Fixed-Route and Demand-Response Transportation


Fixed route and demand-response transportation services provide community residents with important mobility options. Fixed-route transportation is the backbone of public transportation in urban areas. It allows people to get around by bus and rail at designated stops and specific times. Demand-response transportation allows for more flexibility, typically taking people from one specific location to another at their preferred time. Demand response is a common form of public transportation in rural areas where population densities do not support fixed-route service. Private for-profit companies and non-profit providers also provide demand response transportation.

Fixed-route public transportation—most cities and some rural areas operate public transit service along fixed routes. Commuter trains, subways, light rail, and buses are the most common examples of this type of service. Typically, fixed-route service is characterized by printed schedules or timetables, as well as designated bus or rail stops where passengers board or exit. Variations on this service include flag stops (where riders can flag a bus to stop anywhere along a route) and route-deviated service (where time is built into the schedule to allow buses to deviate from the fixed-route to pick up passengers with advance reservations closer to their origin).

Public transportation in the US has increased in popularity over the past decade for several reasons, including:

  • local interest in creating and revitalizing transit station areas through good land-use policy and public and private investments;
  • increasing traffic congestion in urban areas;
  • increasing availability of service due to increased federal, state, and local investments; and
  • heightened concerns over global warming and air pollution.

More than ten billion trips were taken on public transportation in 2015. The great majority of these trips were on fixed-route systems. Twenty percent of people age 50 and older with access to public transportation reported having used public transportation during the previous month. And use of public transportation among those age 50 and older increased 43 percent between 2001 and 2009, as measured as a share of total trips. A 2007 AARP-sponsored survey found that respondents of all ages are more supportive of public transportation investments than road construction.

Despite steady use, some public transportation systems present barriers to older adults. Nearly one-third of people age 50 and older with physical limitations regard the failure of public transportation to go where they want as a serious problem. Simply getting to public transportation is a challenge for those with physical limitations. And, as with many public transportation users, people age 50 and older often cite limited frequency of available trips and long travel time as obstacles to transit use for local trips. Other factors that may hinder transit ridership include limited service coverage, distance from the nearest public transit stop, neighborhood traffic volumes and speeds, and problems with sidewalks, streetlights, and security conditions.

Public transportation agencies can tailor their services to better meet the needs of older adults in the following ways:

  • Increased service reliability—transit systems can take advantage of GPS technology and reward employees for on-time performance and proper vehicle fleet maintenance.
  • Accessible vehicles and stops—low-floor buses, secure and ADA-compliant bus stops with benches and shelters, and proper maintenance increase the usability, safety, and security of the system.
  • Neighborhood-based circulators or subscription routes—services that offer curb-to-curb service to grocery stores or malls are especially useful in neighborhoods with a high concentration of older adults.
  • Accessible service information—using larger fonts on route maps and schedules, training customer-service representatives, and offering customer-oriented mobility management services increase the accessibility of service information.
  • Driver and passenger training—older adults who have little or no experience using public transportation can benefit from instruction on how to use the system. This personalized approach familiarizes customers with how to read bus and train schedules, put together an itinerary, buy and use fare cards, board and exit vehicles, and otherwise navigate the system.
  • Driver sensitivity training—training to increase understanding of the challenges older adults and people with disabilities face in using public transportation could improve outcomes for these populations.

One of the most popular Federal Transit Administration (FTA) discretionary grant programs is the Section 5309 Fixed Guideway Capital Investment Grants, commonly known as New Starts. Eligible projects include those that operate on a separate right-of-way exclusively for public transportation or on a rail or overhead wire system (for example, light rail and streetcar systems); bus rapid-transit projects operating in mixed traffic; and projects that improve the capacity of existing systems. The maximum federal share is 80 percent, but with requests far outweighing funding availability, the actual federal share has been less than 60 percent.

Demand-response transportation—demand-response public transportation allows individual passengers to request in advance transportation from one specific location to another at a specific time. Rural areas typically operate demand-response services because of low population density and long distances between destinations.

The private and nonprofit sectors can also provide demand-response transportation services in the form of taxi services, transportation network companies (TNCs), volunteer drivers, and ride-share programs. In some cases it may be more cost-effective for human service agencies to contract with private taxi or nonprofit volunteer driver programs to obtain transportation services for their clients. For example, some area agencies on aging offer their clients vouchers that subsidize taxi rides rather than offering the services directly.

Transportation network companies (TNCs)—TNCs, also known as ridesourcing companies, use online-enabled platforms to connect passengers who need rides with drivers who offer rides using their personal, non-commercial vehicles. TNCs have made mobility-on-demand commonplace in cities and have been a driving force for technological change in the overall transportation system. They have increased transportation options and have the potential to increase quality and decrease prices.

TNCs maintain that they are not service providers, but rather facilitators of transactions, and that therefore they have limited responsibility for complying with legal requirements such as background checks, insurance coverage, and vehicle safety mandates (see this chapter’s section on Americans with Disabilities Act Implementation). This claim has been challenged in the courts, but until it is fully resolved the uncertainty about which laws apply to TNCs presents unique challenges for regulators seeking to protect both passengers and drivers. Most states have put in place some sort of regulation of TNCs, and many local jurisdictions have done so as well.

