Last week we discussed some components to consider in implementing a public transit plan. No matter what stage you’re at, it all boils down to planning. But what are some of the considerations that drive the decisions that shape those plans? What do we mean when we talk about fixed-route versus demand-response? Here are just some of the possibilities considered in developing a public transit plan. Finding the best option to meet the needs of the Fort Berthold community in providing safe, reliable, affordable transportation is just one step!

So, What Are the Options?

Most tribal transit programs offer a combination of different services in order to best meet all community needs. Types of service include fixed-route, demand-response, flexible routing, service routes, vanpool, commuter, volunteer drivers, rideshares, and specialized transportation service.

When most people think of a public transit program, fixed-route bus services are the first that come to mind. Fixed-route services operate on a set schedule with designated routes, providing regular, reliable service without the need to call ahead for reservations. However, fixed-route services can be challenging for users with disabilities, and often require supplementary service to meet the needs of users with limited mobility.

Demand-response service has been successfully implemented by several tribes, and works well in low-density communities where there is less demand for public transit. However, advance reservations are required, and immediate requests are not always able to be filled.

Flexible routing services operate by combining fixed-route and demand-response service features. Transit with route-deviation, for example, operates along fixed routes, but with greater schedule flexibility, often providing a ten- to fifteen-minute window for when a bus can be expected at a certain stop. This added time allows the bus to also answer demand-response requests for those who are unable to access the set stops. While this sometimes equates to a longer bus ride and some scheduling variation, it eliminates the need to provide supplementary bus services, which can be expensive. Another flexible routing option would be to implement a checkpoint/point-deviation service, which would stop at pre-determined major activity centers within a certain time window, but between these stops buses would be free to pick up demand-response riders.

Service routes provide another alternative to fixed-route and demand-response. However, these services are usually geared toward providing transportation to the elderly and people with disabilities. Service routes typically follow fixed routes through residential neighborhoods to service major destinations such as senior centers or medical centers. These routes result in longer bus rides and waits, and are designed to meet specific needs.

Vanpools can help people get to work, picking up users within a community and taking them directly to a major employment center. Users would share the cost of the ride and often even share driving responsibilities, though the van itself is usually owned and maintained by a transit agency. However, vanpools are only open to members of the program, and only offer limited transportation for non-work related trips, such as shopping or medical visits.

Similar to vanpools, commuter service bus routes also help people get to work, providing an express service link between communities. These buses would make fewer stops than a traditional fixed-route service, and would require hired drivers.

Volunteer driver programs can sometimes be supported by an agency or organization to meet the needs of seniors or people with special transportation needs, but generally do not meet the needs of an entire community.

Similarly, rideshare programs can be especially useful when employees work and live in proximity to each other and have similar schedules. But while Internet sites can help put people in touch who may be interested in sharing rides, such programs do not meet the general needs of the public.

Lastly, specialized transportation services, like service routes, are designed to meet specific transportation needs, such as education, medical, or social service programs, but not the needs of the community in general.

Challenges Unique to Tribes

In choosing the best type of service for the Fort Berthold Community, challenges unique to tribal transit systems must be considered. Fixed-route systems may sound like an easy choice, operating on predictable timeframes and routes, but can often be unsuccessful in low-density populations—especially when that low-density population is combined with a large service area. Severe winter weather can further impede efficiency for long-distance transit. Geographical constraints are another issue Fort Berthold especially must consider. It is critical that a transit plan be developed that meets the needs of all members of the community, and utilizes available resources effectively and efficiently.

How Do We Decide? 

A number of factors go into making a decision, and more than one service type can be incorporated in a successful transit plan. These factors include demand and productivity, or how many passengers are expected to use a given public transit service per hour or per day; population density and service area; passenger needs; operating costs; capital costs; and availability of drivers and other key staff. These factors can also vary within a community. Passengers who rely on public transit to commute to work are often looking for a quick, reliable transit that gets them to work on time and doesn’t leave them hanging around when they get off. While elderly passengers may be willing to ride for longer periods, they still have to be able to get to medical appointments on time.

Challenges Unique to Fort Berthold

On the Fort Berthold Reservation, these challenges are even further compounded by the lake and waterways that divide the community into five isolated segments. Bus transit alone doesn’t solve the problem. But when the water is frozen four months out of the year, how can we get around—or rather, over—it? Not only must every type of service be considered, but also how will the distance between segments impact the effectiveness of that service? And how can the water become an asset, not an obstacle? These are just some of the questions being considered as the Fort Berthold Transit Plan develops.

Have a thought on public transit in Fort Berthold? Have any stories of transit nightmares, or transit success—on Fort Berthold or from travels elsewhere? We’d love to hear about it! Leave us a comment below!