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Fixed-route transit is the backbone of a healthy mobility ecosystem. It provides unparalleled efficiency, and boasts the ability to move masses of people while cutting through (or above or below) crowded corridors. As the largest mode of public transportation in the US, fixed-route bus service yields more than 400 million trips per month across the country.

What is fixed-route transit? 

Fixed-route transit relies on buses, light rail, vans, or other vehicles to operate along a predetermined route –– connecting areas of interest with scheduled stops along the way Common stops typically include business districts, residential communities, hospitals, local attractions, and other places people travel to frequently. 

The earliest examples of fixed-route transit date back to the early 17th century, when horse-drawn boats would carry paying passengers along European canals, and stagecoaches would travel along fixed routes between coaching inns. 

Needless to say, times have changed. Modern systems require a wealth of strategic planning, maintenance, and technology  to remain efficient & accessible for today’s riders.

Fixed-route transit planning:

Transit providers must consider several factors when planning for and managing a fixed-route service. Some of these factors include timing, popular destinations, access to critical healthcare services and jobs, and rider demographics –– all of which are unique to each and every community. 

Before diving into these more specific considerations, let’s take a look at the types of available routes. 

Types of fixed routes:

Two primary types of routes exist for fixed-route bus transit: radial routes and cross-town routes. Both types have their own unique scheduling requirements.

  • Radial routes: often shorter than cross-town routes, radial routes typically connect a central business district (CBD) to a popular nearby area, such as a suburb or satellite neighborhood. Radial routes largely cater to commuters who travel frequently between the CBD and the area in which they reside. 
  • Cross-town routes: extending further than most radial routes, cross-town routes are typically designed to connect one suburb or surrounding area with another. These routes are planned to intersect with radial routes in order to bring commuters who are further out from the city center into town. When combined with a radial route, these routes are sometimes referred to as cross-city routes. 

Fixed route scheduling:

While these route designs vary, both require attention to several factors when determining stop locations & schedules. Trip duration, economic impact, sustainability, demographic data – including user frequency, vehicle ownership, age, and disabilities – as well as timing & traffic in the areas that the routes cover all factor into the broader decision making process for public transportation. 

  • Timing: while some routes run at consistent intervals during the day, others require heavier support in the early-morning and evening when commuters are traveling to and from work. Rather than simply planning for arrival times, fixed-route schedules consist of many time points along the way to better respond to changing circumstances.
  • Trip duration: the total distance, number of stops,traffic & other delays all impact the duration between each time point. hese factors must be considered to ensure that riders are moving efficiently throughout their trip.
  • Access: considered early in the planning process, access to a transit service is paramount to its success. Routes are planned and stops are scheduled specifically to ensure that riders are provided the necessary means to board the vehicle when and where they need to. This includes ADA compliance as well as minimizing barriers for populations with socioeconomic disadvantages. 
  • Rider usage & demographics: how often riders are using a service can be influenced by the demographics of the riders themselves. Factors like vehicle ownership, age, disability, and economic status all impact ridership andthe frequency a given service may need to run. Collecting input directly from riders is invaluable in assessing this variable. 

Now, multiply these considerations by the number of routes running at any given time to support a larger system – that’s a lot to manage! And that’s where technology comes into play. 

Fixed-route transit technology 

No matter where you go or how you travel, transportation is very much technology-driven, and fixed-route transit is no exception. To give you an idea –– let’s consider a single fixed-route bus. The average fixed-route trip on a bus in the US is 3.8 miles. Within those 3.8 miles, a rider will likely come into contact with several of the following technologies: 

Apps & technology for transit riders

  • Mobile apps – before arriving at the bus stop, many riders use real-time bus tracking apps to monitor ETAs in order to know exactly when to expect the next ride. 
  • Contactless Fare Payment & Mobile ticketing – upon boarding, riders may have the option to simply scan their cell phone in order to pay. After all, who carries cash anymore? 
  • Automatic Voice Announcements (AVAs) – automated announcements keep riders informed as stops are approaching, helping make transit more accessible for everyone.
  • Infotainment – some buses come equipped with robust infotainment systems that combine arrival notifications with video entertainment, GPS-triggered alerts, and more. 
  • WiFi – onboard routers provide cellular connectivity for passengers, often connecting to 5G, LTE or broadband networks to ensure connection even in rural areas. 

These passenger-facing technologies are just the tip of the iceberg. Behind the scenes, transit providers are deploying specific fixed-route transit software to streamline all facets of their operations including planning, dispatch, and scheduling.

Transit dispatch & operations software

  • CAD/AVL: computer-aided dispatch & automatic vehicle location systems collect vital information for dispatchers, such as real-time GPS locations of vehicles, on-time performance, breakdowns, and more –– allowing dispatchers to quickly react when delays or other instances occur. 
  • Scheduling & Routing Systems: used to dynamically assign vehicles to routes, and update schedules in real-time in order to keep riders informed.
  • Reporting Suites: reporting  key metrics like  Vehicle Revenue Miles (VRM), Passenger Miles Traveled (PMT), and Operating Expense (OE) is required by the Federal Transit Administration to assist with planning efforts & funding. Automated systems help keep track of all this information to ensure accurate data.
  • Automatic passenger counting (APCs) – often unbeknownst to them, riders are counted each time they board and exit the bus. This provides valuable real-time visibility into vehicle capacity & deadhead for dispatchers. 

All of this technology enables fixed-route transit to keep pace with the ever-changing needs of expanding communities while adapting along with emerging modes of public transportation.  To help transit providers assess their own technology needs, we’ve developed a checklist containing 10 important questions to ask when evaluating fixed route tech. 

→ Get the Checklist

At TransLoc, we’re developing solutions to prepare cities, universities, and public and private enterprises for the future of multimodal transportation –– one where riders can choose the easiest, smartest, and greenest way to travel. As fixed route transit remains an integral part of the future of mobility, we look forward to being a part of its evolution. 

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