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.