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Members of Voices for Public Transit know public transportation benefits everyone. We’re keeping it moving.

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Innovations in Public Transit: West Salem Connector’s Flexible On-Demand Service

Voices for Public Transit is excited to launch our new Innovations in Public Transit series. Over the coming weeks and months, we’ll be highlighting local examples of how public transportation is evolving around the country and the new technologies public transit systems are trying out to keep people moving.

One innovative project that challenges traditional perceptions of public transit can be found in the Pacific Northwest.

On-Demand Service Works for Oregon’s Capital

Every community can benefit from public transportation, but no single type of public transit works everywhere. People in smaller towns, suburbs, and rural areas need mobility as much as people in large cities, but high-capacity vehicles — such as trains — are impractical. Even traditional bus systems do not make sense for every community, given limitations of geography, population density, and funding.

In Oregon’s Salem-Keizer area, including state capital Salem (pop. 160,600), there is strong demand for public transportation, but this demand is not uniform across the region. Salem-Keizer Transit — better known as “Cherriots” — has operated a regional bus system since 1979 and also provides paratransit service to people with disabilities.

In 2015, facing budget constraints and recognizing that two fixed bus routes were underutilized in the West Salem area, Cherriots made the difficult decision to cut the routes. Yet, Cherriots still needed to serve West Salem residents who rely on public transportation. How could they continue to meet the needs of riders and offer service in a hilly area with winding streets that did not easily accommodate traditional bus service? Technology — and a new concept — offered a solution.

Following the Example of Rideshare Services

On June 1, 2015, Cherriots introduced its West Salem Connector service:

  • A New Approach. Rather than following a fixed route, mini Connector buses pick up riders at any one of 26 Connector points spread throughout the area. The Connector vehicles transport passengers to any other Connector point, including three points that connect to traditional fixed bus routes. Riders can then travel via regular bus to downtown Salem.
  • Added Convenience. Passengers can book rides online via computer or smartphone — similar to private rideshare services like Uber. Rides can also be booked by calling a local number and speaking to a customer service representative. Passengers can schedule their pick-up from a half-hour to two weeks in advance; they can also schedule recurring trips. At the most utilized Connector point, walk-on passengers can also board without scheduling in advance.
  • Advanced Technology and Mobile Data Connections. While on-demand transit has been around a long time, these services often require rides to be scheduled one or two days in advance. The West Salem Connector can process requests and route drivers in near real-time thanks to the system’s incorporation of new, innovative technologies.

The flexibility and efficiency of the West Salem Connector could become a model for other regions of similar size or facing similar geographic challenges. Topeka and suburban Chicago transit systems have already adopted similar technology. Should your community be next?

Join in the conversation. Share with our community what innovations and new ideas are being deployed in your area — or what changes you would like to see.