Flexible transportation services

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A HARTFlex Bus in Florida's Hillsborough County. Photo Courtesy of Center for Transportation Research at the University of South Florida.

Introduction

Flexible public transportation services is a general term describing a range of strategies typically utilized in local public bus transportation. It is commonly applied to services which incorporate elements of, but are not exclusively fixed-route or demand-responsive models. Compared to those standard models, in some cases flexible services may be more cost-effective, efficient, serve a more broad range of users, or some combination of each. Flexible services may be more common in rural or suburban areas than dense urban areas but examples are found even up to areas with a population of several million.

Example benefits include cost savings in small urban areas when serving persons with disabilities rather than a strictly demand-response service. First-time public transit users may be encouraged to use a flexible service in suburban communities to connect with regional options. Flexible services such as fixed-route deviation can improve reliability for customers who would otherwise be dependent on an exclusively demand-response system. Agencies may find that a flexible service is a more effective use of resources compared to traditional models <ref>"'Hopper' Deviated Fixed-Route Service". Presentation at APTA Bus & Paratransit Conference. 2012.</ref>.

Although flexible transportation services can be beneficial, like any service they can suffer from problems. Difficulties with scheduling around demand (difficult to keep time at high demand, for example), generating ridership, and confusion among consumers have been cited as reasons for discontinuing flexible services. In at least one instance, a flexible service was replaced by a fixed-route service when ridership increased enough to justify the change <ref> Transit Cooperative Research Program. "A Guide for Planning and Operating Flexible Public Transportation Services." 2010.</ref>.

Defining Flexible Public Transportation Service

Flexible public transportation services can be used in addition to an established service or as a replacement for one. Often a flexible model is used to gain efficiency over a more rigid service type. In some cases the flexible model can provide options for a wider base of users than fixed-route service. Flexible services typically carry only a few passengers per trip, generally more than demand-responsive systems but fewer than would typically be required to justify a fixed-route.

Agencies should be aware of certain trade-offs in using a flexible service in place of other, traditional types. Flexible services may be more expensive to operate per-trip than fixed-route, although savings can be realized when combining fixed-route and paratransit. Operators should recognize that flexible services tend to be more similar in approach, expense, and expectation to demand-response than fixed-route. The support of more robust technology for communications, scheduling, and dispatch may be required when compared to traditional models. This could increase the start-up cost of a flexible service over other types. Agencies should consider each strategy to establish which seems most appropriate to meet set goals.

Core Strategies

There are six different approaches to flexible public transportation services, ranging in nature from nearly fixed-route to nearly demand-responsive. The structure of flexible public transportation is dependent on the characteristics of the area served, varying between rural, small urban, and large urban regions.

  1. Route Deviation: a defined path and schedule is used to define a service area, but the vehicle(s) may serve requests for pick-up or drop-off within a specified zone around the path. The deviation-zone may or may not be strictly bounded. According to a survey of service operators, the deviation is commonly between one-half and three-quarters of a mile from the route. Three-quarters of a mile from is the distance mandated by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) for paratransit service complementing a fixed-route service. This service type is most effective in areas with enough density to support a predictable route and schedule but could benefit from the flexibility of serving origins and destinations that are otherwise off-route.
  2. Point Deviation: service is provided within a defined zone with a set of specific stops, but the path between the stops is unspecified and the vehicle will serve locations within the zone on request. Point Deviation can be most effective in an area with specific trip destinations but dispersed origins, or vice-versa.
  3. Demand-Responsive Connector: service operates entirely by demand-response, but includes scheduled transfer points connecting with a fixed route. The Connector is an effective option when there are scattered origins but a common destination once connected with the fixed-route system.
  4. Request Stops: a scheduled, fixed-route service in which certain stops are served only in response to passenger requests. Generally the vehicle must deviate off the fixed path to serve request stops. This is similar to route deviation, but limited only to specific stops instead of a range of unspecified locations within a zone.
  5. Flexible-Route Segments: a portion of an otherwise scheduled fixed-route is operated as demand-response. Assigning a segment of a fixed-route to flexible service can be beneficial in very low-density areas.
  6. Zone Route: a primarily demand-response service that has set departure and arrival times at its end points. The Zone Route is effective when there is not a defined corridor to travel, but specific a specific origin or destination exists within an area.


According to research undertaken by the Transit Cooperative Research Program (TCRP), route deviation is the most commonly operated flexible service type. This is followed by the use of request stops and the demand-responsive connector.

Common Characteristics

Most agencies charge the same fare on a flexible route as on the fixed or demand-responsive service. Some agencies charge a different fare for flex-service, more often higher than lower.

Agencies primarily provide special training for area-famliarization with regards to flexible services. Some agencies also use mobile data terminals or maps, which require additional skills training.

