Equitable Transit

As I was scurrying around town a few weeks ago, finishing up some holiday shopping, I grew jaded from all the driving and searching for parking. I thought “Why am I not more inclined to take a bus?” As I drove down 41st street in Sioux Falls, I didn’t really see any buses, so that may have been the beginning of my answer. I’ve looked up the schedules in more ambitious years gone by, in an attempt to see if any of them fit within my work schedule, but none were very accommodating, either requiring me to wake up an hour earlier than normal, or arrive a half hour late to work. And then recently the news came out that Sioux Falls was studying their bus service Sioux Area Metro (SAM) to see what improvements could be made. Great… I thought.

It didn’t take long for me to run along a photo caption in a related editorial that gave me pause:

“A part of the task force’s work is engaging bus riders and the general public, so members were at the bus depot at 9 a.m. Friday to talk to riders and ride the buses”

“Public Transportation Deserves Bold Thinking”

9 am? Based on the photo accompanying the caption, it didn’t appear to be a prime time for ridership. I would think something between 7 and 8 would be a better option. I myself would’ve already been at work for an hour.

Then I shifted my thinking, though the the timeframe still caused concern. My family has two cars, can afford gas, and I have a flexible work schedule. While I may have enjoyed such an amenity like an efficient and convenient bus system in grad school (Ames, IA has a fantastic bus system), the Sioux Falls bus system is not meant for me.

Now I should note, ideally, the system SHOULD work me, and for you, and for everyone. But the primary purpose of a mass transit system is to transport the masses – of which I am not. As a middle-class male, I am more and more a socioeconomic minority, though it seems much of the world is designed around me and my convenience. The bus system’s main focus should be supporting those who can’t easily get themselves to and from work any other way – not providing the same exact service to every single person. It’s called equity.

Back to the caption. Even removing my convenience from the equation, I’m still not convinced that 9 am on a Friday is still the best time. Maybe they are capturing people headed to a retail or related job. I’d be interested to see if any consideration was given to identifying peak ridership times for this study. 9 am just seems a bit too convenient for a city employee’s schedule. Depending on location, it can take 45 minutes or more to make the proper transfers and finally get to one’s final destination. If I lived near Hayward Elementary and had a job near Avera Hospital that started at 8 am, I’d need to leave the house by 6:45 to ensure I made the bus. And a good chunk of that commute is sitting at the downtown depot for 20 minutes. Frustrating to be sure.

So what’s the solution to make SAM more equitable? I don’t have the answer. Certainly, the inefficiency in providing access to those who need it most is not entirely SAM’s fault. Overall city development plays a big factor, ensuring that lower-income residents and families aren’t relegated to areas on the city periphery or other transit deserts. Nevertheless, I do have some thoughts on what directions the study could be taken to ensure a better system.

  1. Survey all people. And attempt to eliminate any bias from the survey: 9 am on a Friday is probably not a good sample. And don’t survey just current users. Identify neighborhoods that could potentially benefit most from usage, and identify what schedules/routes might work best for them.
  2. Identify possible express zones or lanes. Zig-zagging routes take more time. A straight shot running continuous down 41st street (passing high-schools like Roosevelt, O’Gorman, and Lincoln, and connecting the neighborhoods beyond, east and west) could be more efficient than a loop that needs to start and end downtown.
  3. Identify more transfer stations than just downtown and a single southwest transfer stop for one route. This could help with item 2.
  4. Identify peak times, similar to item 1 above. Many routes appear to have the same intervals between each cycle, regardless of time of day. This seems entirely inefficient, though it makes a schedulers job easy.
  5. Investigate whether other forms of transit would be more cost effective long term. Is Sioux Falls ready for light rail, or a tram system, in key areas?

I’m sure you have thoughts too. Share them below. And let us endeavor to always think of the other as we design – that’s part of what this season is all about. Happy Holidays!

7 Replies to “Equitable Transit”

  1. My husband and I were taking a break in the Florida Keys early December where we rented bicycles and also sought out the bus system and Lyft to get around. Their bus system seemed to be relatively easy to figure out via an app that gave us all the needed information, just stopping short of tracking the vehicles the way the Lyft app does (which is super slick). I’m sure there are other good examples of mid-sized City bus system case studies out there.

  2. We have been discussing this issue off and on over at SiouxFallsBetterTransit on facebook for about 6 months. There are lots of issues that need addressing. The transit system here is a mess and isn’t working for anyone. I was shocked to find out that they don’t run buses on the weekends from someone who uses the bus to get to work and works at a restaurant.

  3. The problem with Sioux Area Metro (SAM) is that it’s too slow, infrequent, and unreliable to be useful to a majority of citizens. As a result, SAM suffers from low ridership. It has great coverage though, serving much of Sioux Falls. That is the root of the problem, unfortunately. SAM is inefficient and poorly used because coverage is prioritized over ridership. Public transit guru, Jarrett Walker, comprehensively explains this dichotomy on his website and in his book, both titled, “Human Transit.” According to a growing body of research, transit needs to be quick and frequent for it to be well used.

  4. I have contacted the Sioux Area Metro before in May of 2017 about the poor quality of public transit and the loop system (SAM response posted below). My big concern is that companies in Sioux Falls such as Good Samaritan Society, Avera Health and Sanford Health bleed the Paratransit system and leave no room for expansion of the regular transit for the general public. These companies are well funded; they should be able to provide private transit for their clients instead exercising the system that is funded by our tax dollars.


