Final 2020 data: UTA ridership plummeted by 47% during year because of pandemic

FrontRunner commuter rail hit the hardest, followed by Trax.

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Sign on a UTA bus in downtown Salt Lake City shows that masks are required on Sept. 24, 2020. Final data shows UTA lost half of its ridership during 2020 because of the pandemic.

Year-end statistics show that the Utah Transit Authority lost half of its ridership during 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Ridership on buses was down by 40%; it was down on TRAX light rail by 52%; by 36% on the S-Line streetcar; and by 61% on the FrontRunner commuter train system.

“If you’re doing the math, ridership is down 47% [systemwide] in 2020 versus 2019,” Eddy Cummins, UTA chief operations officer, told the board last week.

He said riders took 23.53 million trips in 2020, down from 44.24 million in 2019.

He noted that UTA ridership had actually been increasing in January and February last year before COVID-19 hit, and then it plummeted without ever recovering much.

UTA Board Chairman Carlton Christensen said he’s actually surprised that ridership isn’t down even more.

“Not that being down by 47% is great, but when you think of losing only half of our ridership with all the major institutions that are fundamentally” converting to working at home, “it’s actually pretty amazing that we’ve held that ratio as well as we have,” he said.

“It’s a big gap to close, he added, “But I was encouraged to see that at least inching back up in a positive direction through the course of the year.”

Cummins said that while UTA has lost groups such as office workers, who largely have worked at home during the pandemic, “The one thing that has stayed constant is the essential worker” whom he said still needs UTA daily.

UTA Executive Director Carolyn Gonot said UTA has been able to make ends meet financially amid such loss in ridership largely because of emergency federal aid.

UTA received $187 million in a first round of aid from Congress, and a package passed last month added another $33.5 million.

Recent surveys conducted by UTA found that two of every five (41%) customers who stopped riding UTA during the pandemic say it is unlikely that they will ever return.

When the survey asked why passengers stopped riding — and allowed them to list all of their contributing reasons — 55% said they now work from home, 48% said they switched to driving personal vehicles, and 42% said It was because of concern for their personal health and safety.

When nonriders were asked what would increase their likelihood of returning, their top four answers in order were: continuing to limit passenger loads to accommodate social distancing; better cleaning and disinfecting; a change in their need to travel to work once the pandemic ends; and offering increased service levels.

Current riders gave a slightly different list about what would help keep them riding. Their top answers in order were: cleaning and disinfecting; limiting passenger loads for proper social distancing; increased service levels; and reduced fares.