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Transport Equity
October 9, 2020

The Benefits of Demand-Responsive Transport in Rural Areas

As technology has advanced, opportunities have arisen allowing improved access and affordability to reshape how rural transport is designed.

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In light of an ageing population, society continues to put more pressure on our transport systems globally. In particular, as elderly members of the community choose to ‘age-at-home’ rather than move to aged care facilities, access to convenient transportation will be critical, particularly in rural communities where vehicle ownership is expensive and traditional modes of Public Transport inflexible. 

Linking community members to medical appointments, retail, points of interest, and general day-to-day essential services requires a robust and sustainable transport network. 

As technology has advanced, opportunities have arisen allowing improved access and affordability to reshape how rural transport is designed in flexible ways. Consequently, implementing Demand-Responsive Transport has been a common solution for rural areas over the years facing rising challenges. 

So what are the benefits of Demand-Responsive Transport?

There are four primary benefits of implementing Demand-Responsive Transport (DRT). The first is related cost savings for Transit Agencies—the cost of traditional hub-and-spoke models can make equitable transport untenable in certain areas, especially rural settings. Rather than placing additional burden on taxpayer dollars, dynamic services can unlock patronage through additional nodes without the cost of additional vehicles.

Technological flexibility is also another great advantage of implementing DRT. The very nature of Demand-Responsive Transport means the technology can adapt to meet the needs of a growing population or changing demand profile in a flexible manner, unlike traditional transport modes. Lastly, DRT technology enables a greater understanding of patron profiling (such as behavioural characteristics) and opens up insightful data to enhance services, improve contact tracing, and socially distance in vehicles through seat allocation.

What’s the difference between Rural and Urban Demand-Responsive Transport?

For rural transport agencies, their jobs are very different from their urban counterparts. Without the population density that comes with urbanised developments, rural agencies cannot rely on the high volume and high demand seen in dense urban environments.

Rural Agencies must balance their cost of operations differently, and in most cases, this results in a loss of vehicle frequency due to the low and diffuse demand. In most occasions for riders, this just makes accessing transport more difficult. 

Here are four key differences between Rural and Urban Demand-Responsive Transport:

  1. Longer trip times and fewer travel options

Typically a rural commute or journey is longer than those in urbanised environments. This makes it difficult for rural operators to justify the cost of some routes, reducing service coverage and frequency. By applying smart algorithms to optimise the routing and scheduling of Demand-Responsive Transport fleets, operational savings can be made and more passengers across a larger geography can be serviced.

  1. An ageing population choosing to stay at home

More elderly members of the community are making the choice to ‘age-at-home’ and forgo moving to an aged care or retirement facility. Due to disability and socioeconomic reasons this cohort of individuals will require more ‘on-demand’ services that cater to their needs. With a lack of alternative services and a reluctance to take on the burden and cost of vehicle ownership, transport infrastructure will be particularly important for this ageing population.

  1. Distance to opportunities

People may move out of urban areas to seek more affordable housing, yet the job opportunities in low-population areas are limited, creating a vicious cycle. Residents in these areas must travel longer distances for employment, often relying on cars for transport, in much higher levels than their city counterparts. To compound this issue, if there is poor public transit infrastructure to connect individuals to opportunities, then they may be forced into taking lower paying jobs and develop a forced reliance on public transport to connect with community and employment. 

  1. Low population 

Low population areas typically have less access to a broad offering of services and employment options. Included in the reduced number of services offered is transportation. For rural transport operators, it is important that vehicle routes are optimised to maximise the passengers per vehicle hour and minimise the occurrence of deadheading (driving around without passengers). Efficient use of technology can reduce these extra costs.

Why should Rural Transit Agencies Implement Dynamic Demand-Responsive Transport?

