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4 Guidebook for Rural Demand-Response Transportation: Measuring, Assessing, and Improving Performance b. Typically, the vehicle may be dispatched to pick up several passengers at differ- ent pick-up points before taking them to their respective destinations and may even be interrupted en route to these destinations to pick up other passengers. However, DRT in rural areas is often more than just a fleet of smaller vehicles operating in response to calls from passengers or their agents. DRT may also provide scheduled service one day each week to and from a distant medical center on an advance reservation basis. DRT may serve outlying communities only on a twice or three times per week basis, with a morning trip into the larger town and a return trip in the afternoon each day of service. Frequently, DRT also provides service for clients of local human service agencies on a contract basis. Rural systems may carry more than passengers. DRT may transport meals to home-bound seniors as part of its transportation mission, and there is at least one rural system that carries bulk mail for the U.S. Postal Service in addition to passengers. (Such non-passenger transportation service is allowable for rural providers through the FTA's Section 5311 Program as long as such service does not reduce the availability of public transportation service.) DRT may be all of these services in rural communities; yet, the services share a common ele- ment of a trip reservation. That reservation may only be made once when an individual books the initial trip for subscription service, or the reservation may be made by a sponsoring human service agency for the rider. However, it is that reservation that makes DRT distinct from tradi- tional fixed-route, fixed-schedule service. What makes rural DRT distinct from urban DRT is the very broad range of DRT systems and services within the category of "rural." There are many permutations by sponsoring organiza- tion, by clientele served, by the range of services provided, by the funding sources used, and by the service areas within which rural systems operate. In terms of a sponsoring organization, for example, rural DRT is provided by political subdivisions, regional entities, transit districts, Councils of Governments (COGs), various single purpose and multi-purpose non-profit human service agencies, and Native American tribal organizations. In terms of service area, there are rural DRT systems that operate within more than 10,000 square miles, sometimes with rugged terrain and limited roadways and many characterized by different "micro-climates" given the large size and varying elevations that affect daily operations. Many systems serve not just their rural communities and counties, but travel long distances to large urban centers for medical trips, with such trips perhaps requiring an 8- to 10-hr day given the distances to be traveled and time required for riders' appointments. 2.2 The Rural Transit Environment Rural America composes 75% of the country's land area, but just 17% of the population (1). This translates to approximately 50 million people living in Census-defined rural areas. More than 70% of rural counties gained some population between 1990 and 2000, with most of this growth due to migration into rural areas. These trends varied across the country, however. Population gains were seen in those parts of the country with either mild climates, proximity to growing metropolitan areas, scenic landscapes, or two or three of these attributes--for example, the Pacific Northwest and Southern Highlands including western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee, among other parts of the country; there were no gains seen in the vast Great Plains (1).
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Rural DRT and Why Performance Matters 5 From the perspective of counties, 74% have less than 50,000 population and 24% have less than 10,000, with the Midwest and the South characterized as the most rural regions in the United States (2). The population growth that occurred was still below that of metropolitan areas. According to demo- graphic researchers, the limited gains in rural population and migration slowed by the late 1990s and this slowdown has con- tinued into the 2000s (1). The migration patterns, however, continue to "age" rural America, with rural areas gaining population in the over-age 50 groups. This is coupled with a general out-migration of young adults to urban areas, who are seeking social and economic advantages they see beyond their rural communities (3). With these trends, the rural population tends to be older and in the most rural counties, along with central urban areas, poorer, compared with urban areas. Rural poverty can be more difficult to address, with the physical and social isolation typical in rural settings. With fewer transporta- tion resources and the longer distances that must be traveled, it is more difficult for the rural poor to access the public services that are needed to help address poverty (1). Access to health care is also a critical need in rural areas, where the problem may be as basic as the availability of healthcare facilities and providers. Rural counties that lack an urban area have roughly one-fourth the number of doctors per 100,000 population as do urban counties, and small rural counties have just one-sixth as many medical specialists per 100,000 population as do the metropolitan areas. Moreover, access to the medical care that is available is made more difficult because of the distances involved (1). Rural transit operates