New bus system would expand on-demand service and reduce fixed routes

Hybrid system focuses on the most popular routes while giving more options for on-demand locations.

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The downtown transfer station for Sioux Area Metro transit in Sioux Falls.
Adam Thury / Sioux Falls Live

SIOUX FALLS — Proposed changes to the city’s bus system will retract the decades-old fixed routes and expand access to on-demand transportation.

The city has run a pilot program for the past two years for on-demand busing on Saturdays only. That idea came from the innovation team in the early days of the administration of Mayor Paul TenHaken.

Since that time, city planners have been refining the on-demand process while also studying each of the 12 fixed routes, looking for ways to increase ridership.

Moving forward, the planning department is recommending a hybrid approach which will cut the number of fixed routes but have them run more often. At the same, the options for on-demand will increase, including offering more places to catch a bus in areas that aren’t currently served.

The effort comes as ridership dropped locally and nationally during the pandemic and has flatlined ever since. The Sioux Area Metro system served more than 885,000 riders in 2015. By 2021, that number was about 400,700 riders.


The pandemic was a major contributor to that massive decline. The goal for local officials is to rebuild a system that gives people on the most-traveled routes more frequency and continue to develop on-demand.

There are too many loops that don’t serve enough of the city, said Sam Trebilcock, senior planner.

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Sam Trebilcock, senior planner for the City of Sioux Falls.
Contributed / City of Sioux Falls

“That’s our grandfather’s bus system,” Trebilock said. “The system was set up before there was an Empire Mall.”

Trebilcock was scheduled to present the plan to the city council on Tuesday, Jan. 3, but the informational meeting was canceled because of the winter storm. It will be rescheduled in the next few weeks.

Five of the current 12 fixed routes are under-performing, according to the planning department. The hybrid model would have eight routes by merging and adjusting. Three of those new routes will run every 30 minutes.

That gives the most popular buses the highest frequency and gives riders who need the bus the best chance to use it.

But the current routes only realistically serve 59% of the city.

To expand access overall, there will be more locations outside that service area where residents can schedule a pick-up or drop off.


The on-demand uses the current bus-stop system, but allows a resident to schedule their trip on a mobile app, through the Sioux Area Metro website or by calling 605-367-7151.

The rider gets a 15 to 20 minute window for pickup at their chosen location and then are taken to their drop-off spot without needing to transfer.

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City of Sioux Falls
SAM plan map hybrid.PNG
City of Sioux Falls

The new hybrid system would add more locations for pick-up and drop-off in areas that are currently not near existing routes. That includes spots such as Laurel Oaks Pool, Memorial Middle School, the Sioux Falls Regional Airport and the Sanford Sports Complex.

“Over time, we know that the power of the on-demand is the data we get,” Trebilcock said. “If we get a huge number of riders through origin and destination patterns from the data, we can do a custom made fixed route if need be.”

Realistically though, the on-demand won’t generate significantly more riders. It makes the system more accessible for some people while allowing the system to focus on serving the most people possible through fixed routes.

An on-demand vehicle — smaller than the full-sized bus — can serve only three to five people an hour on average.

The bigger buses on fixed routes with more people is what will move the overall needle.

Still, there’s a balance, Trebilcock said, that will be best for Sioux Falls. For instance, a grid system common in larger cities isn’t cost effective here.


That’s because it creates multiple transfer points, where people get off an east-west bound bus and get on a north-south bound, for example. In that scenario, a bus needs to come by each intersection more often that every 30 minutes or so.

“What we found when you try to do the grid is that you really have to invest about twice as much to get a really good service,” he said.

Which isn’t to say that the hybrid system is going to save money in the near term. In fact, the planning department estimates that it needs $1.7 million annually to stabilize the transportation fund.

The money is for replacing fixed-route and para-transit buses as well as new on-demand vehicles. The current transit office and garage facility needs replacing and the plan calls for new bus shelters.

It’s an investment, to be sure, Trebilcock said. That’s because the busing system is part of the transportation infrastructure, just like roads, which cost the city tens of millions of dollars each year. The metropolitan area is growing by several thousand people a year on average, which will continue to put pressure on transportation budgets.

“You have to have more ways for people to get around,” he said. “You can’t just keep building your way out of growth on a road system.”

City of Sioux Falls Transit Plan by inforumdocs on Scribd

Patrick Lalley is the engagement editor and reporter for Sioux Falls Live. Reach him at
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