DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - As everyone knows, driving in Downtown Los Angeles can be maddening.
If the gridlock doesn’t get you, pedestrians lollygagging through the crosswalks — sometimes even after the countdown clock has begun — will. Then there are freshly hung no-left-turn signs on a street you’ve turned left on for years, or the construction that these days is everywhere.
The constant headache gave Bunker Hill resident Michelle Thrower an idea: Start a shuttle business, Downtown Concierge, that is more like a cab service, but it’s free and the driver won’t take you the long way to get there. Customers call for a ride at a certain pick-up time within the company’s operating hours (9 a.m. to midnight Sunday through Thursday and 9 a.m. to 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday). Then, the bus will take them from wherever they are Downtown to wherever they want to go in the community, whether the Music Center, L.A. Live or someplace else.
“We had one guy last week that needed to go to Office Depot, so we took him,” Thrower said recently, adding that the passenger was part of a group staying at the Cecil Hotel for a work event at the Los Angeles Convention Center.
Thrower started Downtown Concierge 14 months ago. While the rides are free to individuals, clients such as housing complex Eighth and Hope and the restaurants McCormick & Schmick’s, Café Pinot and Water Grill pay a monthly fee. Though Thrower wouldn’t reveal the amount, she said it works out to about $2 per head.
Thrower, who despises driving so much that she swapped out her car for a golf cart, had been in the parking management business for 20 years, providing valet parking and parking services for concerts and events such as Coachella. She once had accounts all over Southern California and racked up as much as 58,000 miles a year on her car.
Thrower finally decided she “was over it,” so three years ago she sold her house in Northridge and eventually rented a spot at the Barker Block (last month she moved into the recently opened Emerson). She assembled a business plan and launched Downtown Concierge in September 2013.
Shuttle services aren’t new to Downtown. There have long been small buses that bring diners, for example, from Drago Centro or Chaya at City National Plaza to the Music Center, and back to the restaurant after a show. What makes Downtown Concierge different, Thrower said, is that in addition to contracting with bars or restaurants on familiar routes, her drivers can operate like a personal chauffeur, and will pick up and take a rider home or to a lot where his or her car is parked.
Other services are ride-share and may end up making 10 stops, she said. Thrower will take someone from their door to a restaurant and back, as long as a spot on the bus is available.
If Downtown Concierge sounds like a free Uber, Thrower said it is. When asked if she worries about people abusing the free ride system, she laughed, saying they are indeed giving a lot of “free rides,” but in the bigger picture, she believes that will lead to more paying clients, such as hotels.
For now, a full bus is a good bus, she said. Plus, Downtown Concierge only operates in a four-mile radius, so the drivers are not put out by lengthy trips. She encourages riders to tip the drivers.
Thrower estimates that 1,000 people a month ride one of the company’s two 20-person buses and 15-passenger van, and that the vast majority of people go to and from a restaurant. In most instances, shuttles pick up from designated spots about every 15 minutes. The most popular route is McCormick & Schmick’s to the Music Center, she said.
On a weekday evening last summer, McCormick & Schmick’s manager Tom Weifenbach stood outdoors near the front of the restaurant. He had made sure to communicate with the Downtown Concierge driver that guests were coming. He said Friday and Saturday nights are the busiest, with most riders heading to the theater. For the restaurant, it’s worth paying because reducing the stress of finding parking means happier customers, he said.
Magic hour light poured into the bus’ large windows. The driver, one of Thrower’s 25 employees (four are drivers), rode north on Hope Street, east on Fourth Street and headed south down Broadway toward the Orpheum Theatre for a screening of Footlight Parade, part of the Los Angeles Conservancy’s Last Remaining Seats series. When asked how many times she and her husband have taken the shuttle, passenger Kim Galloway quipped, “This year?” The La Cañada resident and her husband, James Galloway, an attorney who works on Flower Street, are frequent users of the service.
“They’re so accommodating, It’s just perfect,” Kim Galloway said, noting that they leave their car at McCormick & Schmick’s, pay once, and then get driven to and from the event. “It’s really nice getting dropped back off. I wouldn’t want to walk from Broadway back to here. It’s kind of far.”
Her friend Leila Rosenberger, who was wearing two-inch heels, added, “And you can drink, and then someone else drives.”
Café Pinot General Manager Steve Meyer called the service a “godsend.”
“It brings us additional business and the customers are happy because they can park here, get a ride to the show and be brought back without having to move their car,” he said.
Thrower said business is increasing and she plans to buy two additional buses. The irony is not lost on Thrower that she has made a living in the parking business and has ventured into a shuttle service, all while despising traffic.
Downtown Concierge is at (213) 896-9260 or conciergedtla.com. Shuttles run from 9 a.m. to midnight Sunday-Thursday and 9 a.m. to 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday
© Los Angeles Downtown News 2014