TRAX, FrontRunner and streetcar lines built in recent years have helped the Salt Lake City-West Valley City urban area climb to No. 22 nationally for transit trips per capita.
That’s according to an evaluation of 2013 federal transit data by FiveThirtyEight, an ESPN-owned polling and data website started by The New York Times, which takes its name from the number of electors in the U.S. Electoral College.
Ranking of areas similar to SLC for annual transit rides:
20 » Ann Arbor, Mich., 44.4 per person.
21 » Durham, N.C., 43.4.
22 » Salt Lake City-West Valley City, 42.2.
23 » Denver-Aurora, Colo., 41.1.
24 » Harrisonburg, Va., 40.7
It figures that Salt Lakers took 42.2 "unlinked trips" per person via transit in 2013. That counts transfers during the same journey as separate trips. It is based on data reported to the National Transit Database by 290 urbanized areas with populations greater than 65,000 where transit service is offered.
The resulting No. 22 ranking put the Salt Lake urban area just ahead of Denver (41.1 trips per person); Harrisonburg, Va., home of James Madison University (40.7); Blacksburg, Va., home of Virginia Tech University (40.0); and Santa Barbara, Calif. (37.9).
The Salt Lake metro area ranked just behind Durham, N.C., home of Duke University (43.4 trips per person); Ann Arbor, Mich., home of the University of Michigan (44.4); Eugene, Ore., home of the University of Oregon (46.5); and Baltimore (47.4).
But some large cities are in an entirely different world when it comes to transit use.
New York City ranked No. 1 with 229.8 trips per capita — five and a half times higher than in Salt Lake.
Others in the top five were San Francisco-Oakland (131.5 trips per person); Washington, D.C. (99.6); Athens, Ga., home of the University of Georgia (99.5); and Boston (94.3).
"We are happy that our bus and rail lines are so well received by both Salt Lake City and West Valley City and we are continually working to improve ridership" there and elsewhere, said Jerry Benson, chief operating officer for the Utah Transit Authority.
"Ridership in these two cities is higher than any other metro areas in which UTA offers service. The data cited deals only with Salt Lake City and West Valley City, which have some inherent advantages over other metro areas in Utah," he said.
Among those advantages is that "Salt Lake County residents have chosen to invest a higher amount of sales tax for transit," he said. They pay a .69 percent sales tax for transit — about seven-tenths of a penny per dollar spent. Utah, Davis, Weber and Box Elder counties pay .55 percent, and Tooele pays .3 percent.
Benson said that means "residents in the Salt Lake-West Valley urbanized area enjoy a higher level of transit service" because of their higher taxes.
That includes completion of 70 miles of new rail systems in the past five years. Among the additions are TRAX extensions to South Jordan, West Valley City, Salt Lake City International Airport and Draper, and extending the FrontRunner commuter rail from Salt Lake to Provo. UTA also finished the Sugar House streetcar and added a bus rapid-transit line (sort of a TRAX on rubber wheels) in West Valley.
Benson said Salt Lake County has "three light-rail lines, a bus rapid-transit line, a commuter rail line and 11 bus routes with 15-minute frequency," which "average 2,000 to 4,000 boardings per day."
The Salt Lake area also is attracting new "transit-oriented development" near transit lines, he said, including City Creek in downtown Salt Lake City and West Valley’s Fairbourne Station — which "allow people to live, work and shop near high-frequency transit."
UTA data show that the agency had more than 44 million boardings last year, which was an all-time high but fell a bit short of agency goals. Meanwhile, ridership has been rising this year. Through May, UTA had 18.6 million riders, up from 18.2 million for the same period last year.
With completion of all the recent rail construction, "ridership is expected to hit another all-time high in 2014," Benson said.
"UTA is now focusing on improved bus service, including bus rapid transit, as well as facilitating the planning of more transit-oriented development" to help attract more riders, he said.
Of note, Logan and Cache County — which operates its own bus transit system — finished No. 66 on the FiveThirtyEight rankings. That put it just ahead of El Paso, Texas, (20.5 trips per person) and Phoenix-Mesa (20.0).
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