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Orange County looks toward ride-hailing to replace languishing bus routes

Signs like these will be placed along two defunct bus routes in San Clemente where ride-hailing service Lyft will offer subsidized rides.
Courtesy: City of San Clemente
Signs like these will be placed along two defunct bus routes in San Clemente where ride-hailing service Lyft will offer subsidized rides.

When the Orange County Transportation Authority set out to reorganize the county’s public transit system last year, it cut two of San Clemente’s four bus routes. That left more than 100 daily riders with few options for getting around the sprawling, suburban town.  

Enter Lyft. OCTA gave the city a $900,000 grant for a pilot program that would swap bus service on the two cancelled routes for subsidized ride-hailing. Riders pay the first $2 of any ride between former bus stops, and the city picks up the rest, up to $9. San Clemente transportation engineering manager Tom Frank said most rides along the route wouldn’t cost more than that. 

Frank said about 50 riders a day have been using the new service since its soft launch in October. He said that number exceeded expectations, and expects the numbers will pick up even more when the program is officially launched towards the end of April. 

“I think overall most constituents who are using it are really happy with the service,” he said. Still, he added, the switch from bus to ride share has been tough for some riders, including those with special needs and those who are unable or unwilling to use the Lyft app.

Orange County, like Los Angeles, has seen a steady decline in bus ridership over the last decade. Travelers in Orange County took about 10 million fewer bus rides last year than they did five years ago, according to the State of OC Transit report presented by OCTA in late March. 

Ride-sharing services like Lyft and Uber are often seen as a competitor to public transit. But OCTA sees them as potential partners, especially in suburban areas where running big buses for a handful of riders just doesn’t make sense, said OCTA spokesman Joel Zlotnik.

“In Orange County where we have a mix of very dense areas in the core of the county and … outlying suburban areas, we’re trying to find the right fit for each part of the county,” he said.

In the urban core, including Santa Ana and Anaheim, OCTA is focused on creating better, more frequent bus service. In suburban areas, it’s looking to expand partnerships with ride-hailing services and taxi companies. 

The transit authority recently launched a mobile ticketing app, and Zlotnik said it plans to add a function to the app allowing users to connect directly with Lyft and other ride services.

“We’re hoping it’s that one-stop app for transportation in Orange County,” he said.

OCTA will present a master plan for modernizing the county’s entire transit system later this year.