Jun. 20—NORTH MANKATO — North Mankato has long tried to find the right fit of mass transit for a city that doesn't have the population of Mankato but has major employers like Taylor Corp., as well as a college, large apartment complexes and neighborhoods of young families and elderly residents.
The key to transit may be a traditional fixed-route bus component with a bigger reliance on flexible, door-to-door transit.
"I think for North Mankato flex service is the future," said City Administrator John Harrenstein. "The flexible transit option is more attractive to the groups that need that service. It's based on their schedule. And if they're a distance from a (bus) stop, this is door to door."
Mayor Mark Dehen said the city's traditional fixed-route bus service, which it contracts for with Mankato, is helpful for some areas of the city, particularly upper North Mankato where major employers, South Central College and apartment complexes are located.
But, he said, it's been difficult to schedule service as different big companies have a variety of shift times and some, such as Fun.com, have a huge surge in employees at certain times of the year but then taper off.
He said a flexible service provides what a lot of people need.
"Especially for those who need to get to appointments or go shopping," Dehen said of elderly residents living in their own homes.
Younger residents are also becoming less reliant on cars and more on transit, he said.
Early this year North Mankato began being served by Kato Flex, a small-bus curb-to-curb service provided by Mankato's transit system.
Kato Flex has enjoyed growth in both cities, seeing ridership increase by 50% since the beginning of 2020.
Harrenstein said North Mankato ridership has been good, with 179 rides in February, 251 in March and 220 in April.
"We just have to think of transit differently, make it more flexible. I think what many call on-demand service is the future."
North Mankato spends between $60,000 and $80,000 annually for transit services. That includes the fixed-route system, Kato Flex and mobility rides for ADA-qualified passengers. All those services are contracted from Mankato.
But that's just 20% of the total cost for the services, with the rest covered by state and federal funding.
This year, thanks to extra funding under the federal CARES Act, most all local transit costs are being covered, which is allowing riders to use Kato Flex for free. The usual fee is $2 for a one-way trip or a monthly pass for $50.
North Mankato in recent years also had a pilot program with RubyRide, a privately operated service that offers curb-to-curb service.
The company, based in Pennsylvania, had decent ridership but has paused its service locally as it works to get additional funding.
Kato Flex is provided weekdays from addresses in Flex Zones to anywhere Mankato bus service is provided. (mankatomn.gov/city-services-a-z/sandbox/kato-flex).
People can call 507-625-7433 or email firstname.lastname@example.org to register to use (24-hour advance notice is requested to help secure a slot).