within this environment, serving predominately those population groups who lack private transportation options. The mission of rural transit is often to provide, for those who depend on transit, the needed connections to medical services, grocery and retail stores, social services, employment, community college, and more. These services and facilities often require long trips and ongoing resources to sustain--resources that are often strained and stretched. It is a tall order. What We Know About Rural Transit Given the diversity of the country's rural areas, it is not surprising that rural transit and, specif- ically, rural DRT are often quite different from their urban counterparts. A recent survey effort by the National Rural Transit Assistance Program (RTAP) and the Community Transportation Association of America (CTAA) has identified more than 1,480 rural transit systems in the coun- try (4). With information provided by respondents to the survey, various characteristics of rural transit emerged. Almost half of the organizations providing rural transit are local governments such as cities and counties (49%); not quite one-third (31%) are non-profits; 11% are transit authorities; 7% are provided by "other" entities such as regional planning agencies and university transit systems; and a very small 1% are provided by Native American tribal organizations. The survey showed that many rural transit systems provide more than one type of transit ser- vice. The vast majority (89%) provide demand-response service. Somewhat less than one-third (31%) provide fixed-route service, and 18% provide route or point deviation services. More than two-thirds of the rural systems operate transit services directly, with their own staff. About 13% use a contractor, and 17% have a combination of directly operated and contracted
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6 Guidebook for Rural Demand-Response Transportation: Measuring, Assessing, and Improving Performance service. A small 1% indicated they are brokers, where the transit entity distributes trips to vari- ous service providers. Regarding their service area, the largest proportion (43%) is county-based, another almost one-forth (23%) serves multi-county areas, and one-fifth operates predominately in a single town or small city. About 9% operates in a multi-town area, which in some cases would be sim- ilar to a county-based service. In terms of their vehicle fleets, the largest proportion of rural transit agencies operate fleets of fewer than ten vehicles (43%), and about one-third (34%) have vehicle fleets of 10 to 25 vehicles. Another 11% have larger fleets of 26 to 50 vehicles, and 10% operate 51 to 100 vehicles. A small 2% have fleets larger than 100 vehicles. The survey findings estimate that there are more than 32,000 vehicles used for rural transit although it is acknowledged that this is likely overstated.1 In terms of staff, the survey data indicate that the average rural system has 25.5 employees (full-time employees[FTEs]). More than 90% of rural systems have fewer than 50 employees. Regarding finances, somewhat over half of the rural systems (57%) reported total annual oper- ating revenues of less than $500,000. What About Rural DRT? For a closer look at rural systems that operate demand-response only or demand-response in addition to route deviation and/or fixed-route, sample data from TCRP Project F-12 (published as TCRP Report 127), which focused on rural and small urban transit systems, can be reviewed.2 From the total survey respondent database for that study, data on rural systems that provide only demand-response service or demand-response in addition to fixed-route/route deviation can be extracted.3 Information from this dataset shows that rural DRT generally shares the characteristics found for all rural transit through the RTAP/CTAA survey referenced above, as would be expected since the large majority of rural transit systems operate some demand-response service. However, for some characteristics, the sampled TCRP data provide a more detailed look at rural DRT. Regarding service area, the TCRP survey data show that rural DRT systems are most frequently operated at the county level, with the next most frequent at the multi-county level, followed by the municipal level (see Table 2-1). This is similar to overall rural transit. The fleet size information also shows that rural DRT is quite similar to all rural transit. The average fleet size for rural DRT systems, based on the TCRP sample data, is 22.5; the average for overall rural transit systems, according to the RTAP/CTAA survey, is 21.9. The vast majority-- more than 75%--of rural DRT and of general rural transit systems have 25 or fewer vehicles in their fleet. In terms of type of organization, rural DRT services tend more frequently to be provided by non-profit agencies than is the case for all rural transit where government agencies are the most frequent provider. The TCRP survey data, which is more finely grained than that of the National RTAP/CTAA data, show that the most common type of rural DRT provider is a private, non- 1 By comparison, the 2007 Rural NTD estimates the total rural transit fleet at about 18,500 vehicles; however, this is somewhat understated as not all rural systems are represented in the database. 2 TCRP Project F-12 was published in 2008 as TCRP Report 127: Employee Compensation Guidelines for Transit Providers in Rural and Small Urban Areas. The project was conducted by the KFH Group, Inc. 3 Of the TCRP F-12 study's total of 367 survey respondents, which represented 45 states, 200 are rural demand- response providers.