Rural areas have always suffered from a lack of available public services and this is no different for the transport industry. As low demand and sparsely populated geographies add strain to underfunded fleet operators, the following problems repeatedly emerge:

  • Under-utilised vehicles
  • Declining patronage
  • Increased operational costs
  • Lack of informative service data
  • Multiple software platforms to run multiple services

Because rural transport systems are usually infrequent or too expensive to run, Dynamic Demand-Responsive Transportation (DDRT) combines the efficiency of mass transit with the convenience of private transport to provide a cost-effective alternative to traditional fixed-route or dial-a-ride transit. The technology is characterised by its ability to maximise the utilisation and service coverage of a vehicle whilst providing passengers with a level of convenience unprecedented in previous transit models. 

As a result, Dynamic Demand-Responsive Transport provides members of rural communities with greater access to affordable transport whilst providing Fleet Operators with efficiency gains enabling them to service more of the public.

What types of Demand-Responsive Transport services are available?

There are several different types of commonly used Demand-Responsive Transport services by Transit Agencies: 

Commuter Transit - These are connector services or ‘first-mile, last-mile’ services that get commuters to and from a main commute hub during peak travel periods

Public Transport -  Designed as ‘free-roam’ zones, these public transport services act as a point-to-point service connecting passengers to a destination within a defined zone.

NEMT (Non Emergency Medical Transport) -  Also known as paratransit or community transport in some areas of the globe. This type of demand-responsive transport connects elderly members of the community to essential services such as medical appointments, groceries & retail or points of interest.

Corporate Transit -  A private fleet contracted to an organisation to provide transit services for employees.

Educational Transit - Demand-Responsive Transit has been used to provide special needs students with accessibility-enabled transport.

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What types of Demand-Responsive Service models are there?

Fleet size, geography and passenger demand are some of the main factors that will influence network topology. There are various service models to choose from with modern-day DDRT technology. A capable technology provider should be able to simulate different models and deliver a data-driven approach to service design.

  1. Point-to-point

This is the most flexible service offering and will allow for the creation of many temporary nodes within a service zone. A passenger can choose to be picked up and dropped off at any point within the service zone. Fleet movements are based on the most efficient route to service a known passenger manifest.

  1. Point-to-Hub (first-mile, last mile) 

 Similar to a hub-and-spoke fixed-route model however, a vehicle has the ability to create temporary nodes or pickup locations anywhere within a service zone and connect passengers to a central hub. This model makes a case for replacing existing underperforming fixed-route feeder services. With DDRT feeders, they can cover a larger area more efficiently than a fixed-route 40-seater bus and personalise service.

  1. Meeting Point-to-Hub (first-mile, last mile

This type of design consolidates multiple pickup requests into one ‘meeting point’ thus onboarding multiple passengers at the one location. This allows for a fleet to service a high demand period more effectively as onboarding capacity is doubled or tripled resulting in efficiency gains and a higher passenger per vehicle hour ratio. It requires additional understanding from the rider, but leads to more efficient services during high demand times.

  1. Zone-to-Zone

Allows for passengers to transfer from one geographical service zone to another without the need to change modes or vehicles. This is effective and can dramatically improve the passenger experience. However, if the technology is not configured correctly this can cause inefficiencies as vehicles miles driven may increase.

  1. Dynamic fixed-stops 

This allows for frequent pickups typically on a loop or feeder service, where buses will have visibility to the demand at each stop and only set down if a passenger is waiting. This model can be configured to take advantage of walk-up demand to certain stops or take pre-booked trip requests.

Rural Demand-Responsive Transport is more relevant than ever due to the high cost of vehicle ownership in rural areas. People will always need to be connected to services. Unfortunately, there is a direct correlation between access to transportation and poverty in rural areas, which is why by improving the technology powering these services, we can overcome the failing economics of rural transport. Consequently, dynamic DRT should be a serious consideration for any rural transport provider in order to remain relevant and service the community effectively.

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About the Author

JJ O'Brien

JJ O'Brien


A Chief Marketing Officer that doesn't mind geeking out on a good sci-fi series, loves cooking American-style BBQ and enjoys seeing the positive impact of a well-crafted message.