A core element of flexible public transportation services is a communication plan. A system may include how and when passengers communicate requests for service, whether requests can be negotiated, how drivers are dispatched, and whether other agencies participate in provision of service. A wide variety of options for requesting service are utilized, with some agencies requiring reservations while others allow nearly on-demand service. Dispatching requests to the driver is largely done through two-way radio, although some agencies use cell phones or mobile data terminals. Agencies may also employ automated vehicle location (AVL) as a tool for both operation and consumer information.

Examples of Flexible Service in California

  • Omnitrans, serving the San Bernardino Valley region, is cited as a participant in the study which supports TCRP Report 140 <ref> Transit Cooperative Research Program. "A Guide for Planning and Operating Flexible Public Transportation Services." 2010. Page 82.</ref>. Omnitrans utilizes both Zone Routes and a Demand-Responsive Connector under the brand OmniLink to make connections to its fixed-route system.
  • The San Joaquin Regional Transit District (RTD), serving California’s Central Valley provides the Hopper Service, which reallocated existing resources to create a deviated-fixed route. This combined both fixed-route and complementary paratransit services to enhance customer satisfaction and improve cost-effectiveness.

Examples of Flexible Service Around the Country

Additional examples of Flexible Transit Services include:<ref> Transit Cooperative Research Program. "Operational Experiences with Flexible Transit Services." 2004. Page 5.</ref>

System Principle City Flexible Service Name Brief Description of Flexible Services
Capital Area Transit (CAT) Raleigh, NC CAT Connector Demand-responsive connector service in zones replaces most fixed routes evenings, nights, early morning. One daytime zone.
Central Oklahoma Transit and Parking Authority (COTPA) Oklahoma City, OK METRO Link Point deviation replaces fixed route nights and Sundays. All-day point deviation service in an outlying area.
Corpus Christi Regional Transportation Authority Corpus Christi, TX Route 67 Bishop Driscoll Rural route into Corpus Christi with demand responsive

pick-up areas in two rural communities.

Decatur Public Transit System Decatur, IL Decatur Public Transit System Two on-call stops.
Fort Worth Transportation Authority (FWTA—The T) Fort Worth, TX Rider Request (mostly discontinued Oct. 2003) Two to three fixed stops at transfer points to the fixed route system, plus demand-responsive service in zones.
Greater Richmond Transit Company (GRTC) Richmond, VA Chesterfield LINK (discontinued July 2003) Route deviation service for the general public also acting as paratransit in one suburban area.
Hampton Roads Transit Hampton, VA HRT On Call On-demand route segments.
Lane Transit District (LTD) Eugene, OR Diamond Express Rural route into Eugene–Springfield provides midday curb-to-curb service in the urban area.
Madison County Transit Granite City, IL EZ Ride (added Aug. 2003) ADA subscription deviations. (Point deviation service added after completion of this research.)
Mason County Transit Shelton, WA None Stops marked in schedule as requiring a request. Demand-responsive service in a corridor. Rural route deviation with flexible, informal deviation area, coordinated with areawide dial-a-ride.
Metro Regional Transit Authority Akron, OH Night zones; Town Center Routes Late night service from downtown to regular bus stops in three or four zones. Route deviation service mainly for reverse commutes.
Metropolitan Transit System (MTS) San Diego, CA Flex Routes 961–964 Route deviation with narrow bands.
Minnesota Valley Transit Authority Burnsville, MN Flex Routes 420 and 421 Local route 440 Route deviation in zones approximately 1-mi wide. Eight reservation stops near the route.
Napa County Transportation Planning Agency (NCTPA) Napa, CA St. Helena and Yountville Shuttles Two route deviation services in small towns.
Ottumwa Transit Authority (OTA) Ottumwa, IA Ottumwa Transit Authority Entire transit system is fixed route with some deviations
Pierce Transit Tacoma, WA Key Loop (modified Sept. 2003), Orting Loop Rural demand-responsive connector operated by paratransit vehicles.
Potomac and Rappahannock Transportation Commission (PRTC) Woodbridge, VA OmniLink Entire local service is route deviation areawide service with bands around routes.
Ride Solution (ARC Transit) Palatka, FL Ride Solution Fixed-route general public service built on demand responsive consolidated human services transportation.
River Valley Metro Mass Transit District Kankakee, IL Bourbonnais Flex Three fixed stops in a demand responsive area in one of three communities served.
Sarasota County Area Transit (SCAT) Venice, FL SCAT About Demand-responsive connector service supplements a fixed route on Venice Island.
St. Joseph Transit St. Joseph, MO St. Joseph Transit Citywide routes with deviations through the city, also serving as paratransit.
Tillamook County Transportation District Tillamook, OR Deviated Fixed Route Rural routes with flag stops and an informal deviation area.
Tri-Met Portland, OR Cedar Mill Shuttle Peak-period demand-responsive connector to a transit center. Discontinued in 2009. <ref>TriMet Ordinance No. 306 April 2009</ref>
Winnipeg Transit System Winnipeg, Manitoba DART Suburban demand-responsive connectors in four areas with marked drop-off locations.

References

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