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INNOVATIVE RURAL TRANSIT SERVICES SUMMARY Rural public transit systems and rural intercity bus service face a wide variety of challenges on a daily basis. Complicating this is the unique nature of rural transit--each system has its own dynamics related to geography, quality of service, political issues, service design, cost, and a host of other factors. The unique nature of most rural transit systems requires management to adapt to their specific needs, making innovation important to rural transit. Rural transit agencies need to change and innovate in order to improve and meet the increasing demands for their service, as their service area often undergoes significant changes. The old saying "necessity is the mother of invention" is more than evident in rural transit. Some transit agencies are not able to make such changes, yet others thrive in this environment, even in a poor economy. The synthesis tells us that the successful systems have certain characteristics related to their willingness and ability to change as needed to improve, innovate, and try something new; the ability to change in itself is innovative. Considerable thought went into how innovations would be defined and categorized for rural transit. Building on earlier TCRP reports, the synthesis defines innovation as change for a useful purpose, including · New, different, and unique techniques, practices, or approaches (changes that improve a part of the organization); · Techniques, practices, or approaches that are newly applied to a rural transit setting, but not necessarily unique; and · Modification of a practice that has been previously implemented, but with a nuance or twist that makes it different or innovative (TCRP Report 70 ). TCRP is conducting this synthesis to focus on transit's response (including rural inter- city bus service) to the changing rural community transportation needs. The synthesis reviews the state-of-the-practice, broadly defined for the report as rural transportation service innovations, with a compilation of possible innovations that have been considered and implemented by rural transit agencies with a focus on innovations in the following six categories: 1. Innovative agency characteristics; 2. Service responses to changing demographics; 3. Involvement in the transportation planning process; 4. Alternative service modes; 5. Outreach, education, and training; and 6. Leveraging funding opportunities.
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2 The literature review was undertaken to compile the latest literature on the subject and to assist in identifying potential innovations and innovators. The focus was on both literature directly related to transit innovation and other rural transit literature which, in some cases, contained examples of innovative approaches to rural transit. Overall, few publications are directly related to rural transit innovation. The two major publications were developed for TCRP (TCRP Report 70: Guidebook for Change and Inno- vation at Rural and Small Urban Transit Systems and TCRP Report 99: Embracing Change in a Changing World--Case Studies Applying New Paradigms for Rural and Small Urban Transit Service Delivery). These reports include case studies that examined innovative sys- tems as well as more than 40 innovations. Other TCRP reports and syntheses were reviewed as well. A survey of state departments of transportation, state and national associations, as well as transit systems was conducted for the purpose of discovering additional innovations at the local level. There was an 82% response rate to the surveys. In addition, other organizations were contacted for information on innovations. Although these organizations did not point to specific innovations, they were helpful in directing the synthesis team to innovative operators. The survey responses revealed many successful practices for rural transit, but few true innovations using the synthesis's definition of innovation. Most innovators do not realize that what they are doing is innovative; responses such as "we just thought that was common sense" or "I thought it was the logical thing to do" were frequent. Many of the respondents did not consider that their practices might be innovative. This response was similar to the consultant's experience when conducting TCRP Report 70. TCRP Report 70 was the initial report that addressed innovation in rural transit. The study focused on the ingredients necessary for innovation and compared innovation in rural transit with innovation in other fields. It also compiled a detailed review of more than 40 innovations in a wide range of areas. This report is the baseline for this synthesis and is detailed in the literature review. The compilation of innovations was a difficult process as there is often a fine line between innovative and successful practice. Many of the "innovations" identified through the survey process may be over that line. For the most part, we have not included those responses that are simply examples of good or successful practice, including such practices related to pro- curing smart bus technology, initiating a new route in a rural area, bus wraps, or coordinat- ing service between a city and a county. The compilation of innovative practices consists of those innovations discovered in the survey process, through professional contacts, and, in some cases, through the literature. Care was taken not to repeat the innovations from TCRP Report 70. Case studies for the synthesis were selected based on a review of the innovations identi- fied in the study effort, the literature search, suggestions from the Panel, discussions with other transit professionals, and the consultant's knowledge of the subject. Five agencies were selected for the case studies, which provided a range of rural transit services from around the country (this in no way is meant to diminish the many other innovative transit systems). These included large and small systems as well as FTA Section 5311(f)-funded intercity services. The case studies were conducted through telephone interviews. Each case study includes background information about the agency and its accomplish- ments, which is followed by an assessment of their "innovative/entrepreneurial spirit" and "culture of innovation." This assessment builds on previous TCRP research on innovation.
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3 In conclusion, it was found that the innovative spirit is alive and well in rural transit. In the 10 years since TCRP Report 70 was published, transit agencies continue to innovate and change. Review efforts for this synthesis suggest that many rural transit managers have adopted an innovative/entrepreneurial spirit, motivated at times by limited resources and changing demographics in their service areas. Successful rural systems are capable and ready to change and innovate as needed. The need to innovate has not changed and the motivation remains. Perhaps more important than determining whether a rural transit agency has imple- mented an innovation or borrowed a creative idea from another transit agency is the ability to make change happen. Changing demographics, technology, and economic factors play a major and continuing role in shaping rural transit systems. The real innovation is in the change and reinvention of the organization to meet these changing dynamics. The synthesis placed an emphasis on innovative and/or entrepreneurial spirit: the culture of innovation and an organization's ability to reinvent itself. Once the organization reinvents itself, innovation and change can occur as needed. It may be in the culture of change and innovation where future study in the area of innovation might take place, that is, a focus on the innovator and the conditions required for innovation rather than on successful innovative practices. At the same time, there is considerable value to a new successful practices guide to highlight operational and service design issues. Areas such as coordination and technol- ogy, although important, have been studied extensively through previous TCRP and other research. An emphasis on operations and, most important, route design (other than expensive paratransit) would have a beneficial impact on the rural transit community.
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