RTS’ Network Redesign Leads to New Offerings in its Mobility Toolbox 

Feb. 15, 2022
Working hand in hand with its constituents, RTS created new service offerings to serve riders more consistently and flexibly.

More than 40 years ago, when shifts were Monday through Friday, employees in Rochester, N.Y., could take a fixed-route bus directly to their office complex thanks to a business model the Regional Transit Service (RTS) offered at the time, where an employer would pay RTS to deviate a bus from the public road and go directly to their building. And 40 years ago, this worked—for some.  

“It wasn't cost effective for us or flexible enough for the customers on many occasions,” shared Bill Carpenter, CEO, RTS.  

The customization worked for a select group of riders going to unique destinations, like office parks, because employers could dictate what times the bus should come. But this meant headways changed throughout the day and riders needed to be near experts on knowing the schedules. Plus, over the years, jobs at these locations shifted to seven days a week with multiple shifts.  

Customers were “frustrated” by the hub and spoke system and that RTS “only had one tool in our toolbox,” explains Carpenter. In 2017, RTS began revaluating how well the system was serving its community. What RTS found was that a new network was needed due to changes in demographics and needs of the community, as well as new mobility options that could better serve the customers. 

By establishing credibility and working closely with stakeholders, RTS simplified the system and introduced new mobility options, resulting in a consistent and flexible rider experience.   

“The public outreach that we did, developing goodwill with stakeholders, coming up with innovative solutions, that really helped us be successful,” Carpenter said.  

Establishing Goals to Ensure Success 

The agency began its network redesign project, called Reimagine RTS, by establishing five guiding principles to help direct the decision-making process: maximize ridership by increasing the number of boardings; coordinate with community initiatives to encourage community development around the frequent transit network; expand transit service to include more mobility options by increasing the mix of services available; ensure system sustainability by decreasing the net cost per passenger; and enhance the customer experience by decreasing wait and travel time.  

Each principle had a list of three to four actionable items for RTS to measure its success in adhering to them. Carpenter believes his team followed the guiding principles well and consistently referenced them when designing the system and when stakeholders would request certain things be included in the plan.  

Regardless of the stakeholder, RTS would consult with its planning department to see how that request would fit into its guiding principles and if “I can put that request in,” Carpenter said.  

Building Goodwill to Gather Public Input 

After RTS formed its project goals, it was time to start collecting information and analyzing data.  

“One of the first things that we did when we started the process was we created two kinds of committees,” said Tom Brede, public information officer, RTS. 

One committee included internal employees with a focus on frontline personnel, such as bus operators, customer service representatives and road supervisors. The second was a community advisory committee and included stakeholders such as the chamber of commerce, disability organizations, healthcare center, colleges and universities, to name a few. RTS met with each committee once a month to recap what had been done, what feedback the agency received and what was going to happen next.  

In addition to creating committees, RTS hosted community meetings and used that collateral to develop meetings in a box, so other community groups could take ownership and host their own meetings to gather initial feedback on how they thought the system was working. Other outreach included directly going to riders at the transit center, on buses, at bus stops, at malls and heavily trafficked areas. 

“Our own employees, as well as several community stakeholders, said, ‘Okay, I’ll come, but is this just going to be a waste of my time [and] check a box for you?’” Carpenter explained. “We had to really prove that we were listening.” 

The agency worked to build credibility by sharing as much information as it could, so the public could make informed decisions. If someone suggested something that didn’t work, RTS walked them through why it wasn’t feasible by sharing data and referencing its guiding principles. For example, the agency had to educate the public about working with constrained resources, such as the tradeoff of frequency versus coverage. Because of this, RTS had a clearer picture of what the public wanted, and they were able to work together to find a solution. 

“They will listen, they will understand the problem and they'll do everything they can to help us with the problem. That was not there the first few meetings that we had,” Carpenter said. “The first meetings were, okay, well you do your public outreach and then you go do what you want to do. Because before that, we weren't trying to change the system. Here, we were trying to redesign the system, so there was a need to listen, to make the system as effective as possible.” 

By the end of its initial phase for collecting input, RTS heard loud and clear from its constituents: They wanted more frequency and shorter waits; faster and more direct service; additional coverage and service hours; and better connections to jobs.  

Simplifying the System Network Design 

Out of all the feedback received, increased frequency was the highest priority for riders. With this understanding of customer needs, RTS started rethinking how it could transform its fixed-route network into something that provided more consistent and faster service. The result? Creating a frequent bus network to streamline schedules, frequencies and routes.

Miguel Velasquez, COO for RTS, says with the help from its consultant, Transportation Management & Design, Inc., they started with an origin/destination study to identify where the frequent corridors would go and then considered demographics like business locations and single car households.  

“We used all that data to design our frequent network,” Velasquez said.  

Unlike the previous hub and spoke system, the new fixed-route system includes 10 frequent network routes that run every 15 or 30 minutes—depending on the time of day—and a local service network of 20 routes that run every 30 minutes during peak times on weekdays. While the frequent network focuses on providing more direct service throughout major corridors, the local network fills in gaps and completes the fixed-route network with simplified routes and new crosstown connections. All routes are available seven days a week and follow the same structure every day, eliminating unnecessary detours and the need to consult a schedule.  

