy subway maintenance, some blame rests upon competition from ride-hailing services, though supporters argue those cover hours and places transit misses.
New York transportation consultant Sam Schwartz recommends government-supported micro transit in growing cities like Seattle.
“Via is a seven-person vehicle that has these algorithms that very efficiently pick up people as if it’s a transit line, but it’s not on a set route, and discharges people. So it’s always got three, four, five, six, seven people in it. The technology is just so good, it’s kind of like Uber on steroids,” he said.
Michelle Baruchman, Traffic Lab engagement editor, contributed to this article.