Volunteer programs—volunteer transportation services connect volunteers willing to provide rides with those needing rides. It is an important resource for older adults and people with disabilities who may need help meeting their transportation needs, such as getting to medical appointments, the grocery store, and community events.

Often administered by private nonprofit organizations, volunteer programs may rely on both public and private funding for support. For example, a local aging-services program might sponsor a transportation system using a mix of volunteer and paid drivers. It might receive funding for administrative and driver expenses from federal, state, and local sources, as well as from fundraising activities.

Alternative transportation services, particularly volunteer programs, face ongoing challenges. These include recruiting volunteers, protecting themselves from liability, covering operational and administrative costs, and adhering to regulations from multiple funders. The federal nontaxable/deductible reimbursement rate for charitable driving for 2017 is 14 cents per mile (compared with 53.5 cents for business-related driving). Reimbursement amounts above that rate are considered taxable income.

Ride-sharing—this term refers to carpooling and vanpooling, in which a vehicle carries additional passengers when making a trip, with minimal additional mileage. Vanpooling generally uses rented vans (often supplied by employers, non-profit organizations, or government agencies). Most vanpools are self-supporting, with members dividing operating costs. Unlike taxi and TNC drivers, carpool and vanpool drivers are not “for-hire” but may be compensated for their time and mileage.

Ride-sharing has minimal incremental costs because it makes use of vehicle seats that would otherwise be unoccupied. It tends to have lower costs per vehicle-mile than public transit because it does not require a paid driver and avoids empty backhauls. Ride-sharing is usually facilitated by a computerized carpool matching service.

Neighborhood transportation—for consumers, neighborhood transportation provides an essential connection between home and locations offering goods and services. It is particularly important for older individuals who are frail or are experiencing progressive levels of impairment. Private housing and community developments sometimes offer neighborhood transportation services. Challenges remain for ensuring that these services are available for people with disabilities.

Fixed-Route and Demand-Response Transportation: Policy

Ride-share programs

In this policy: LocalState

State and local governments should encourage low-cost, innovative programs, such as ride-sharing, to help meet older adults’ transportation needs.

Transportation network companies (TNCs)

In this policy: LocalState

At a minimum, state and local governments should ensure that TNCs:

  • hire only drivers who are at least 21 years old, properly licensed, appropriately insured, and adequately trained, and whose driving records and background checks are consistent with passenger safety;
  • ensure that vehicles are properly registered and routinely inspected and provide visible identification for customers to ascertain their driver and vehicle;
  • maintain proper documentation on each driver and vehicle;
  • provide transparency in transactions from the start, including on rates charged;
  • establish a meaningful dispute-resolution process and provide consumers with clear information on how to file a complaint;
  • provide service to all people in a nondiscriminatory manner; and
  • provide or support access to transportation for people with disabilities

For more information on Transportation Network Companies, Contact the Office of Policy Development and Integration

Volunteer programs

In this policy: FederalLocalState

Policymakers should promote public-private partnerships and volunteer programs that seek to expand transportation alternatives and reduce dependence on driving to help people who are older, frail, or have disabilities to maintain their independence.

Congress should increase the charitable nontaxable reimbursement/deductible rate for charitable driving to equal that for business-related driving to encourage individuals to participate in volunteer driver programs.

Public transportation investment

In this policy: FederalState

States should:

  • maintain and increase investment in improved public transit systems; for example, by purchasing accessible equipment and constructing comfortable, safe, and accessible transit stops and stations;
  • actively promote the use of public transportation;
  • require public transit systems to implement and enhance safety regulations and mechanisms;
  • encourage transit authorities to reduce fares for people with disabilities and low-income older adults; and
  • require that recipients of Community Development Block Grants and other state funds guarantee accessibility to transit and safe access to facilities in their community planning and design efforts.

Congress should:

  • authorize and appropriate funds to provide state and local governments with incentives for expanding and improving public transportation;
  • require and fund demonstration projects to promote the use of public transportation by older adults and people with disabilities;
  • increase funding for public transportation to improve the quality and quantity of services for people with disabilities;
  • appropriate sufficient transit funds for capital assistance, operating subsidies, specialized transit, rural assistance, employment-based transportation, and research;
  • address state and local budget challenges associated with recessionary periods by providing transit systems serving large urban areas the short-term flexibility to use federal transit formula, discretionary, and stimulus funding for either capital or operating expenses; and
  • provide funding for capital investments in public transportation, including for New Starts, on par with that provided for highways.

New Starts

In this policy: Federal

Congress should direct the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) to provide additional credit to those New Starts projects that demonstrate a commitment to providing and/or maintaining affordable housing within a half mile of stations. Federal funding formulas should also credit applicants for transit investment plans that are tied to transit-supportive land-use and economic-development plans.