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15 CHAPTER FOUR PLANNING AND MARKETING The design of a flexible service follows from its intended role in a transit systemâs overall service plan, the circum- stances that led to its introduction, and the objectives it is intended to serve. These factors are also connected to the way the transit system markets the service. In this context, marketing may mean promotion, as well as explaining the service and the image that is presented to riders and the community. In the ongoing planning process, operators monitor flexible service performance and review whether it continues to be the most appropriate service for an area. ROLE OF FLEXIBLE SERVICE Four different roles for flexible service have been identi- fied, which are discussed in sequence. Examples are pro- vided, illustrating the circumstances that led to introducing flexible service for each role. Table 7 provides a summary of the service types used in each role. Primary Service in a Large Area Five transit systems have adopted route deviation as their method of operation for the entire transit system. These are rural and small urban systems and one low-density suburban system that use deviations as a way of increas- ing coverage and serving passengers with disabilities with the same vehicles that serve the general public. In- cluded are four systems that have no separate paratransit service or that feature unified paratransit and general pub- lic operation. â¢ Mason County Transit in Washington State initiated flexible operation as a result of limited operating reve- nue and a large, rural service area with a very dispersed population. The agency believes that flexible service addresses the needs of people with limited mobility and enables them to be integrated into the overall service. â¢ OTA in Iowa has a high proportion of elderly riders. The authority began to deviate its fixed routes to meet their needs and to help keep them independent, rather than their relying on ADA paratransit, as long as possible. OTA does have separate paratransit ser- vice. â¢ PRTC in Virginia used the route deviation method to enable it to create a new local transit system in a rap- idly growing suburban area. Route deviation allowed the agency to provide service to all residents in a low- density area and to provide one service for all riders. â¢ Ride Solution in Florida was already operating coor- dinated demand-responsive transportation for human services agencies in a rural area, and it converted that system to a route deviation method of operating to accommodate the general public. Doing so let the system establish a public bus service in an area that would not otherwise have been able to support one. â¢ St. Joseph Transit in Missouri implemented flexible service following the passage of a transit tax, which included the caveat that all passengers would be treated the same. Initially, the city experimented with a method described as point deviation, in which de- mand-responsive vehicles pulsed at a downtown trans- fer point. The present route deviation service was im- plemented so that passengers could ride spontaneously. TABLE 7 S ERVICE ROLES AND SERVICE TYPES Service Type Role Demand- Responsive Connector Flexible-Route Segments Point Deviation Request Stops Route Deviation Zone Route Grand Total Primary service in a large area 5 5 Primary service in limited hard-to- serve area 4 1 3 3 6 1 18 Service at low-demand times in a large area 2 1 3 Service at low-demand times in a limited area 2 1 1 4 Total 8 2 4 4 11 1 30 Notes: Several transit systems have services that play different roles in different areas or at different times. As a result, the number of entries is larger than the number of services reported in earlier tables.
16 Primary Service in Limited Hard-to-Serve Areas By far the most commonly reported use of flexible service is for limited hard-to-serve areas where the flexible service is the only transit service offered. Most of these services have operating hours typical of the transit agencyâs other local routes. Although the entire range of flexible service types is represented, most provide local service in neighborhoods and connect to a regional transit network. The motivations for using flexible service in these neighborhoods vary considerably, as illustrated by the fol- lowing cases: â¢ Napa County Transportation Planning Agency in California operates route deviation services within two small towns in rural portions of its elongated service area, connecting to a regional trunk route. The choice of service method is dictated by the pref- erences of the individual communities. â¢ Capital Area Transit in Raleigh, North Carolina, implemented demand-responsive connector services when the city council adopted a policy to serve 90% of the cityâs residents. It was determined that several recently developed suburban areas were difficult to serve with fixed-route service and were provided de- mand-responsive connector service instead. Over time, all but one of the demand-responsive connectors has been replaced with local fixed-route connectors. â¢ MVTA in Minnesota implemented route deviation services in two portions of its low-density suburban transit authority to establish basic access and connec- tions to express routes. MVTA chose route deviation because it would be faster than a route that served every location regardless of demand, and it allowed coverage of low-demand areas. â¢ The San Diego MTS has used route deviation opera- tion as a replacement for general public demand- responsive services that had poor productivity. The flexible routes serve many more people than did the previous services, maintain some of the coverage of the former service, and provide a transition to even- tual fixed-route service. In two cases, flexible service is the only service to an area, but is limited to peak periods. For example, Portland Tri-Metâs Cedar Mill Shuttle operates in a neighborhood where conventional transit is not feasible owing to hills, narrow and curving streets, and the lack of sidewalks. However, the neighborhood is close enough to a transit center with bus and light-rail service and limited parking that it makes sense for Tri-Met to provide a frequent peak- period connection. Most of the request stop services provide the only avail- able service to the limited off-route location where stops can be requested. These locations are hard to serve in the sense that they would require out-of-direction travel, but do not generate enough demand to justify the extra travel time on every trip. Service in Low-Demand Times in a Large Area Three transit systems provide nighttime flexible service that replaces fixed-route service in much of the service area. Doing so allows them to maintain service later at night than would be economical with the fixed-route net- work while providing good coverage. Some of these ser- vices also operate during early morning and weekend time periods. For example, in addition to the daytime connector service as described previously, Capital Area Transit oper- ates demand-responsive connector service from 7:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. and from 4:30 a.m. to 5:30 a.m. At these times, the fixed-route network is pared down to a handful of routes, while several demand-responsive connectors maintain good coverage to neighborhoods (Figure 3). Service at Low-Demand Times in a Limited Area Four transit systems have flexible services that are further limited to specific time periods in specific areas, for example: â¢ LTD in Eugene, Oregon, helped two economically depressed rural communities beyond its district boundaries to design and contract for a service that would connect them to the urban area for essential services. To make the service more attractive and enable it to serve a wider segment of the community, it was de- signed to allow for demand-responsive drop-offs in the urban area on the midday trip only, but not on the two trips at commute times. At the same time, as riders arrange for the demand-responsive drop-offs, they can arrange for pick-ups for their return trips. â¢ Winnipeg Transit System in Manitoba, Canada, pro- vides a high level of transit service until late at night in most of the city of Winnipeg. In certain parts of the city, especially in more recently developed areas, demand has not grown enough to support fixed-route transit service at nonpeak times. Therefore, to serve residents at these times, the city developed demand- responsive connectors that operate during various nighttime, weekend, and midday time periods. Be- cause DART operates only at nonpeak times it can use available vehicles that are not needed on other routes. Motivations for Flexible Service The examples given show motivations for operating flexi- ble service including the following:
17 FIGURE 3 Evening demand-responsive connector service in Raleigh, North Carolina. â¢ Provide coverage to a spread-out, low-density areaâ Many operators have policy mandates and commu- nity priorities to cover as much of their service area as possible. Flexible service offers a way to provide such coverage in low-demand areas with dispersed origins and destinations at a reasonable cost. â¢ Serve low-demand timesâFlexible service can make it possible to provide service at times when fixed- route service would not be efficient owing to low- demand levels, including nights, early mornings, at midday, and on weekends. â¢ Balance customer access and routing effectivenessâ Given a transit systemsâ desire to serve as many points of interest as possible in a spread-out area, flexible service is seen as more effective than operat- ing a fixed route that attempts to connect all potential points of interest regardless of actual demand. â¢ Reduce or eliminate the expense of separate paratran- sit service for people with disabilitiesâWhere flexi- ble service covers a large area, it can eliminate legal obligations under the ADA for complementary para- transit service, or at least reduce dependence on that separate service. In some settings, the cost savings from providing combined service for people with disabilities and the general public can be crucial in making transit service economically viable. â¢ Lay the groundwork for future fixed-route transitâ As neighborhoods develop, flexible service can pro- vide a transition between dial-a-ride or no service at all and conventional fixed-route transit service. Resi- dents may be able to avoid buying second and third cars, and they may be more likely to use conven- tional transit when it is implemented. As demand pat- terns become clearer through flexible operation, effi- cient routes can be designed. â¢ Respond to community preferences and geographyâ Narrow streets, curving streets, or a strong sense of a communityâs being distinct from the other parts of the transit system service can lead a community to request service that uses small vehicles. Furthermore,
