South Dakota City Turns to Harvard For Transit Help

Sioux Falls mayor sought a Harvard graduate student to help overhaul the city's bus system.

You knew there were falls in Sioux Falls, right?
You knew there were falls in Sioux Falls, right?
Sioux Falls Mayor Paul TenHaken
Sioux Falls Mayor Paul TenHaken

South Dakota’s largest city is taking a big step forward to modernize its transit — including an innovative way to recalibrate bus routes on the fly to handle demand.

Sioux Falls Mayor Paul TenHaken created an Innovation and Technology Department and launched the Transit Innovation Project with 14 city employees across nine divisions to figure out how to expand and improve public transportation for the city’s 176,000 people.

Now TenHaken, who only became mayor 14 months ago, filled a new data analyst position with 29-year-old Harvard University graduate student, Nico Diaz, who is assisting city officials to build financial models for the next phase of public transit.

“He’s been a huge breath of fresh air for perspectives because sometimes you get bogged down working on a project,”  Jason Reisdorfer, director of the Sioux Falls Innovation and Technology Department, told the Associated Press.

Diaz is out west on a 10-week pilot program thanks to the Harvard Kennedy School and its Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative which provides management and leadership training for city mayors and pays for Harvard students to tackle systemic urban problems involving housing, education, and transit.

“I wanted to come to a city that’s already doing a lot of cool stuff with innovation,” Diaz told the Argus Leader. “And Sioux Falls is, so that motivated me to come.”

Sioux Falls is in the middle of an eight-phase overhaul of its transit system that would shift is fixed route bus service to an on demand system, allowing vehicles to change their routes based on passenger needs rather than a fixed line or schedule. Instead of running 12 routes on a “hub and spoke” system with two bus depots which can require multiple transfers, the Sioux Falls Metro is considering a square or circular-shaped route supplemented by on demand service to cover its 78 square miles.

About 63 percent of transit riders in Sioux Falls use smart phones, allowing them to use an app to schedule their bus rides, but the other 37 percent would need an option to pay cash fare at a nearby kiosk or on board, city officials found in a 2017 survey of bus riders.

The project impressed Kennedy School officials enough that they sent the Bloomberg fellow to work on it. After interviewing bus riders, motorists, and business leaders, Diaz and city officials are conducting a financial analysis of transit services to see whether an on demand system would benefit South Dakota transit users.

Sioux Falls leaders are also carefully watching how the state divvies up transportation funding in the future. Over the next two years, South Dakota will allocate transit funding based on performance — such as number of rides, miles driven, and local funds spent on a program — giving municipalities an incentive to improve.

5 thoughts on South Dakota City Turns to Harvard For Transit Help

  1. A 29 year old harvard graduate. I can save you the trouble and the money. You wanna fix your transit systems, run buses on lightrail schedules. Expand the size of bus stops, include picnic style tables and wifi and you’ll get a massive bump in ridership or at least more loiterers. Plus add security cameras. Another thing is get rid of the forty foot buses and adopt mini and micro buses.
    The average car on the road consumed 4,700 British thermal units (BTUs) per vehicle mile in 2015, which is almost a 50% reduction from 1973, when Americans drove some of the gas-guzzliest cars in history. The average light truck (meaning pick ups, full-sized vans, and SUVs) used about 6,250 BTUs per vehicle mile in 2015, which is also about half what it was in the early 1970s.

    By comparison, the average transit bus used 15 percent more BTUs per vehicle mile in 2015 than transit buses did in 1970. Since bus occupancies have declined, BTUs per passenger mile have risen by 63 percent since 1970. While buses once used only about half as much energy per passenger mile as cars, they now use about a third more. Trying to fill oversized buses is a waste of fuel and resources. The fact is, transit declines nationwide advocate the transit industry should simply phase out it’s operations and allow where possible private vehicles with high capacities (6+ passengers) to provide the transportation based on demand.

  2. There is definitely a problem with transit it Siout Falls but this is not the answer. The current system is illegible and requires people to have intense knowledge of the routes to use. The also do not serve a a large portion of the city in that there are no routes near them. This is not the solution that will increase ridership or decrease costs. The system should be changed to run more of a grid system using a rapid bus style system that stops less frequent but runs on more frequently. The routes need to be simplified so that anyone can get ok and know where it is going. They also need to run later in the night as the system stops fairly early in the evening.

  3. Does Sioux Falls want its transit system to guide development and get actual use? Or does the city just want it to serve as a glorified dial-a-ride for the poor and disabled? Transit on demand has been around a long time and isn’t “innovative” just because it’s paired with an app. Switching to an all demand system might improve some riders’ experiences but can’t possibly be a good trend for a city of almost 200,000 people if it cares at all about the environment or smart growth. Then again, it is Sioux Falls, SD…

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