Suggest a Topic
Didn't see what you needed? Suggest a new topic here!
Click here to suggest your topic.

Service Planning & Evaluation

In this section, we will discuss two fundamental components of your operations:  planning and evaluating the services you provide to the community.  To increase the efficiency and effectiveness of your services, they should be evaluated on a regular basis, involve community input, and evolve to fit the needs of your passengers.  This section will provide information and guidance, from effective ways to engage the community to methods for evaluating your services.  


We also recommend reading the National RTAP Technical Brief: Developing, Designing & Delivering Community Transportation Services.  


Service planning process overview

The first step in service planning is taking inventory of your resources and the transit needs of your community.  Once you know what funding, vehicles/facilities/equipment, and staff you have available and the services you currently provide, you can match those resources and services with the transportation needs of your community.  It is also important to have a clear mission statement and list of system priorities.  The service you provide should match those values and fulfill your mission.  To read more about mission statements, please see the Mission and Leadership section of this toolkit. 

You will work with your Board of Directors and/or your state DOT to determine the service and project priorities for your system.  Many state DOTs have statewide planning priorities, guidelines for the types of activities they will fund, and performance measures that they use to determine a service or project’s effectiveness.  Choosing services and projects that both fill transit needs in your community and align with the statewide planning priorities/guidelines will ensure that your agency is providing necessary services that will be supported by the state. 

Public involvement

You will find that you have most of the information you need to inventory your transit agency’s resources and services in-house; it will be a matter of locating, organizing and analyzing it.  Inventorying the transit needs of your community, however, will require outreach and public involvement.  Before reaching out to the public, you should identify the stakeholders to bring to the table.  Finding champions in the community for your transit projects and services will assist you in getting information from riders and raising awareness of your services.


The Florida Department of Transportation offers a Public Involvement Handbook on its website, and it covers such topics as developing a public involvement plan, finding and reaching the right people, and hosting effective public meetings.  According to the Florida Department of Transportation, an effective public involvement plan can “foster understanding and cooperation between the Department and the public; help develop a transportation system that meets real community needs; save money by reducing or eliminating the need to redesign; and prevent last minute ‘blow ups’ or delays.”

To view the handbook, please see the Florida Department of Transportation website.   

To fully understand your community’s needs, your agency must become part of the community rather than just serving it.  John Martin, in the National RTAP technical brief “Make Business Part of Rural Transit’s Business: How to Form Strategic Business Partnerships,” explains that it is imperative for transit agencies to reach out to an often overlooked stakeholder group:  the business community.  According to John Martin, the business community includes individual companies and business organizations such as the local Chamber of Commerce.  Public transit connects local businesses to workers and customers, and establishing a partnership between transit agencies and businesses can benefit all parties involved.   

To read more about public transit and the business community, please see the National RTAP technical brief “Make Business Part of Rural Transit’s Business: How to Form Strategic Business Partnerships” by John Martin.  You can also view John Martin’s recorded webinar on the topic, hosted on the National RTAP website.

Not only is public involvement a good business practice, but it is also a requirement if you receive federal funds.  As stated in the Title VI Requirements and Guidelines for Federal Transit Administration Recipients, all recipients of federal funding are required to comply with the public participation requirements of 49 U.S.C. Sections 5307(b) (requires programs of projects to be developed with public participation) which reads:

5307 (b)

Program of Projects.—Each recipient of a grant shall—

(1) make available to the public information on amounts available to the recipient under this section;

(2) develop, in consultation with interested parties, including private transportation providers, a proposed program of projects for activities to be financed;

(3) publish a proposed program of projects in a way that affected individuals, private transportation providers, and local elected officials have the opportunity to examine the proposed program and submit comments on the proposed program and the performance of the recipient;

(4) provide an opportunity for a public hearing in which to obtain the views of individuals on the proposed program of projects;

(5) ensure that the proposed program of projects provides for the coordination of public transportation services assisted under section 5336 of this title with transportation services assisted from other United States Government sources;

(6) consider comments and views received, especially those of private transportation providers, in preparing the final program of projects; and

(7) make the final program of projects available to the public.


As a subrecipient of FTA funding, you are also required to prepare and submit a Title VI program that includes a public participation plan.  According to the Title VI Circular, your public participation plan must include “an outreach plan to engage minority and limited English proficiency populations, as well as a summary of outreach efforts made.”  This plan does not have to be limited to minority populations alone and it can include outreach to other traditionally underserved groups such as low-income populations, people with disabilities, and others.  When you put together your public participation plan, you have the ability to develop policies appropriate to your agency’s projects and community, but public involvement is always required when developing programs of projects and considering raising a fare or making a major reduction in service.   

For more information about Title VI requirements, please see that section of this toolkit and the Title VI Requirements and Guidelines for Federal Transit Administration Recipients circular.  FTA’s Environmental Justice circular also gives information about designing an outreach strategy for environmental justice populations in your community.  To read more about Environmental Justice in this toolkit, please click here.

