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40 CHAPTER SEVEN CONCLUSIONS Flexible transit services are being used by transit systems of all sizes and in all types of service areas throughout North America. Transit agencies operate flexible services to (1) provide cost-effective coverage to spread-out, low- density areas; (2) serve low-demand time periods; (3) bal- ance customer access and routing effectiveness; (4) reduce or eliminate the expense of separate paratransit for people with disabilities; (5) lay the groundwork for future fixed- route transit; and (6) respond to community preferences and geography. â¢ The role of flexible serviceâIn order of frequency from most common to least common, the applica- tions for flexible services are 1. Provide service in limited areas that are consid- ered hard to serve for reasons of demographics, street layout, or community preferences. 2. Provide service in low-demand time periods. In cities with substantial fixed-route service, flexible operation typically substitutes for fixed-route op- eration in limited areas. In some cities with more limited fixed-route service, flexible operation re- places the entire fixed-route network at certain times. 3. Provide the entire transit service for a small city, low-density suburban area, or rural area. In these cases, coordination or consolidation with paratran- sit service is a key feature of the flexible service. â¢ Unique service designsâEach flexible service is unique. There is as yet little standard practice that operators can turn to in designing flexible services. In response to local circumstances, each operator cre- ates its own variations with respect to the degree of flexibility and fixed operation as reflected in the geo- graphic extent of deviations that are possible, ad- vance-notice requirements for demand-responsive service, numbers and layout of stops where sponta- neous boardings and alightings are possible, and use of established locations for demand-responsive pick- ups or drop-offs. â¢ Balancing efficiency and flexibilityâOperatorsâ ex- periences indicate the importance of finding the right balance between fixed-route operation and demand- responsive operation in each situation. Traditional fixed-route service provides efficiency in the sense of serving concentrations of passengers with a mini- mum of resources and establishing efficient sched- ules based on the relative predictability of vehicle travel times on a fixed alignment. It provides conven- ience in the sense of offering passengers predictable service that can be used spontaneously, without the need to make prior arrangements. On the other hand, demand-responsive operation provides what might be called âcoverage efficiency.â This is the ability to serve dispersed origins and destinations at reasonable cost, especially in low-demand situations, without unnecessary detours to stops where there may or may not be a demand for service on a given trip. Demand- responsive operation offers convenience in the form of the reduced need for riders to walk to bus stops and wait for a vehicle, especially where walking is dangerous owing to a lack of sidewalks, in cold weather, or at night. â¢ Efficiency strategiesâOperators have developed strategies to reduce the inefficiency of demand- responsive operation. These strategies include nego- tiating convenient meeting points for pick-ups and using established stop locations for drop-offs. Con- venient meeting points, as at the Potomac and Rap- pahannock Transportation Commission, appear to improve the efficiency of vehicle routing. Established stop locations, as in Winnipeg (Winnipeg Transit System), can make the routing problem simple enough to eliminate the need for a dispatching func- tion separate from drivers. The use of established stop locations, at least in the United States, is far less common than has been reported for flexible services in other countries. A review of flexible services con- ducted by the Winnipeg Transit System in 1996 found several Canadian systems that use established stops to organize demand. â¢ Limited or discretionary flexibilityâThe operation of many flexible services uses limited or discretionary flexibility in the way that dispatchers or drivers ac- commodate demand-responsive service requests. In addition to the use of established stops, examples in- clude limiting the number of off-route requests ac- cepted per vehicle trip, accepting last-minute requests (including those made at the time of boarding) but only on a space-available basis, and reserving the right to pick up or drop off passengers several blocks from their actual origins or destinations. â¢ Advance-notice requirementsâAlthough many flexi- ble services require previous-day reservations for demand-responsive pick-ups or drop-offs, the experi- ence of other systems shows that much shorter ad-
41 vance-notice requirements are possible, with or with- out the use of advanced technology. Nine of the 28 flexible services surveyed accept demand-responsive service requests with less than 1 h of advance notice. Such short advance-notice requirements greatly in- crease the convenience of flexible service for passen- gers. â¢ FaresâFare surcharges for off-route service may be useful as a way to encourage riders to board and alight at established stops. Fare surcharges are being used for eight of the flexible services surveyed. The transit agencies reported no difficulties in administer- ing these surcharges. â¢ Coordination with fixed-route networksâMost flexi- ble services serve limited portions of a large service area and provide connections with a regional net- work. As a result, scheduling needs to allow suffi- cient time to provide reliable transfers. In a system that has multiple flexible services connecting to a fixed-route network, ensuring reliable connections can be extremely difficult. â¢ Coordination with paratransitâMost flexible ser- vices are either coordinated or consolidated with paratransit services. Consolidation is a viable strategy only in large-area services, but coordination is widely used, most commonly in the form of joint dispatch- ing, vehicle sharing, and trip sharing. In the case of complete consolidation, flexible service successfully eliminates the expense of separate paratransit service. Coordinated dispatching and vehicle sharing offer operational efficiency and convenience, because the necessary dispatching skills and appropriate vehicle types for paratransit and flexible service are similar. Trip sharing has the potential to reduce dependence on paratransit, although the actual cost savings from this strategy has not been determined. â¢ MarketingâSome operators have devoted extensive resources to promoting new flexible services, and they provide detailed public information materials explaining how to use flexible features. Others rely mainly on word of mouth and communication be- tween drivers and passengers. The fluid and discre- tionary nature of many flexible services often makes it hard to provide succinct yet accurate descriptions of services. â¢ Ridership