TAMPA — There's a new breed of service coming to some suburban Hillsborough County bus routes.
Out are the lumbering mass-transit buses that travel fixed routes throughout the day. Taking their place starting today: smaller "flex" buses that pick up and drop off passengers at their home or office.
The vehicles, which are a little shorter than a bread truck and seat 12 riders, get twice the fuel mileage and cost 75 percent less than a regular city bus, which can cost up to $400,000.
But the real draw is the curbside pickup. The buses may veer a mile or so off their routes to take passengers to jobs, stores or appointments. Riders can call ahead for reservations or wait for the vehicles at flex stops.
Hillsborough Area Regional Transit's flex bus service is being expanded today to replace some connector routes — the 87, 88, 89 and part of the 36.
The move is part of broader changes by HART to streamline service. The expansion of flex service is expected to save $600,000 in operating costs and boost glaringly low suburban ridership.
It's not unusual to see full-sized buses with few or no passengers in some areas. Route 89, which runs in the MacDill Avenue area of South Tampa, averages just six riders a day. Routes 87 and 88, which operate in southeast and northwest Hillsborough, respectively, average three each.
Some reasons for that: Most suburbanites drive, and traditional city buses can't easily navigate housing developments.
Flex buses meet riders at the door.
"It's really designed for areas that don't support traditional transit systems," said Steve Feigenbaum, HART's manager of service planning. "If you're operating in an area that doesn't have the population and the employment density, fixed routes really don't make sense. But with flex, you're tailoring the service to what people like. You don't have to walk a quarter-mile to catch a bus."
Flex buses average about 9 miles per gallon, compared with 3.8 mpg for traditional buses. The vehicles also have lower maintenance costs, and produce less noise and fewer emissions.
HART planned to run flex buses four years ago using a contractor, but scrapped the plan when the Legislature cut funding to transit agencies.
But in April 2010, it launched its own pilot project with flex service in Brandon and Ruskin. The results were encouraging: A year later, the two routes carry 15 to 20 riders each per day and more growth is expected. HART then decided to eliminate the connector routes altogether and use a federal grant to buy four flex vehicles this year.
"The time seems right," Feigenbaum said. "It will be less costly for us to run this, and we'll still be able to meet the community's needs and generate a service."
Flex services do have downsides. The buses will veer off-route only a mile or so, meaning riders in south Hillsborough can't take a flex bus to downtown Tampa. They'll have to exit at a bus stop and transfer. Also, the schedules can fluctuate depending on the number of reservations. Riders waiting to be picked up must allow 20 to 30 minutes, depending on the number of reservations before them.
The Brandon and south Hillsborough service had some initial hiccups. When launched last year, riders could make reservations many days in advance. But when time came, some forgot or simply didn't show up.
"We found that if the reservation was more than three days old, they tended to forget about it and the bus would sit there," Feigenbaum said.
Riders can reserve a pickup two hours to three days ahead of time. One-way fares are 85 cents and an all-day pass is $1.85.