    Back in the 1940’s, Sioux Falls Transit provided relatively frequent and direct route service. During the 50’s and 60’s auto ownership and suburbanization levels increased significantly which led to a major reduction in ridership. To reduce operating costs, the transit system combined several routes which led to the loop configurations that you see today. Loops allow transit systems to serve a large area at a relatively low cost, but they often increase customer ride times (sometimes significantly), which makes the service less competitive with other travel modes.

    Sioux Area Metro has developed a service improvement plan that will eliminate loops on the east side of town and significantly reduce them on the west side of town. This service improvement plan, however, will cost approximately $1 million dollars more each year to operate than our current service.

    To fund this service, Sioux Area Metro has been working with the City of Sioux Falls and local agencies to move agency rides, currently provided by SAM, onto alternative providers.

    Because of the high level of agency trips, Sioux Area Metro’s paratransit costs are significantly higher than at most transit systems in the United States. The high paratransit expenses mean that Sioux Area Metro has insufficient funding to support a robust fixed-route network. Please contact me at 367-7151 should you have any additional questions. Thank you for your interest in Sioux Area Metro.

    -Eric Meyerson

  5. An interesting comment I had heard recently was from a gentleman from Chicago. He mentioned they made two major changes to their bus systems. First they made the bus routes adaptable. In this day in age, a poster on a bus stop to find the times for bus route does not provide the information needed to those who wish to use the transit system. If the bus, since it is not on a track, could extend its routes to the areas in most need. Second, to combat what you may have been thinking about those who do not have cell phones or access to the internet, he mentioned they hired drivers from the neighborhoods they would serve. This not only gives a larger sense of community to those using bus routes, but also allow for the bus driver to get to know the passengers that would need additional help. Maybe there are drivers within our neighborhood associations who would be interested in this!

  6. I received some feedback on facebook from a friend with family in city planning. They shared some thoughts which I am reposting as part of this reply. As I noted, this is more than just a SAM issue, it is about overall city development and moreso about some of the perceptions citizens of the city/regions hold. I think some of the point made are good and valid. Comment shared below:

    [[First a kind of small distinction, the City does provide some financial support for SAM, but it’s actually its own separate entity. It runs its own surveys and such. The city owns the equipment and they handle the federal grants, but the employment and schedules are subcontracted to SAM, which is an affiliate of a national organization. It’s a little convoluted and we’re actually looking into other options because a national program might not be the best thing for us.

    On to some of your other issues. You have an issue with the hub being downtown. I get that because it’s the opposite direction for my work as well and I’d be backtracking just to catch my bus. But taking into account the other, the bus system is set up to get lower income people to services that can help them. For better or worse the Banquet, the Dudley House, the St. Francis house, the Falls Health Free Clinic, courthouse and the transitional homeless apartments (among others) are all concentrated downtown. And the city tries to get as many lines to those services as possible.

    Speaking of lower income people, a lot of your wishlist is in line with the City’s wishlist… but there’s a major roadblock: classism. You are what’s classified as a “choice rider,” but you are in the minority. Most people in this area view SAM as transportation for low-income people or those with drug/alcohol problems. It’s a huge issue because more choice riders would subsidize rates and open the possibility of more lines, which you’re right, we need if we want to make it work more efficiently. (SAM’s low ridership also causes issues for paratransit riders because SAM riders subsidize paratransit fees. It’s pretty dire right now and paratransit is facing bankruptcy in the next few years if we can’t fix it!)

    Classism is really horrible in another way that you mentioned: housing locations. The city doesn’t want to put apartments on the outskirts of town. They have actually tried to zone housing around existing transportation, but people are horrible. Two quick examples: 1) there is an agricultural lot over by Washington high that is bus stop adjacent. The city tried to zone it for apartments but the neighborhood banded together and petitioned to prevent it. (The argument? Apartments-the people who live in them- bring crime to a neighborhood.) 2) There is a big depot right by the empire mall. A developer wanted to build an apartment building behind it. Perfect, people wouldn’t even have to cross a street to get there! Nope, the neighbors- this time office buildings- got together and threw a stink about the project and got it shut down. Ironic considering that there are already apartment buildings around the area. But people are terrible.]]

  7. Chase brings up a really good point. I have a family member that doesn’t want to own a car so they use the bus to fill gaps between Lyft, borrowing rides from coworkers etc. They also do this to save money since a bus pass is cheaper that using Lyft. I purchased a bus pass for them when they first moved back here and oh boy was that a learning experience.

    I went to the SAM office. The person there was incredibly rude. I could only pay with cash or a paper check. SAM had no way to take a card payment. She laughed at me when I questioned why there was no way to pay by card and no kiosk at the mall depot. Her comment was something about “this is Sioux Falls”. It is 2019, even many low income people have some form of payment card and could buy a bus pass using a card or a kiosk.

    This issue of the bus is only for low income people is becoming a self fulfilling prophecy. SAM does everything to deter anyone else from using it. Part of the problem is that SAM seems to be dictating to the community how the system will be designed, funded and managed. Community input seems to be more for show than planning.

    To finally buy that bus pass I had to go to the SAM office by the falls, to Lewis on Cliff, then to Lewis on Sycamore on the far east side of town. After standing in line at Lewis on Cliff for 30 minutes I was told they were out of bus passes. So I had to drive to the SE corner of the city to obtain one. Now imagine someone with no car doing all of this. Add that they might have health or mobility problems, or have a small child in tow. This is inexcusable.

    If SAM really does consider the bus system as only for poor people why doesn’t the bus run at night or on weekends since so many of the working poor have service jobs and work those hours?

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