Metro Mobility will stop providing free rides to people working in Twin Cities-area health care facilities starting March 1, citing a need for space for paying customers who are returning to the system.

The service saw its busiest week since the pandemic began between Jan. 31 and Feb. 6, with paying customers taking 23,916 trips, according to the Metropolitan Council, which provides the service.

Add in free rides for nurses, doctors, aides and anybody else who works in a hospital or clinic, plus a few hundred grocery deliveries, and Metro Mobility buses provided 33,837 rides that week, the council said.

Ridership was down 80% early in the pandemic, which freed up capacity to offer free rides to health care workers. But demand from regular riders — those who are certified to use Metro Mobility due to a disability or health condition — has been "slowly coming back," said the council's Nick Thompson. With rules that allow for only one passenger on a bus at a time due to COVID-19, that means running more buses to meet demand. Rides for health care workers were starting to pinch capacity, Thompson said.

About 2,900 health care workers collectively have taken about 228,670 free rides since they began in April 2020. Those workers will still be able to book trips on Metro Mobility, but starting March 1 they will have to pay the same fare as regular riders. Fares are $3.50 per ride, or $4.50 during rush hours.

"We feel we can make this change now because all health care workers have been provided access to the vaccine and by March should be through their second dose," Thompson said. "It is a good time to make a change for those workers and encourage them to look at fixed route options available to them."

Thompson said health care workers are being told about the change when scheduling rides. They also will be alerted if the Metropolitan Council decides to stop giving fare rides to the workers.

An intro to shared car service

HOURCAR is a homegrown shared car service with hubs in Minneapolis and St. Paul neighborhoods. But there are a lot of people who apparently don't know about it.

The transit advocacy group East Metro Strong is out to change that. Last week, the nonprofit launched an outreach campaign consisting of advertisements on Metro Transit buses and in bus and light-rail train shelters. It also includes a social media blitz and mailings.

East Metro Strong conducted focus groups in the Hamline-Midway and Powderhorn Park neighborhoods in November to learn how COVID-19 affected people traveling to jobs, appointments and to see family members.

Some said their bus didn't run as often due to schedule cutbacks. Others said they felt uncomfortable riding the bus or were unsure if they were taking an essential trip. Uber and Lyft were way too expensive, said East Metro Strong Executive Director William Schroeer.

"They were experiencing a lot of challenges," Schroeer said.

Schroeer said some focus group participants were contemplating buying a car, a big expense in an uncertain economy. Auto loans rose to $1.36 trillion in the third quarter of 2020, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. HOURCAR allows members to use a vehicle for a fee based on time.

"They said that sounded like a great idea but had never heard of it," Schroeer said. That's what led to the outreach, he said.

Tim Harlow at 612-673-7768.