Westside-based Catchr app lets users hail shared rides from virtual bus stops
By Gary Walker
Twenty years ago, entrepreneur and avid tennis player Kyle Thomas could get from his home in Marina del Rey to the Westchester Park tennis courts in about seven minutes. After the first wave of Playa Vista development came online in 2003 — and with it about 6,000 new residents — his regular four-mile car trips down Lincoln Boulevard started taking more like 25 minutes.
Instead of simply tolerating or complaining about the daily pains of Westside traffic congestion, Thomas decided to do something about it: Two years ago, he launched a new ridesharing app.
Thomas is co-founder of Catchr, an on-demand shared transportation network that operates primarily on the Westside and utilizes a fleet of passenger vans to transport multiple users to different local destinations on one trip.
“We’re the space in-between Uber, Lyft and taxi companies,” Thomas said. “What’s different about our on-demand and micro transit system is you can choose your own route from a smartphone.”
Like other ridesharing services, Catchr users activate the app on their smartphones to summon a ride when and where they need it. The app guides users to a “virtual bus stop,” where a white van with orange striping picks them up and takes them to their destination of choice. Artificial intelligence that garners data on traffic, construction and passenger habits or needs determines the most efficient route for each trip.
At present, Catchr vans operate between 6 a.m. and 2 a.m. daily and mostly travel within Marina del Rey, Venice, Santa Monica, Playa del Rey and Playa Vista.
“We’re essentially a Silicon Beach operation,” said Thomas, previously a vice president for the defunct telecom and data equipment manufacturer Nortel Networks.
In his words, Catchr operates “more like a carpool” that can pick up and deliver large numbers of passengers — up to 15 at a time per van — to various short-trip destinations, like from their home or office to the nearest light rail station.
Passengers can bring luggage, but Catchr does not service LAX.
Individual fares are set according to departure location and destination. Thomas declined to specify the fee structure, but said “price points are compatible to Lyft and Uber.”
Thomas hopes to eventually license his app to municipal and county transportation agencies such as Metro, the Big Blue Bus in Santa Monica, and Culver City Bus in Culver City. On Catchr’s website, the company describes itself as a fast and affordable option for commuters to reach light rail or bus stations beyond a convenient walking distance.
“It is exciting that local entrepreneurs are looking for innovative and affordable solutions to Los Angeles County’s transportation challenges,” said L.A. County Supervisor Janice Hahn, whose district includes Marina del Rey and Playa del Rey.
But professor Saba Waheed, research director for the UCLA Labor Center, has studied sharing economy businesses and how they impact communities and their workers — and she’s not completely sold on Catchr.
“If they plan to license their app so that transportation agencies can integrate it into their systems to improve their service, then that’s one thing,” Waheed said. “But if they’re doing it to create a parallel transportation network to compete with an existing infrastructure, that’s different.”
Westchester resident and vocal public transportation advocate Matthew Hetz had many questions about how Catchr operates.
“Are the drivers fully licensed? Bonded? Insured? In a crowded van, who gets dropped off first: the passenger waiting the longest, or the one closest to their destination? Or the one who pays the most money? How would it be determined?” Hetz asked.
Waheed noted the problems that Uber has had with drivers who had not been properly screened and how car-sharing services use independent contractors and not full-time employees, depriving workers of employee benefits.
“I would be curious to know how they plan to deal with these employees. It’s seems like it’s operating a lot like a bus,” she said. “I’ll say about Catchr what I’ve said about Uber: If it looks like a bus and it acts like a bus, then it’s a bus — and who’s regulating it?”
Thomas said Catchr drivers work as independent contractors, but they are licensed and insured. He acknowledged that Catchr isn’t necessarily reinventing the wheel, but touted one big difference between his company and other startups with similar service-delivery models.
“A lot of companies say they are on-demand, but they’re still working on making them operational. Our app is already functional,” he said.
Thomas said he hopes anyone traveling through Silicon Beach will keep Catchr’s tagline in mind: “Always going your way.”
Visit catchr.co to contact the company, or download the app for free on Apple or Android phones.