Types of Transit Systems
Depending on the needs of their community, departments of transportation and private providers can organize modes of transportation into a transit system. Common transit systems in rural regions include fixed-route, flex-route, demand-response, volunteers, and transit vanpools.
Fixed-route transportation systems use buses, vans, light rail, and other vehicles to operate on a predetermined route according to a predetermined schedule. These types of systems have printed or posted timetables and designated stops where riders are picked up and dropped off. Fixed-route systems must meet requirements described by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to ensure they are accessible for passengers with disabilities. Fixed-route bus systems are the most common form of public transportation in the U.S., and 32% of rural bus systems are fixed-routes. However, in rural areas, traditional fixed-route services may not always meet the needs of residents, particularly in communities where people do not live along main roads and bus stops are therefore difficult to access. In these cases, communities may opt for deviated fixed-route systems to pick up riders at their homes or other more favorable locations.
Flex route transportation systems, also called deviated fixed-route systems, use a hybrid fixed-route and demand-response model. Flex route systems also use prescheduled timetables, but may deviate from the predetermined route in order to go to a specific location such as major employment site, a child care center, or a house. Flex route services work well when deviations from the fixed-route do not significantly impact regular timetables.
Demand-response transit involves small or medium vehicles operating on flexible routes with flexible schedules that depend on passenger requests. Passengers may use a subscription service, make advanced reservations, or use real-time scheduling. The demand-response model also allows passengers to use the transit service for a particular date and time. Demand-response vehicles may be dispatched to pick up multiple passengers at several different locations before taking them to their destinations. Demand-response is the second largest type of public transportation service in the U.S., and is the main provider of transit service in rural areas, accounting for 43% of all public transit trips. Demand-response is a more economical service for low-density populations because rides are only dispatched when needed and go from a single origin to a single destination.
Ride sharing or ride-hailing is a type of demand-response transportation where passengers can use a cell phone app to request a driver to meet at a particular time and location. Although ride-hailing is increasing in popularity in many urban centers around the country, the reach remains very limited in rural locations. A 2019 Pew Research Center survey found that 19% of rural residents have used a ride-hailing app. In addition, knowledge of this mode of transportation is not evenly distributed across the country, with 54% of rural residents reporting they had never heard of ride-hailing apps.
Volunteer Transportation Programs
Volunteer transportation programs rely on volunteers to drive passengers, often using their own personal vehicles. Volunteers may also drive buses, vans, or other cars to provide rides. Volunteer transportation programs may reimburse volunteers for gas, mileage, or other costs. While volunteer transit programs may be low cost and provide flexible service, identifying and training volunteers can require significant time and effort. In addition, rural programs may face issues with insuring volunteer drivers. The National Center for Mobility Management provides resources for volunteer driver programs.
Vanpools use vans that can typically carry between 5 and 15 passengers. Vanpools are similar to carpools, with the main difference being that vanpools use vehicles larger than a car. Vanpooling is typically used by rural residents to travel long distances to their urban worksites. Formal transit agencies, employers, groups of employees, or other organizations can organize vanpools. Vanpool passengers may ride full or part time, and the rider's expenses can vary based on frequency of use or distances traveled. Typically the cost is less than driving a long distance alone.
Resources to Learn More
Estimating Ridership of Rural
Demand-Response Transit Services for the General Public
This study describes two models for use in estimating demand for demand-response transit in rural communities.
Author(s): Mattson, J.
Guidebook for Rural Demand Response Transportation:
Measuring, Assessing, and Improving Performance
Provides background of rural demand response transportation, including information on accessing data, performance measurement, and system improvement.
Author(s): Ellis, E. & McCollom, B.
Organization(s): Transportation Research Board
A Guide for Planning and Operating
Flexible Public Transportation Services
This report provides an overview of several types of flex route service strategies that can be used in rural transit agencies. Chapter 2 includes a decision matrix for developing flex routes services in rural areas and Chapter 4 provides examples of successful programs and best practices.
Author(s): Potts, J.F., Marshall, M.A., Crockett, E.C., & Washington, J.
Organization(s): Transportation Research Board
of Rural Transportation for People with Disabilities
Provides succinct summaries of rural transportation models, with particular attention to the needs of passengers with disabilities. It also discusses potential opportunities for coordination or collaboration with community-based organizations.
Author(s): Seekins, T.
Organization(s): University of Montana Rural Institute
Vanpooling: Is it Right for You?
This fact sheet discusses considerations when developing vanpool programs, lists various resources to learn more about vanpools, and lists recent legislative changes regarding vanpool programs.
Author(s): Weaver, P.
Organization(s): Kansas Rural Transit Assistance Program