UTA’s ‘microtransit’ experiment working well, offers flexibility during COVID-19 outbreak

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Until COVID-19 hit, an ongoing experiment with “microtransit” — a hybrid between ride-hailing companies, such as Uber and Lyft, and traditional buses and transit — was exceeding the expectations of the Utah Transit Authority.

Then the virus made ridership plummet, as it did with traditional bus and train service. But a progress report this week not only gives strong long-term hope for the service, it makes officials wonder if it might be a key to help the agency get through the crisis now and recover later.

“In some ways, especially as you look at social isolation, this may not be a bad solution for essential traffic” during the crisis, said UTA Board Chairman Carlton Christensen.

With it, riders use smartphones (or may call on a landline) to request a shared ride in a six-passenger van to anywhere in a 65-square mile area in Herriman, Riverton, South Jordan, Draper and Bluffdale for the same price as bus fare ($2.50 one way), and cheaper than Uber or Lyft.

While many people use it to travel to UTA rail lines, it will drop them anywhere in that area such as food stores and doctor offices.

As UTA bus and rail services have seen ridership drop 72% to 86%, Christensen wondered aloud if microtransit could offer service that is faster and more economical and efficient than the larger now-mostly empty trains and buses — which also are coming less frequently now — to help the agency during the pandemic.

Also Christensen asked if after the crisis, “Could this be an option for some of the rider ‘coverage routes’ [in less densely populated areas that tend to have few riders normally] that may not return back to their historic numbers?”

Jaron Robertson, director of innovative mobility solutions at UTA, said the answers aren’t known now, but the service offers some promising possibilities.

“The one thing that’s so great about this service is we … can literally make service adjustments today if necessary,” including perhaps changing hours or areas of coverage, he said. “It is so dynamic that if we see a need … to utilize the service in different ways, we’re very flexible.”

Officials also say they are excited about the progress of the microtransit service — officially called “UTA on demand by Via” — during its first full three months, from December through February.

Average ridership on weekdays grew from 224 in December to 392 in February, which met agency goals, Robertson said. It had reached as high as 505 in March before stay-at-home orders from COVID-19 were issued, and ridership plummeted.

“So, we continue to see an increase in ridership” over time as more people try and like the service, Robertson said.

Riders are able to rate their trips with smartphone apps on a scale from 0 to 5 and gave an average rating of 4.8 so far during the pilot project. “That shows customers are really enjoying the service,” Robertson said.

He added that about a third of the rides offered by the service in February were shared, meaning more than one person were in vehicles as their trips were generally in the same direction. About 2% of rides were for people with wheelchairs, which is higher than for regular bus service.

The average wait time for a ride was 11 minutes during the quarter, and 93% of the rides arrived on time.

So far, about four of every five riders pay for rides with UTA passes or transfers, and one of five pay with credit cards.

UTA is scheduled to decide in November, near the end of a year-long pilot project with microtransit, whether to end it, continue it, expand it or tweak it in other ways.

But UTA Board members Beth Holbrook and Keith Millington said they are already hearing from areas in Davis and Utah counties that would like similar service there. Also, Christensen has said microtransit might just save mass transit and boost ridership that has dwindled over time.

UTA isn’t the only agency nationwide experimenting with microtransit. Among others doing so are Denver; West Sacramento, Calif.; Los Angeles; Orange County, Calif.; and Kansas City.