The National Academies

TCRP Synthesis J-07/Topic SB-41 [Active (Synthesis)]

Microtransit Solutions in Rural Communities: On-Demand Alternatives to Dial-A-Ride Services and Unproductive Coverage Routes
[ TCRP J-07 (Synthesis of Information Related to Transit Practices) ]

  Project Data
Funds: 55000
Staff Responsibility: Emily Griswold
Research Agency: -----
Comments: In Contracting.
Fiscal Year: 2023

Microtransit Solutions in Rural Communities: On-Demand Alternatives to Dial-A-Ride Services and Unproductive Coverage Routes


With the advent of on-demand technology, on-demand transit services has provided a cost-effective immediate-fulfillment, shared-ride transportation service for the general public in areas where and/or when fixed-route service is not viable. Increasingly, transit entities have implemented on-demand models to:

  • Expand public transit access to new areas or times and, by doing so, to test the demand in these areas or times.
  • Replace underperforming routes or route segments and/or to replace “coverage” routes.
  • Reduce demand at nearby station or bus facility parking lots.

On-demand services are provided directly with dedicated vehicles operated by transit entities, including paratransit contractors or the new crop of on-demand technology vendors, as well as by non-dedicated service providers (NDSPs) such as taxis and/or TNCs, or a combination thereof. On-demand dispatching technology can be licensed separately by a transit agency for the service or provided by a provider (sometimes called software-as-a- service). And, with the ADA requirement for service equivalence in mind, transit agencies have either required vendors to provide wheelchair-accessible vehicle (WAV) service directly or through a subcontract, or directly operated WAVs.

On-demand transit has been successfully implemented in portions of rural areas with a high demand density. In such a setting, the high demand density enables a transit entity to directly or through a contractor cost-effectively operated on-demand transit as a dedicated service, as an alternative to fixed route service. Moreover, such high-demand settings are more apt to attract TNCs and taxis which can provide on-demand trips either as the primary vendors or in support of a dedicated fleet.

The conundrum for on-demand service models occurs in less dense areas of a rural community. Here, rural transit entities are more apt to provide a flex or fixed routes (often structured as one-way loops) that “cover” certain areas with an eye toward equity but that are often inconvenient and unproductive. Similarly, most rural dial-a-ride services that provide coverage are available only on an advance reservation basis. A better solution for riders in rural communities is an on- demand service, which enables more spontaneous travel options and is often more cost effective than the rural coverage routes. And there have been on-demand solutions implemented in rural counties such as Delaware County, NY and Summit County, UT as well as
in Bowen Island, BC (population 3,600), Marble Falls, TX (population 7,000) and in Dryden NY population 13,600). However, the design options for on-demand transit services in rural areas are more limited.

Research on state of the practice for on-demand transit in rural areas is needed for agencies to plan and operate/administrate service in their communities that better meets rider needs. The successes can serve as a guide to those transit agencies in rural communities who are contemplating introducing on-demand services to rural areas. Despite all the attention and research of on-demand, this is the one aspect that has lacked adequate research.

Synthesis Objective

The objective of this synthesis is to document the current state of practice of transit entities that have implemented on-demand services in rural settings.

Information to be Gathered shall include

  • Examples of different on-demand service models to include (1) services where the rural community and transit provider retain adequate levels of control and command; and (2) where rural transit agencies rely more on private on-demand vendors – the research will examine transit agency (and vendor) roles for booking and dispatching trips, operations, the provisions of vehicles, dispatching technology, customer support, and other functions.
  • Service designs and scheduling/dispatching parameters (e.g., stop locations, trip lengths) given the uniqueness of travel characteristics in rural areas.
  • Supporting technologies in service design.
  • The perspectives and expectations of both customers and agencies as well as the establishment of relevant service quality and service/cost efficiency performance metrics geared to on-demand services in rural settings.
  • Fleet mix in on-demand service designs, including uniform fleets with all Wheelchair Accessible Vehicles (WAVs) or fleets with combinations of WAVs and non-WAVs, while providing equivalent service for persons with disabilities
  • Realized benefits and costs of on-demand services for transit entities (e.g., cost reductions, service efficiencies, equity, customer satisfaction).
    Recording key decision making metrics (e.g., cost savings, increased ridership, increased access) that led to the creation, sustenance, and continuing evaluation of an on-demand service model.

Information will be gathered

Information will be gathered by a literature review (e.g. agency reports, peer reviewed journal articles, web articles) and a survey on a broad range of North American transit entities. The report should include case examples that will gather information on the state-of-the-practice, emphasizing lessons learned, current practices, challenges, and gaps. 

Information sources

NCHRP 20-65 Task 76, Opportunities for State DOTs (and Others) to Encourage Shared Use Mobility Practices in Rural Areas, and current research projects, such as NCHRP 08-130, Best Practices in Coordination of Public Transit and Ride Sharing, focus on transit partnerships with TNCs to supply on-demand and alternative services, but not necessarily in a lower-density setting. 

TCRP B-47, Impact of Transformational Technologies on Underserved Populations, is researching related technological barriers common to rural and tribal communities among other underserved populations. Part of this research is focusing on the impact of these barriers on service type design and viability (including on-demand services).

To create a link to this page, use this URL: http://apps.trb.org/cmsfeed/TRBNetProjectDisplay.asp?ProjectID=5555