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Paul TenHaken Is Helping Transform the City's Public Transit System

The Sioux Falls mayor plans to launch a pilot program offering on-demand bus service

spinner image paul tenhaken the mayor of sioux falls south dakota sits on the desk in his planning office where the walls are covered in colorful post it notes and maps
Gregg Segal

En español | Sioux Falls, South Dakota, has a war room. Tucked away on an unfinished floor of a municipal building, a group of city workers gathered there for nine months, hatching a plan to transform the city's public bus system.

About 28 percent of riders are 55 and older, yet many of the city's older residents lack easy access to a bus. Or if they do, they have trouble managing wait times of up to 30 minutes on frigid Midwestern days. Overall ridership is low, and the 12 bus routes would reach only about two-thirds of the sprawling 75-square-mile city.

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So the city's new mayor, Paul TenHaken, elected in 2018, oversaw the formation of a group called the Core Team, with 14 city workers of various backgrounds tasked with developing solutions. TenHaken, a 42-year-old technology executive and Republican, ran in part on a platform to apply the tools of tech innovation to city government. He was inspired by his participation in a summit in New York City led by the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative, which had tapped him for a yearlong leadership and city management program. Sioux Falls was one of the smallest cities in the program, but TenHaken saw that as an asset: “It's a little easier to turn the battleship of a smaller municipality."

Paul TenHaken

Mayor, Sioux Falls, South Dakota

• Problem: A bus system that is often inhospitable to older riders

• Solution: Assemble a team with little or no transit experience to look at the system with fresh eyes.

• Results: An on-demand experiment without routes and schedules

After the summit, TenHaken created a Department of Innovation and Technology, hiring as its leader Jason Reisdorfer, who had previously worked in sales. Reisdorfer got to work on redeveloping the city's transit system. Among the city workers he and TenHaken picked for the Core Team, only one had previous transit expertise. The diverse team included a firefighter, a police officer, a librarian and a health care worker.

"We didn't want to have a bunch of people in the same room who said, ‘This is how we've always done it,’ “ Reisdorfer says.

In addition to working in the war room, team members rode buses. They met with riders, business leaders, hospital staffs, affordable housing developers and university officials. They researched the issue.

TenHaken allowed the team freedom to work on its own. “When a mayor gets involved in any sort of meeting, his or her voice trumps any other discussion in the room,” he says. But his presence was felt. The team communicated using a messaging app, and TenHaken frequently chimed in with uplifting emojis.

In late 2019, the Core Team presented its recommendations, calling for eliminating all dedicated bus routes. Instead, riders would use a smartphone app or computer — or landline for those who lack such devices — to call for a ride. Buses circulating the city would arrive within 15 minutes and within three blocks of their location and ferry the rider to any destination in the city, picking up other riders along the way, not unlike a ride-sharing service. The city plans to roll out a pilot program this summer, starting on Saturdays.

If the pilot works, part of the bus fleet would be replaced with vans and cars.

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TenHaken embraced the idea, but also the possibility that it might not work. “We're experimenting and we're innovating on a very public stage,” he says. “The alternative is to do nothing at all."

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