The Denton County Transportation Authority has placed a few new bets on ways to help people get where they need to go.
One of those bets is on zone buses. Zone buses are different from grabbing a seat on the crosstown bus or hopping the train to Dallas. The buses are hailed with a smartphone app. I was curious. Would getting that ride really be as fast and easy as touching a button on my phone?
To test it out, I’ve ridden several zone buses, once in Denton and three more times in Lewisville. My experiences, while not exhaustive, came with key lessons.
The Lewisville zone bus replaced part of a fixed bus route that didn’t always link up well with the train schedule. Hailing a ride seemed ideal to get from the train station to the DCTA offices without having to bring my bicycle on the train.
The first time I rode, I studied the app on the train ride down to Lewisville. It wasn’t going to be like raising my hand on the sidewalk to hail a taxicab. The app asked me where I wanted to go, and then gave me choices of bus stops.
That became the first lesson: Zone buses don’t necessarily take riders from door to door, but from stop to stop like other buses.
I paid attention to how long the trip took from start to finish (about 15 minutes). I allotted 25 minutes to get back to the train station from the DCTA offices. It was not enough time.
After picking me up, the app directed the driver to pick up another rider before delivering us both to the station. The driver tried to hustle, but the northbound train pulled out as we pulled up. I had to wait 20 minutes for the next train. My fellow bus rider was headed southbound, so he had a 40-minute wait ahead. In other words, we both would have made our respective trains if the rides were scheduled differently.
Second lesson: You must know and plan for the train schedule, because the app doesn’t.
The second time I rode to Lewisville, the app wasn’t working. But before I could call in to request a ride, the bus driver arrived. The driver was looking for a regular rider who didn’t hail as expected. That rider, too, said the app wasn’t working for him that day. The driver entered both our stops from his side of the system and got us where we needed to go.
Third lesson: Zone bus drivers serve as their own back-up dispatchers.
The third time I rode to Lewisville, the app was glitchy. I canceled my first attempt and felt confident about my second attempt, except the hail wasn’t being accepted in the app. The bus driver just showed up. She told me that she kept getting hails and cancellations from me. She said she was glad she decided to come see what was going on, because the app made it look like I was experimenting and didn’t really need a ride.
Denton resident Carl Seiler works at another office in the Lewisville zone and hails the bus regularly. He noted that the zone buses have more regular riders now than when the service started several months ago. They share booking tips amongst themselves. “We often get to talking to each other and ask, for example, ‘What do you put in to get the 5:30 train?’” Seiler said.
Fourth lesson: A wide range of experiences can help in solving hailing problems.
For a zone ride in Denton, I took an afternoon off to go with my son to the WinCo warehouse. We got there in time for me to enjoy a short tour of the building and for him to start his afternoon shift.
The zone bus happened to be waiting at Fouts Field when we arrived via Bus 7. Our driver had to do a little backup dispatching, but we were whisked to WinCo once the virtual paperwork was done.
On my return trip, I had to wait for 30 minutes for the bus because I hailed during a shift change. Then, because Bus 7 circles the University of North Texas campus, the nearest bus stop for my connecting ride home was a half-mile walk to West Oak Street. My son decided he wouldn’t try to connect bus rides, but just make the 25-minute walk from Fouts Field to home.
Fifth lesson: Zone buses are flexible, but only in certain ways.
My son has taken the zone bus again a few times since our maiden voyage. I’m sure I’ll take the zone bus again to DCTA board meetings in Lewisville. But I like the ease of the fixed route bus for my daily commute. It’s a five-minute walk to the stops and I have the schedule memorized, which makes getting a ride (and leaving the truck at home) a breeze.
DCTA officials announced plans to expand the Denton zone bus to parts of the Denia area neighborhood beginning May 13. They are talking about offering zone bus service in other parts of Denton, too.
DCTA has a 2-year-old contract with Lyft to serve other zones. They are signing dozens of new contracts with companies that offer “mobility” services — in other words, any innovative way to move people from place to place. In their biennial rider survey — the results of which are expected to be released to the public in June — DCTA asked riders several questions about zone service. Would they use an app? How long would they wait for a hail? How long would they be willing to share a ride to get where they were going?
The answers to those questions could reveal whether current and potential riders understand and accept what smartphone apps and zone buses can deliver.