18 a lack of sidewalks, a poorly connected street pattern, or severe weather may put a premium on service that does not require passengers to walk to fixed bus stops. MARKETING The marketing methods used to promote and explain flexi- ble services to the public are generally similar to those used for other local transit services. Information about flexible services is usually included along with other rider information in âbus booksâ and websites. The detail and sophistication of printed and on-line material are similar to that provided for other services. Other methods used include specially designed bro- chures, presentations at service organizations and commu- nity meetings, appearances at special events such as com- munity fairs, bus advertising, media releases, mailings, websites, information from drivers, and word of mouth. Public speaking engagements are often tailored to specific target groups such as seniorsâ organizations, schools, and homeowners associations. The use of the media depends on the availability of suitably targeted media. The types of media used include news articles, paid advertising in newspapers, and newspa- per inserts. Where the flexible service covers a large area, as in St. Joseph, Missouri, and Oklahoma City, general circulation newspapers have been used. In other cases, transit agencies are more likely to rely on community newspapers. Methods to distribute information to house- holds include targeted mailings, newspaper inserts, and utility bill inserts. A few systems do not feature the flexible aspects of their service in public information materials but rely pri- marily on drivers and word of mouth. For example, Akron Metro does not advertise the availability of route devia- tions at all, because schedules are not designed to accom- modate deviations. However, regular riders of the routes that provide deviations are aware of the deviations and can request them. In Ottumwa, Iowa, OTA drivers sug- gest deviations mainly to older riders. In that small town setting, formal advertising is apparently not necessary. Fur- thermore, the deviations are intended to reduce dependence on paratransit, so the transit system prefers targeted out- reach to the people who are the intended users of devia- tions. The printed materials used by many systems illustrate the challenges of explaining flexible operation to passen- gers. As illustrated in chapter three of this report, the poli- cies and methods of operation that define flexible services can be complicated. Conversations with staff and the in- formation provided for this synthesis often indicate minor variations or flexibility compared with the official policies described in pocket schedules or rider guides. Passengers who use the flexible features are in frequent contact with dispatchers and drivers who are required to explain the service policies and often need to make decisions on the fly. As a result, passengersâ understanding of how the sys- tem works will depend more on actual experience and what they hear from dispatchers and drivers rather than on printed or on-line service descriptions. In many cases, the printed materials are not clear on how far vehicles will de- viate, how close vehicles will be able to get to a passen- gerâs origin or destination, and how far ahead of time re- quests need to be made. This lack of clarity can reflect the dynamic and sometimes experimental nature of the service, plus the difficulty of providing a succinct and yet accurate explanation. PERFORMANCE MONITORING AND STANDARDS Reported Productivity For this analysis, passengers per vehicle revenue hour (VRH) is used as a measure of flexible service productivity and performance. Just as they do for other transit services, transit systems actually use a variety of measures for track- ing flexible service performance. Some of the measures re- ported included subsidy per passenger, boardings per reve- nue vehicle mile, and farebox recovery. Passengers per VRH is used here for two reasons. First, it is not affected by variations in cost structure among transit systems that may have resulted from regional variation in prices, use of contractors, or labor agreementsânone of which is neces- sarily connected to the concept of a flexible instead of tra- ditional service method. (Possible cost savings in flexible operation are discussed in chapter five.) Second, compared with measuring passengers per vehicle mile, measuring passengers per VRH recognizes that in a demand- responsive operation vehicle hours are more controllable than vehicle miles in operations planning. The average reported productivity of flexible services is 6.7 passengers per VRH. Figure 4 shows the productivity of the all the reported services classified by service type. Several route deviation services stand out as having higher than average productivity. Three of these, PRTC (14.3 pas- sengers per VRH), Mason County (18.2 passengers per VRH), and OTA (20.1 passengers per VRH), are systems that use route deviation for their entire transit service op- erations. The San Diego MTS, which carries 14.5 passen- gers per VRH on its flexible services, is the only system in this higher-productivity group that uses flexible service for hard-to-serve areas. In leaving out this group that stands apart from the rest of the reported services, more typical productivity was found to be in the range of 2 to 7 passen- gers per VRH.