Service options

Your decisions about what types of services you will provide will be based on the information you gathered during your inventory of resources and public outreach.  This section will describe each of the basic service types- fixed route, flexible route, and demand response service- and will provide guidance about when each service type should be used.  There are different ADA requirements associated with each type of service, and for more information about that topic please see the ADA section of this toolkit.

Fixed route 

According to National RTAP’s Scheduling and Dispatching for Rural Transit Systems training module, fixed route services are “services provided on a repetitive, fixed schedule basis along a specific route with vehicles stopping to pick up and deliver passengers to specific locations.  Each fixed route service trip serves the same origins and destinations.”  This type of service is typically provided by urban systems and funded through the FTA Section 5307 Urbanized Area Formula Program.

Flexible route

Common service types in rural areas that are not strictly “fixed” are route deviation and point deviation.  For route deviation service, the bus may deviate from the scheduled route to stop at locations within a defined distance (for example, ¾ mile or 2 blocks) of the route.  When this is done, the bus must return to the route where it deviated to continue service.  For route with point deviation service, there are scheduled stops at mandatory times, but the bus is free to pick up and drop off passengers anywhere within a prescribed radius as long as they reach the mandatory stops at the required times.

TCRP Report 6, “Users’ Manual for Assessing Service-Delivery Systems for Rural Passenger Transportation,” states that route deviated services work well when the following is true:  

  • The deviations are a relatively small part of the overall demand and the overall running time of the route
  • The majority of the riders are not time-sensitive
  • Door-to-door service is important to some, but not all, passengers
  • There are other positive reasons for providing services that are more like fixed route than demand-responsive services

TCRP Report 6 also states that route deviated service does not work well if the following is true:

  • Most of the trips are time sensitive
  • Some sort of route structure is not desirable for the community

In regard to point deviation services, TCRP Report 6 states that these services are more similar to demand-response service, and that “point deviation services may be preferable to route deviation services in rural areas because the routes between checkpoints can be flexible, allowing the driver more routing options for maintaining the schedule, and requests for service can be negotiated or deferred so that the schedule is maintained.”

When designing flexible services, such as route and point deviation services, transit agencies must ensure that ADA requirements are met.

TCRP Report 6 “Users’ Manual for Assessing Service Delivery Systems for Rural Passenger Transportation” Chapter Three goes into great detail about how to choose the appropriate service type, and you can find this report here

To read more about route and point deviated services, please see TCRP Report 140, “A Guide for Planning and Operating Flexible Public Transportation Services” and TCRP Synthesis 53, “ Operational Experiences with Flexible Transit Services.”  

More information about fixed route services can be found in “Best Practices in Transit Service Planning,” a resource by the Center for Urban Transportation Research at the University of South Florida.


According to National RTAP’s Scheduling and Dispatching training module, demand- response service is “characterized by the fact that vehicles that do not operate over a fixed route or on a fixed schedule.”  Because they do not operate on a fixed route or schedule, passengers must request a trip by contacting the transit agency.  This training module also divides demand-response services into these four categories: 

  • Many origins - Many destinations 
  • Many origins - One destination
  • One origin - Many destinations 
  • One origin - One destination

There are a variety of ways in which transit systems provide these services:  reservation service; subscription service; ADA complementary paratransit service; taxicab service; vanpool service; carpool service; volunteer drivers.  

For more information about the categories and delivery methods above, please see the National RTAP Scheduling and Dispatching training module.

For more information on ADA complementary paratransit service, please see the ADA section of this toolkit.

TCRP Report 6 breaks demand-responsive services into three different categories:  subscription services (a rider requests a repetitive ride), advanced reservation (a rider requests one particular ride ahead of time) and real time scheduling (a rider calls to request the service just before the ride is needed).  

TCRP Report 6 states that demand-responsive subscription service works well in the following situations:

  • Travelers are relatively clustered around the same origins and destinations
  • The demand for trips is once or twice a day (not all day long)
  • The same persons take the same trips (that is, the same origins and destinations at the same times) on a frequent, regular basis, but the level of demand is not high enough to justify fixed route or fixed schedule service
  • Travel demand densities are relatively low

TCRP Report 6 states that demand-responsive advanced reservation service works well in the following situations: 

  • The trips are not taken on a regular pattern (such as those on subscription services)
  • Ride sharing is used to reduce the cost per trip for each passenger
  • Overall demand levels are low and trip origins are dispersed

TCRP Report 6 states that demand-responsive real-time scheduling works well in the following situations:

  • Highly personalized services are appropriate
  • Service needs are immediate
  • Door-to-door services are desired
  • Origins and destinations are variable and do not necessarily fit any preestablished patterns
  • Demand densities are not very low and trip distances are not very long

TCRP Report 6 “Users’ Manual for Assessing Service Delivery Systems for Rural Passenger Transportation” Chapter Three gives great detail about how to choose the appropriate service type and the advantages and disadvantages of each service type.

