When Sherry Miller needs to run an errand, shop or get to an appointment, she picks up the phone instead of the car keys — and calls a bus.
Offering convenience that other bus riders can only dream about, the Pace Call-n-Ride shuttle stops at Miller's home in Joliet and drops her at her destination.
"I use this for everything," said Miller, 47, during a recent trip. "It costs me less to do this than to own a car. … This bus meets (people's) needs and helps keep a community going."
Often criticized for operating suburban bus routes that seem to serve few, if any, passengers, Pace is turning more toward a customized service as an antidote to the empty-bus syndrome.
While there's a cost for that convenience — nearly $17 a ride, according to one study — it's a more economical option than operating big buses on lightly used fixed routes or in less populated areas, says Pace, which provides transit service to the suburban six-county area, with its wide-ranging diversity.
The shared-ride service picks up riders and takes them anywhere as long as it's within a designated service zone.
Two suburban areas — Joliet's west side and the Round Lake area — have Call-n-Ride service now, and Pace plans to expand to the St. Charles/Geneva and Wheaton/Winfield areas in December. Other zones are being eyed as well.
Call-n-Ride is part of a long-term strategy aimed at developing smaller routes, said Michael Bolton, Pace's deputy executive director of strategic services.
"Community-level service maintains mobility for a lot of people within their (residential) area, but also provides connectivity to bigger fixed routes," he said.
Unlike buses that ply grid-based city routes, the shuttles follow the travel patterns and geography of the suburbs, said Patty Mangano, a Regional Transportation Authority planner who authored a study on locally based transit options.
Call-n-Ride also helps answer what Mangano called "the last-mile problem," the final leg after a suburban commuter takes a Metra train or fixed-route bus home.
Bill Flanagan takes both a regular Pace bus and the shuttle each day to get to the tanning salon he manages in Joliet.
"I don't drive. This is my transportation," said Flanagan, 47, aboard the shuttle. "I think it's the greatest."
Using 20-foot shuttles, Call-n-Ride operates almost exclusively on the customers' schedules and within residential neighborhoods, unlike the larger buses that follow regular timetables on arterial streets.
In addition, the curb-to-curb service fills a public transit niche and can be a valuable supplement to standard fixed-route bus service, experts say.
Similar service is popular in other cities.
Denver's Regional Transportation District has been providing Call-n-Ride since 2000, said Bruce Abel, assistant general manager of its bus operations.
The Denver program has grown to serve about 20 areas, with an annual ridership of about 400,000, Abel said, with ridership in each area ranging from 60 to 90 trips a day.
As with Pace, the Denver service either replaces fixed-route service or provides transit to lightly populated areas.
"The response from customers has been very positive," Abel said. "They say, 'Give us more Call-n-Ride.'"
Some experts see the growth of Call-n-Ride as an indicator of the dismal economy.
"The times are tough," said Art Guzzetti, vice president for policy at the American Public Transportation Association, which represents the transit industry. "It's causing people (at transit agencies) to be more creative. Here's a response to that."
In Joliet, about 29,000 people live within the Call-n-Ride zone, which includes the Westfield Louis Joliet Mall, Joliet Public Library and Provena St. Joseph Hospital. Riders also can access Will County's River Valley Justice Center upon request.
Call-n-Ride differs from other local transportation modes like Dial-a-Ride, offered by some municipalities, and paratransit service for older or disabled riders, because it is open to the general public.
Reservations may be made by phone as little as an hour in advance of a trip. Others can be scheduled on a regular basis. Riders pay the standard $1.75 Pace fare and get a free transfer.
Rides are scheduled on a first-come, first-served basis and are available Monday through Friday from 6 a.m. to 6:15 p.m.
Since Call-n-Ride is a shared-ride service, passengers going to several different destinations may be riding at the same time.
If customers need to travel outside the service zone, they are dropped at a transfer point where they can pick up a regular Pace bus or a Metra train.
Pace launched Joliet's Call-n-Ride program in 2008 primarily in response to low ridership on local bus routes, two of which were eliminated and three redesigned.
"I don't know why, but you'd get on the bus and see only one or two people all day," said Ron Pasdertz, 45, of Rockdale. "When we lost the buses on the west side, people were in a panic."
Call-n-Ride makes up for the lost bus service, however, because it's more convenient, said Pasdertz, who takes it to work every day. "There are a lot of times when it's full. … This is a great service."
Despite Call-n-Ride's popularity with riders and mass-transit proponents, critics might question its cost-effectiveness. Pace's most recent numbers show about 36 riders a day use the Joliet Call-n-Ride and 33 per day ride in Round Lake.
A study presented in January before the Transportation Research Board in Washington found that the Joliet Call-n-Ride cost $16.90 per passenger trip, compared to $6.91 per fixed-route passenger trip.
But the study also showed that under a different measure, Call-n-Ride fared much better. Comparing cost per service hour, Call-n-Ride ran about $51.11 versus $84.41 for fixed-route buses.
Call-n-Ride also performed about the same as fixed-route bus service as measured by cost per revenue mile, $4.81 and $4.98, respectively.
Pace argues that these yardsticks alone don't show how efficient one type of service is over the other and that other variables must be considered as well.
One reason Call-n-Ride is cheaper is because the service is contracted out to a private firm, First Transit, Pace says, whereas fixed-route service is operated by Pace's unionized workforce.
Pace says the gross numbers show it costs $1,328 daily to operate a fixed route versus $574 for Call-n-Ride, amounting to a savings of nearly $190,000 annually.
Call-n-Ride "opens the door for people to use public transit in areas where ridership is so low that the operator can't justify putting in a bus line," said Joseph Schofer, a transportation finance professor at Northwestern University and one of the study's authors.
The Call-n-Ride concept isn't just a response to lagging ridership, officials say. Pace and Illinois Tollway officials envision Call-n-Ride as a key part of plans to boost mass transit when the Jane Addams Memorial Tollway (Interstate 90) is rebuilt starting in 2013 and express bus service is added.
Under the plan, three Call-n-Ride zones will be designated next to the tollway. Along with users of new park-and-ride lots, the shuttles will collect customers and transport them to the express buses.
In the Round Lake area, Pace started Call-n-Ride in 2009 to connect local residents with three Metra stations and two regular Pace bus routes, two shopping centers and the College of Lake County.
A student and employee at the college, Verdena Jones-Davis, 56, of Grayslake, has used Call-n-Ride since it started. She also takes it to a Wal-Mart and the Metra station.
"There's a need for this service — a great need," Jones-Davis said. "I was either walking, riding a bike or trying to get a ride. Once this service started, I was elated."
Freelance reporter Andrea L. Brown contributed.