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OPERATIONAL EXPERIENCES WITH FLEXIBLE TRANSIT SERVICES SUMMARY In response to growth patterns, economic trends, and social changes that have not favored traditional forms of transit service, researchers and transit planners have proposed services that combine features of conventional, fixed-route service and purely demand-responsive ser- vice. This synthesis project was conducted to gather information about the experiences of transit operators using these flexible transit services. For purposes of this synthesis, âflexible transit servicesâ are considered to include all types of hybrid services that are not pure demand- responsive service (including dial-a-ride and Americans with Disabilities Act paratransit) or fixed-route service, but that fall somewhere in between these traditional service models. The primary source of information for the synthesis is a written survey that was sent to 81 transit systems. Completed responses were received from 24 transit systems that operate 28 flexible services. The survey responses were supplemented by follow-up interviews with transit agency staff and references to service descriptions available on transit agency web- sites. The synthesis analyzes six types of flexible transit service. In order of increasing flexibil- ity these are request stops, flexible-route segments, route deviation, point deviation, zone routes, and demand-responsive connector service. Flexible transit services are being used by more than 50 transit systems of all sizes and in all types of service areas throughout North America. According to the survey responses there are three applications for flexible services. In order of frequency, from most common to least common, they are discussed as follows: â¢ First, flexible services provide service in limited areas that are considered hard to serve for reasons of demographics, street layout, or community preferences. â¢ Second, they provide service in low-demand time periods. In cities with ample fixed- route service, flexible operation typically substitutes for fixed-route operation in lim- ited areas. In some cities with more limited fixed-route service, flexible operation re- places the entire fixed-route network at certain times. â¢ Third, they provide the entire transit service for a small city, low-density suburban area, or rural area. In these cases, coordination or consolidation with paratransit ser- vice is a key feature of the flexible service. The following are some of the key conclusions of the synthesis: â¢ Each flexible service is unique. There is as yet little standard practice that operators can turn to in designing flexible services. â¢ To balance efficiency and flexibility, operators strive to find the right balance between fixed-route operation and demand-responsive operation in each situation. â¢ Operators have developed strategies to reduce the inefficiency of demand-responsive operation in flexible services. In many cases, operators place limits on the degree of demand-responsive service that will be provided, or they give discretion to dispatchers or drivers in the way that they accommodate demand-responsive service requests.
2 â¢ Although many flexible services require previous-day reservations for demand- responsive pick-ups or drop-offs, the experiences of other systems shows that much shorter advance notice requirements are possible, with or without the use of ad- vanced technology. â¢ Fare surcharges for off-route service may be useful as a way to encourage riders to board and alight at established stops. â¢ Coordination with regional fixed-route networks and with paratransit service is an important component of most flexible service. â¢ Flexible service operated over an agencyâs entire service area successfully elimi- nates or reduces the expense of separate paratransit service. â¢ Trip sharing between flexible service and paratransit has the potential to reduce dependence on paratransit, although the actual cost savings from this strategy have not been determined. â¢ The fluid and discretionary nature of many flexible services makes it difficult to provide a succinct yet accurate service description in public information materials. â¢ In hard-to-serve areas, flexible services typically have relatively low ridership and productivity levels compared with that found in fixed-route service. This situation is not so much a reflection of inefficiency in the service method as a reflection of the inherent difficulty of serving these areas, or inherent limitations of demand owing to low density or demographics. â¢ If ridership on flexible services 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. â¢ When transit agencies employ flexible operation for their entire transit service, it may have higher ridership and productivity than when flexible service is limited to hard-to-serve areas. In these cases, compared with potential fixed-route service in the same area, it is possible that deviations limit ridership and productivity, and in- crease passenger travel times. It also appears that the cost advantage of combining service to the general public and people with disabilities is an overriding concern for these agencies. â¢ The amount of time allocated for demand-responsive operation in flexible service varies (according to service type and agency objectives) from zero to all time exclu- sive of layover at a transfer point. Many agencies have no clear allocation of sched- uled time at all. This appears to be an area where many agencies would benefit from additional guidance. â¢ Most flexible services are scheduled and dispatched without use of advanced technology. â¢ At most transit systems, drivers select flexible service assignments under a conven- tional bidding process, along with fixed-route assignments. Drivers do need some specific training to operate flexible service, which drivers bidding for this work may be required to complete. It is important that drivers understand the degree of independent decision making and passenger communication involved in flexible operation, so they can assess whether it is something they want to do. â¢ The research provided little evidence about specific training requirements for flexi- ble service dispatchers. As in the case of paratransit, this appears to be an area where additional research and guidance would be useful. â¢ Most flexible services use some type of van or small body-on-chassis bus, either because these vehicles were judged appropriate or because they happen to be avail- able. However, many operators would prefer to operate some other type of vehicle than the one being used. â¢ Many agencies have replaced flexible service with fixed-route services where they have determined that flexible operation is less attractive to riders than fixed-route service. However, interest in adding or expanding flexible service remains strong. Fourteen of the surveyed transit systems reported that they see future opportunities to implement new flexible services or expand existing ones.