19 FIGURE 4 Productivity of flexible services. Productivity appears to have some relationship to the degree of flexible operation. Figure 5 shows productivity and the percentage of ridership that involves a deviation; that is, a demand-responsive pick-up or drop-off, for 16 flexible services. The group of points plotted as having 100% deviations is demand-responsive connector services in which, by definition, every trip requires either a de- mand-responsive pick-up or a demand-responsive drop-off. All of the highest-productivity services have in common that a relatively small portion of their patronage involves a deviation. There are also a handful of services that report very low productivity despite a low percentage of devia- tion ridership. These are rural services that operate over very long distances. In leaving aside the rural services and the demand-responsive connector services, there appears to be some tendency for productivity to decline as the degree of demand-responsive operation increases. FIGURE 5 Productivity and percentage of deviations. This should not, however, be taken to imply that the de- gree of demand-responsive operation is necessarily a determining factor for productivity. Other factors, such the type of service area, demographics, coordination with other transit services, and operating methods will no doubt play an extremely important role in every case. In general, flexible services tend to have much lower productivity than fixed-route services at the same transit sys- tems. This does not necessarily indicate that fixed-route ser- vice would perform significantly better than flexible service in the same situations. As discussed earlier, flexible services most commonly operate in those portions of a transit sys- temâs service area that are considered difficult to serve. Performance Standards Very few transit systems appear to have standards that de- fine acceptable performance levels for flexible service. A number of the transit systems surveyed were not able to provide information about the performance of their flexible services separately from other services, because the two types of operations are too closely integrated to allow for convenient separation of performance measures. Twelve of the 24 transit systems reported that they do not have mini- mum required performance levels for flexible services. In some cases, the lack of a formal standard indicates a more flexible process for evaluating route performance. For ex- ample, one system reported that âFlex routes are evaluated for productivity along with other routes to ensure continu- ing relative productivity.â In other cases, flexible service is provided to fulfill a policy mandate for coverage or be- cause an area is judged to have critical needs even though demand is low. The few formal standards that were re- ported are listed in Table 8 along with the fixed-route stan- dards reported by the same transit systems. 0 5 10 15 20 25 P as se ng er s pe r V R H Route Deviation Point Deviation Feeder Request Stops Flexible- Route Segments 0 5 10 15 20 25 0% 20% 40% 60% 80% 100% Deviations as a Percentage of Ridership P ro du ct iv ity (P as se ng er s pe r R V H )
20 TABLE 8 STANDARDS FOR FLEXIBLE AND FIXED-ROUTE SERVICES Standard (passengers per VRH, except as noted) Transit System Flexible Standard Fixed-Route Standard Sarasota County Area Transit 8.8 for combined flexible and fixed route for one grant-funded service 12â16 Minnesota Valley (request stop) 8â9 10â11 Fort Worth $11â$13* $3.50* Minnesota Valley (route deviation) 5â6 10â11 Madison County (planned flex route) 3 6 *Subsidy per passenger. Maximum Thresholds for Flexible Operation As patronage increases, it is clear that at some point flexi- ble operation becomes questionable. Depending on the type of patronage and service, there would be no time available for deviations, only a fraction of demand- responsive demand could be accommodated, or vehicles would run chronically late. Five transit systems cited maximum ridership levels above which they would not consider flexible operation to be a viable alternative to traditional fixed-route operation. These data are shown in Table 9. The Winnipeg Transit System stands out as estimating a much higher threshold for flexible operation than other systems. This may reflect Winnipegâs use of defined stop locations for demand- responsive drop-offs. River Valley Metro Mass Transit District and MVTA, which have high proportions of demand-responsive ridership, estimated similar, lower thresholds. Not surprisingly, MVTA estimated a much higher threshold for its request stop service, which is predominantly fixed-route in character. Other transit systems provided more operational state- ments about maximum ridership thresholds. For example, the Fort Worth Transit Authority would look to convert to fixed-route operation when ridership patterns indicate a consistent number of boardings and alightings at identifi- able stops. In contrast, PRTC would probably increase fre- quency or bus size before converting to fixed-route opera- tion, because fixed-route operation would bring with it the need to provide ADA paratransit. BARRIERS AND OPPORTUNITIES Barriers to Implementation Approximately one-half of the transit systems reported some barrier that has prevented them from implementing flexible services where they appeared to be appropriate. The most significant barrier has been a lack of funding, which was mentioned by five transit systems as having been a past barrier. In other cases, funding limitations were part of the motivation for implementing flexible service because flexible service offers an ability to provide lifeline coverage at a lower cost than fixed-route service, and it can help a transit system to avoid the expense of separate para- transit service. Other barriers have included difficulty in defining how flexible service will be classified under a labor agreement, a union grievance concerning contracting out flexible ser- vice, and opposition by suburban jurisdictions to funding any kind of transit. Private property and access issues have been a problem at two systems. The Napa County Trans- portation Planning Agency has had to work with security and management to resolve conflicts with other vehicles on private property. In Mason County, private property issues have been a concern, as have access problems such as nar- row roads and overhanging branches. Flexible service is often proposed as a solution for areas with streets that are inappropriate for large buses. Even so, the Fort Worth Transit Authority has found that the street network in some areas makes it difficult to implement any kind of service. TABLE 9 MAXIMUM FEASIBLE RIDERSHIP ON FLEXIBLE SERVICES (passengers per VRH) Transit System Current Performance Standard Estimated Maximum Corpus Christi 2.0 None 10 Madison County (planned flex route) NA 3 8 Minnesota Valley (route deviation) 4.2 5â6 About 8 Minnesota Valley (request stop) 5.6 8â9 About 15 River Valley Transit District 3.1 None 7 Winnipeg 7.4 None 20 Notes: NA = not available.
