An on-demand ride service operated by the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA)—but only available in a limited area of the county—has been extended through Dec. 31, 2021.
OC Flex was started as a 12-month pilot program in October 2018 that mimicked the services provided by companies like Uber and Lyft. The program was later extended for another year.
“We have a lot of residents, especially seniors that have been utilizing it, same with students,” said Laurie Davies, an OCTA director, at a board meeting on Nov. 23. “I’m glad that we’re going to be able to continue this.”
OC Flex originally operated in two zones: the Orange Zone in Aliso Viejo, Laguna Niguel, and Mission Viejo; and the Blue Zone in Huntington Beach and Westminster. Bus services in these areas have been largely unavailable due to cuts made in 2016.
However, in March, the OC Flex service in the Blue Zone was suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic and low ridership.
Until then, “the [OC Flex] service had been experiencing ridership growth and had made progress towards the established performance goals,” said Jack Garate, department manager of paratransit services at OCTA, during the board of directors meeting.
Keolis Transit Services, the company that had signed the contract to provide the service to the county, had to back out of the agreement in May due to the impacts of the pandemic. The county then assigned a new contract to MV Transportation.
The service runs seven days a week, from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Monday through Friday, and from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday.
Residents get unlimited rides for $4.50 a day through the mobile app, or they can pay $5 cash in person. Groups riding together get a discount.
Because OCTA was not able to evaluate the effects of changes made to the OC Flex program in February due to the pandemic, staff made the recommendation to extend the pilot program to the end of 2021, and the board agreed. The agency will discuss options for the program beyond 2021 next month.
While the original Blue Zone of OC Flex will remain suspended, Garate said the City of Huntington Beach has submitted a proposal to OCTA to implement a similar type of on-demand ride service.
Said board member Joseph Muller, “I think there is a much larger need and demand for this service in South County, just due to the nature of how we’re spread out. We don’t have a lot of parking structures and things like that, so it’s a lot easier for people to go ahead and use a shared ride service like this to meet their transportation needs.”
After peaking in February, OC Flex ridership in the Orange Zone declined significantly in March and April. It’s now around 50 percent of what it was in February. However, directors expressed optimism that the riders will soon return.
“I think it’s a brilliant idea, and I was so delighted at how well it was received in south county,” said board member Barbara Delgleize.
OCTA’s balanced budget for the 2020–2021 fiscal year was set at approximately $1.4 billion in June, more than $98 million lower than the previous year’s budget.
“We clearly had to make some difficult decisions because of the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, but this budget demonstrates OCTA’s ongoing commitment to improving the lives of residents through transportation,” said OCTA Chairman Steve Jones, also the mayor of Garden Grove, in a statement at the time.