SouthWest Transit bus

A SouthWest Transit bus waits for a service call.

SouthWest Transit welcomed two new services this year: routes to and from Shakopee and a grocery pickup and drop off. CEO Len Simich says the rollout is going well.

Since less and less people are using transit services for commuting in the pandemic, and there's a lull in service during mid-morning anyway, he said adding routes was an easy decision.

“Let’s just open it up,” Simich said about the "Grocery Getter" program. “9 a.m. to 12 p.m. was the time of day where we were a little bit lighter.”

With that extra capacity for rides, people in the southwest metro area can ride on-demand to participating grocery stores for $2, and then back home.

The Shakopee expansion allows for riders from 6:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. for $4. And they’re open to anyone — people don’t need to provide proof of income, unlike some county pass programs, Simich said.

The services operate much like a Lyft or Uber ride. People request rides online or by calling, and a vehicle meets them within 20 minutes. Riders are notified when the bus arrives, careful to meet COVID precautions and limited to one household.

Simich said they're seeing between 6 to 10 people using the grocery service every day.

"Not huge numbers," he said, but pretty good for a rollout and lack of marketing.

In the first week alone, the programs were popular.

"We've had nothing but phone calls on this all week. Lots of people are looking (at) how (they) can do something similar,” Simich said.

Service to Shakopee averages 12 to 15 riders a day in both directions. The focus is to get people to and from work.

"So that's been good and I see that one only picking up more and more,” Simich said.

HOW IT STARTED

The Grocery Getter title started as a placeholder name, but it soon stuck.

It was also a chance to make sure people were getting the food they needed during the pandemic. Simich said SouthWest Transit has done local work with food shelves but it didn’t feel right to stop there.

"But it just seems like there was a bigger demand, a bigger need out there,” he said. "A lot of grocery stores were advertising, 'We’ll do the shopping for you, you pick (it) up.' It becomes a little difficult to haul around a bunch of groceries on a bus. They're set up for people, not so much to store packages."

So the team set out to find a way for people to get their own groceries — with transportation help at a discounted price.

Then, another question: Why not open it up to people needing rides to work in Shakopee?

"We decided, 'Let's open this up and see if we can start meeting some of the demand and need for these work trips,’” Simich said.

SouthWest transit hoped to roll it out before 2020 but had to work out details to partner with the Minnesota Valley Transit Authority, which he called a "natural link."

He hopes more businesses become aware of the services and said the grocery service will likely still be around in some form post-pandemic.

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