21 Nine transit systems reported that they have discontin- ued flexible services or reduced the amount of flexible ser- vice provided. In some cases, these cuts stem from financial difficulties similar to those that have forced many transit sys- tems to cut overall service. Hampton Roads and Madison County Transit cut dial-a-ride zones that had very low rider- ship. The Fort Worth Transit Authority eliminated most of its Rider Request services because of low ridership. In Richmond, GRTC cut route deviation services to a suburban area when demonstration funding came to an end and the suburban jurisdiction was unwilling to continue funding. Capital Area Transit has converted most of its daytime demand-responsive connectors to fixed-route operation and is looking toward a service plan that will respond to passen- gersâ preference to avoid transfers. Operations staff found it extremely difficult to coordinate a large network of demand- responsive connectors with fixed-route services using essen- tially manual methods. An attempt to obtain the technology to improve coordination was unsuccessful. In most cases, the fixed-route connectors have attracted more ridership than the demand-responsive connectors they replaced. The Winnipeg Transit System reinstated fixed-route ser- vice in two areas where it had converted midday and Saturday service to DART operation. In each case, the coverage in- crease created by DART was not sufficient to compensate for the loss of convenience created by the need to reserve pick- ups. However, as noted before, Winnipeg continues to oper- ate DART in four areas and is planning more. Future Opportunities Fourteen of the responding transit systems reported that they see future opportunities to implement new flexible services or expand existing ones. The most definite plans are those of Madison County Transit, which will imple- ment three flex-route demonstrations in fiscal year 2003â 2004. These services, featuring 2-h advance reservations within defined zones, will replace existing fixed-route ser- vices with marginal productivity in smaller villages and low-density suburban areas. The services will be operated with vehicles that currently provide ADA paratransit. Three systems that use flexible operation for all their services would like to expand those services. Mason County Transit, which operates route deviation, request stop service, and one zone route, foresees opportunities to implement more zone routes. PRTC (Woodbridge, Vir- ginia) plans to add weekend service and expand its service area. Ride Solution (ARC Transit) hopes to expand the base of human service agencies to which it provides coor- dinated service, which would increase the coverage of its general public service. Other future opportunities include the following: â¢ Rural and low-density areas (Corpus Christi Regional Transportation Authority); â¢ Low-density suburbs and small towns (GRTC); â¢ More request stops to serve low-demand neighbor- hoods off main routes (Hampton Roads Transit); â¢ Rural demand-responsive connector routes (LTD); â¢ Serving low-density portions of a possible expanded service area (MVTA); â¢ Daytime service in low-density fringe areas (Central Oklahoma Transit and Parking Authority); â¢ Employer markets and low-productivity rural areas (Pierce Transit); â¢ Low-density areas (SCAT); â¢ Replacing more dial-a-rides with flexible routes (San Diego MTS); and â¢ DART in three or four more neighborhoods (Winni- peg Transit System). The barriers that transit agencies anticipate in imple- menting these flexible services are similar to those encoun- tered in the pastâprincipally funding. The San Diego MTS finds that in some suburban neighborhoods that are candidates for flex routes it is difficult to find suitable, convenient locations for ADA-compliant bus stops. Before expanding its flexible services, Pierce Transit needed to fine-tune its initial attempt at demand-responsive connec- tor service. The initial service, because it was operated as part of the paratransit service, encountered some difficul- ties in public acceptance. A new service, using dedicated vehicles without the paratransit image and with defined stop locations, has met with better acceptance and will be used as a model for other areas.