and productivityâIn hard-to-serve areas, flexible services typically have relatively low rider- ship and productivity levels compared with those of fixed-route service, generally in the range of 2 to 7 boardings per vehicle revenue hour. Such numbers appear to reflect the inherent difficulty of serving these areas, or inherent limitations of demand owing to low density or demographics, that is, more than re- flecting inefficiency in the service method. Few sys- tems have minimum standards for performance of flexible service. However, if ridership were to climb significantly above current levels, many systems would take it as an indication that the area could be better served with conventional fixed-route service. Several transit agencies that employ flexible opera- tion for their entire transit service have much higher than average ridership and productivity, in the range of 14 to 20 passengers per vehicle revenue hour. In these cases, it is possible that deviations limit rider- ship and productivity. However, the cost advantage of combining service to the general public and people with disabilities is an overriding concern for these agencies. â¢ Allocation of scheduled timeâFlexible operation re- quires a fixed schedule that specifies when vehicles will be at time points, but one that also leaves time for responding to demand-responsive service re- quests. The amount of time allocated for demand- responsive operation varies according to service type and agency objectives, from zero to all the time, ex- clusive of layover at a transfer point. Many agencies have no clear allocation of scheduled time at all. The allocation of scheduled time could be an area where many agencies would benefit from additional guid- ance. â¢ Demand-responsive scheduling and dispatchingâ Depending on the importance of deviations in service design, demand levels, and operating environment, pro- visions for demand-responsive scheduling and dispatch- ing range from the simplest arrangement of leaving those provisions entirely to drivers to much more elabo- rate arrangements with centralized scheduling using specialized software. In some cases, the use of central- ized dispatching and software appears to reflect that these resources are available from a paratransit opera- tion. Although some systems have plans for digital communications with automatic vehicle location, only two transit systems surveyed were currently making any use of such tools for demand-responsive dispatching in their existing flexible service operations. This holds true even in transit systems that have these tools installed in their fleets for routine supervisory control. At least in the case of demand-responsive connector services, the experiences of some systems indicate that it is possible to design a service so that drivers can sched- ule efficiently on their own, even at relatively high ridership levels. â¢ Cellular telephonesâCellular telephones are used for communicating demand-responsive service requests in many systems for several reasons, including con- siderations of privacy, limited radio range, and the ability to route calls directly from passengers to driv- ers. None of the agencies indicated any problems from the distraction of talking on a cell phone or driversâ making inappropriate personal use of the phones. This may be an area where further investiga- tion would be useful.
42 â¢ Staff selection and trainingâTo operate flexible ser- vice, drivers need to have a thorough knowledge of the area in which they must provide demand-respon- sive service or in some cases specific stops that are served on a demand-responsive basis. In addition, they need to be well versed in whatever procedures apply to scheduling and dispatching of demand- responsive trips. Operators reported no problems with driver assignments using conventional bidding by seniority. However, it is important that drivers un- derstand the degree of independent decision making and passenger communication involved in flexible operation, so that they can assess whether it is some- thing they want to do. The research provided little evidence about specific training requirements for flexible service dispatchers. Staff selection and train- ing appear to be an area in which additional research and guidance could be useful. â¢ ContractingâMost flexible service is operated by contractors, usually because all of a transit agencyâs service is contracted or because flexible service is operated by a contractor that does other work, espe- cially paratransit. No examples were found of transit agencies that contract only for flexible service. â¢ VehiclesâChoice of vehicle is commonly based on availability as a result of vehicles being used for other services, maneuverability on narrow streets, passenger loads, community perceptions and accept- ability, and the possibility of operation by drivers without a commercial driverâs license. The result is that most flexible services use some type of van or small body-on-chassis bus. Many operators would prefer to operate some other vehicle type than the one being used. Problems mentioned with existing vehi- cles included that they are too large or too small, lack amenities, and are not sufficiently durable. â¢ Barriers and opportunitiesâThe primary barrier to implementing flexible services where transit agency staff feel they would be appropriate is a lack of fund- ing. In some cases, transit agencies have replaced flexible services with fixed-route services. These are situations where staff has determined that flexible operation is less attractive to riders than fixed-route service in particular service areas. However, interest in adding or expanding flexible service remains strong. Fourteen of the surveyed transit systems re- ported that they see future opportunities to implement new flexible services or expand existing ones. â¢ Suggestions for further studyâBecause there are no established planning or design guidelines available to help transit planners, creating flexible services cur- rently requires a willingness to experiment. Providing such guidelines may be useful to speed adoption of flexible services where they would be appropriate. Such guidelines might specify the following: â Useful data to collect, plan, and design flexible service; â Types of flexible service that are appropriate for various land use and demand patterns; â Procedures for scheduling, including appropriate amounts of slack time to allow for demand-respon- sive operation; â Operating procedures, vehicles, and technologies that are appropriate for various service types, levels of service, and institutional settings; â Appropriate training for dispatchers and drivers; and â Considerations for performance monitoring and evaluation. Several transit systems mentioned using cell phones for communicating some or all demand-responsive service re- quests. Considering safety concerns about the use of cell phones while driving, it would be useful to know more about effective procedures for using cell phones and under what circumstances their use is advisable or necessary.