TCRP Report 136, ‘Guidebook for Rural Demand Response Transportation:  Measuring, Assessing and Improving Performance,’ lists factors that influence rural demand-responsive performance that a transit manager has direct influence over.  To view the details of this list, please see TCRP Report 136:
  • Vehicle operators
  • Operating staff- scheduler, dispatch and operations supervisor
  • Scheduling/dispatch
  • Certain operating policies
  • Vehicles
  • Administrative expenses
  • Safety


Coordination allows service providers to leverage all of the resources in a community to increase mobility for everyone.  For more information about coordination and mobility management, please see the Coordination section of the toolkit.


Monitoring and evaluation 


A community’s needs and resources are always changing.  In order to ensure that your services are as appropriate today as they were yesterday, it is important that you have a system for monitoring and evaluation.  


“Transit Performance Measurement,” a document adapted from an NTI course entitled Improving Transit System Performance: Using Information Based Strategies, identifies these six steps in the performance evaluation process:


  1. Establish goals and objectives - While your goals can be general, it is important that you identify measurable objectives with collectable data.
  2. Select performance indicators - You should choose indicators that are commonly understood, allow you to compare your system with other systems, and can be calculated easily.  You should also choose what part of your service that indicator will measure (for example, will it measure overall performance or performance on a specific aspect).  Lastly, you should decide how frequently you will measure performance.  
  3. Collect and tabulate data - You should ensure that all data is collected and analyzed consistently.
  4. Analyze and interpret indicators - There are three approaches for analyzing results:  compare against your own system over time; compare against peer systems; compare against industry norms/standards.  The most complete performance evaluation will include all three approaches.    
  5. Present the results - it is important to present the results in a way that is clear and can be understood by agency staff as well as outside constituencies.   Graphical presentations can increase clarity and understanding. 
  6. Take corrective actions and monitor results - The last, and most important, step is to use the results of your evaluation to make changes to your system to increase efficiency and effectiveness.

This process should be repeated on a regular, scheduled interval. To read more about each step of the performance evaluation process, see “Transit Performance Measurement.”   


Data collection


There are many methods that can be used to collect the data needed to evaluate your services.  Examples include consulting with an advisory committee, conducting passenger surveys and having a manager ride the bus. 


An advisory committee is composed of representatives from different stakeholder groups in your service area.  These representatives speak on behalf of their stakeholder groups to give feedback as to whether your system is providing appropriate service for everyone in the community.  There is generally an application/appointment process, and each member has a defined term of service.  Your system should hold advisory committee meetings on a regular basis to get feedback in a timely manner, and all advisory committee members should be in attendance.  


Another way to collect data is through passenger surveys, and there are various ways these can be conducted- on board paper or electronic surveying, online surveying, or using a telephone survey.  Before you conduct the survey, you should establish what information you want from your passengers as this will determine the questions you will ask.  The following are examples of questions that can be asked in a passenger survey:


  • What is the purpose of the passenger’s trip?
  • What is the passenger’s origin and destination, and how many transfers will he/she have to make to complete the trip?
  • How did the passenger pay his/her fare?
  • How often does the passenger use public transit?
  • How did the passenger get to the bus stop?  How will the passenger get to his/her final destination after getting off the bus?
  • How long did the passenger wait for the bus?
  • Why did the passenger choose to take public transit and how would he/she have completed the trip otherwise?
  • What time of the day does the passenger usually ride the bus?
  • What is the passenger’s gender, age, and income?  Does he/she own an automobile?
  • How would the passenger like to receive information from the transit system?

Responses to questions like these can help a transit system determine common paths of travel, the number of internal and external transfers, whether fare cards or passes are being utilized or are needed, on-time performance, number of choice riders, needs for route changes or extensions, and how to best conduct outreach to customers.  A transit system can also ask survey respondents to rate their satisfaction with the agency’s services. 


You can survey passengers onboard the bus using a paper system that allows the rider to fill out a hard copy form that they leave on the bus or mail back to the transit system.  You can also have passengers complete the survey on a mobile device, with a surveyor asking the questions and recording the answers.  This technology allows for location data to be tracked as well as the opportunity to create an audio recording of the passengers’ answers.  


Regardless of the medium you use to present your survey, you should be conscious of limiting yourself to the necessary questions to ensure passengers return completed surveys in a timely manner.  Asking too many questions can cause passengers to return an incomplete survey or not return the survey at all.   Through the projects presented in the “Transit Performance Monitoring System (TPMS) Results” report, it was found that it was more effective to survey passengers on-board than surveying over the telephone and that well-trained surveyors generally yielded a good survey response rate, regardless of the survey method chosen. 


To read more about how a transit system used mobile devices to conduct an on-board survey, see the project results presentation, “Transit, Technology and Public Participation,” by Associate Research Fellows at the Small Urban and Rural Transit Center.  


For more information about conducting on-board survey using paper forms, please see the “Transit Performance Monitoring System (TPMS) Results” report


The last method for collecting service evaluation data is having a manager ride the bus.  This allows the manager to see first-hand the condition of the buses and shelters, how the driver interacts with passengers, passenger behavior on the bus, the sections of a route that carry the most riders, whether the bus runs on schedule, and the overall experience of using the service.  While it does take time out of a manager’s day to ride the bus, it is a valuable tool for assessing the quality of the service your agency is providing.


Section sources