Flexible transportation services

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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.

The structure of flexible public transportation is dependent on the characteristics of the area served, varying between rural, small urban, and large urban regions. 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 [1].

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 [2].

Defining Flexible Public Transportation Service

Core Strategies

There are six different approaches to flexible public transportation services, ranging in nature from nearly fixed-route to nearly demand-responsive.

  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.
  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.
  3. Demand-Responsive Connector: service operates entirely by demand-response, but includes scheduled transfer points connecting with a fixed route.
  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.
  6. Zone Route: a primarily demand-response service that has set departure and arrival times at its end points.

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.


  1. "'Hopper' Deviated Fixed-Route Service". Presentation at APTA Bus & Paratransit Conference. 2012.
  2. Transit Cooperative Research Program. "A Guide for Planning and Operating Flexible Public Transportation Services." 2010.