“It eliminates confusion for the most intelligent person or the person who struggles trying to understand a system. Our system was very difficult to understand before, and we've really simplified the design of the system,” Velasquez said. 

This simplified structure was also a welcome change for RTS’ employees now that they could expect to do the same thing throughout the day.  

“[Some] of the first positive feedback that we received was from our operators saying how easy and simple it was for them now to drive these routes, and how rewarding it was to hear them say, you guys got this right,” Carpenter added.  

Adding New Tools to the Mobility Toolbox 

While establishing the frequent network was one of the biggest improvements, RTS knew there were areas where a fixed-route bus was no longer feasible, but the community still needed access to transit. Staying with its guiding principle of increasing the mix of mobility options, RTS created seven on-demand zones to serve customers outside of downtown Rochester more flexibly, cost effectively and consistently.  

“Now, [there is] much more customized service that works,” Carpenter said.  

The RTS On Demand microtransit service operates in zones based on the old 40-foot bus network and includes 10 connection hubs that mark the end of the newly designed fixed-route network. Nine of the 10 hubs were constructed and include new shelters with heaters and real-time information, as well as electric charging stations for personal vehicles at selected locations. Connection hubs were also strategically located near public restrooms.  

Riders can request a ride through the app, online or by calling to get anywhere within that zone or transfer to RTS Connect fixed-route service at a connection hub or bus stop. The curb-to-curb service operates seven days a week in all but one zone and while service hours vary, they are generally 5:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. weekdays and 6:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. on weekends. All vehicles have bike racks and are ADA accessible. 

In addition to buying the new vehicles, which include six low-floor buses and 24 high headroom vans, RTS had to hire and train  staff and invest in fare collection equipment and on-demand software. Carpenter shares that while the software is a bit clunky, RTS is continuing to work with its vendor and explore other options through a future procurement.  

Brede shares using the software and operating the on-demand service has been a learning curve for RTS and its vendor because they had “never operated that before.” 

“We didn’t pilot the on-demand service. We launched it as part of the redesign,” Brede explained. “That’s why it’s a good first step.” 

For next steps, RTS has recommendations from its consultant for future or expanded zones. But it also has the flexibility to respond swiftly if a new job center comes to town or community needs change.  

“Because we have a new system, we have new ways to think about making service improvements and [expansions] when more funding comes along,” Carpenter said.  

Continuing a Robust Paratransit Service Area 

Prior to Reimagine RTS, the agency had a supplemental service area the complemented its federal requirements. However, since the on-demand zones replaced inefficient service using 40-foot buses, the paratransit service area would drastically be reduced. Seeing this, the board tasked RTS to maintain the same geography of the paratransit network prior to the redesign.  

One way RTS managed this was allowing eligible paratransit customers to ride RTS On Demand for free when staying within the same zone. Trips that go from one zone to another or from a fixed-route stop to a on-demand zone cost $5 since that trip “is more expensive” to operate, says Carpenter.  

“We had a public meeting about that,” Carpenter explained, saying that while the community was appreciative of the geography that would be served, the cost was a high for the many people on fixed income.  

“After that meeting, we lowered it to $4. And [the service] certainly was well received,” Carpenter said.  

Measuring Success 

RTS launched its new system May 17, 2021, which was about a year later than originally planned due to COVID-19. While the pandemic did affect the project timeline, it did not dampen the success.  

“Given the magnitude and the amount of change that happened in one day, I don’t think it could have gone better,” Brede reflected.  

Leading up to launch day, RTS had to replace nearly every bus stop sign and conduct extensive outreach and marketing campaigns to educate riders. On launch day, RTS placed “ambassadors” at the transit center and at connection hubs to help people navigate the new routes and services.  

Since the launch, ridership in the on-demand zones is 51 percent higher than it was with the old system, with more people using RTS for transportation. Not only has ridership expanded, but the community’s idea of public transit has expanded as well.  

“We, as transit agencies, need to recognize our need to provide mobility to the community that improves equity,” Carpenter said. “In a system redesign like this, we now have a platform where we can better serve our community with mobility options. It wouldn't have been possible before.” 

What’s Next 

As RTS continues to measure the success of its newly designed system, the agency plans to advocate for more state funding to pursue other items to complete the RTS network.  

“We list the items that are in the final report to say, here are the things that complete the system; we don’t have a complete system,” Carpenter shared. 

Such items include improving fixed-route frequency on the weekend; adding routes to the frequent network; extending service hours of the fixed-route system; increasing the number of on-demand vehicles; and extend service hours in on-demand zones to match the fixed-route system. 

“What we've worked on from an advocacy perspective in the last several years is getting more people involved, more voices involved,” Brede said. “So voices of our advocates, of our customers, of members of local government, because we all want the same thing. And it's a much more powerful ask when we're all doing it together.” 

About the Author

Megan Perrero | Associate Editor

Megan Perrero is an award-winning B2B journalist. She is the associate editor of Mass Transit magazine where she assists with developing the newsletters and social media posts, along with the online and print content. She is currently a board member for Latinos in Transit and serves on the APTA Marketing and Communications Committee. She’s based out of Chicago, Ill.

Prior to joining the team, Perrero gained experience covering the manufacturing and processing food and beverage industry, the agriculture industry and the library industry.

Perrero is a Columbia College Chicago alumna where she earned a bachelor's degree in journalism with a concentration in magazine writing and a minor in public relations.