Did free-fare February bring UTA back to pre-COVID ridership numbers?

Not even close, according to preliminary data, but the numbers did pick up.

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The Utah Transit Authority waived fares for all services during free-ride February, but did the move do anything to pick up the ridership numbers that plummeted during COVID-19?

According to UTA’s Preliminary Free Fare February Average Daily Ridership dashboard, yes, it did.

The numbers are taken from unadjusted data, with January numbers using numbers from the last five weekdays and averages from the last two Saturdays and Sundays.

And though the final report is subject to change, the initial data is promising.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

As of March 7, the dashboard showed that systemwide average weekday ridership in February was 102,670 compared to 88,113 over the last five weekdays in January, a 17% increase.

Systemwide Saturday ridership went even higher: an average of 71,191 in February to an average of 49,229 across the last two Saturdays in January, or a 45% rise.

Despite the gains, UTA’s most recent ridership numbers still aren’t anywhere near pre-pandemic levels.

A graph of UTA’s systemwide average weekday boardings show ridership numbers between 2017 and 2019 ranged between about 135,000 and 178,000 a month.

2020 numbers were holding steady in that range until the pandemic hit, when they plunged to between 46,000 and 71,000 a month for the rest of the year.

Another way to look at it: FrontRunner ridership dropped nearly 90% when the pandemic started, TRAX ridership fell about 75% and bus ridership went down about 70%, according to UTA data analyzed by Tribune reporter Andy Larsen.

2021 numbers for systemwide average weekday boardings were between about 64,000 and 101,000, higher than 2020′s post-pandemic numbers but still below typical levels.

Highest increases

March 7 UTA preliminary data shows that Saturday FrontRunner ridership jumped the most during free-ride February — 211%, from an average of 3,923 across the last two Saturdays in January to February’s 12,183 average.

The next highest rise was Sunday microtransit, a hybrid between ride-hailing companies, such as Uber and Lyft, and traditional buses and transit. The last two Sundays in January averaged nine rides, while Sundays in February averaged 22 rides, a 147% increase.

The third highest category was Sunday paratransit ridership, a 62% rise between the average of 54 rides across the last two Sundays in January and the average of 87 rides in February. Paratransit services are provided for people with physical, cognitive or visual disabilities who are unable to independently use fixed bus routes.

More commonly used forms of public transportation saw significant increases as well. For instance, Sunday fixed route bus ridership went up 38% (an average of 8,237 across the last two Sundays in January vs. an average of 11,383 across Sundays in February) and Saturday TRAX ridership rose 35% (an average of 16,135 across the last two Saturdays in January vs. an average of 21,835 across Saturdays in February).

Lowest increases

The smallest gains, according to the March 7 data, were in ski bus daily ridership. The average number of rides across the last two Sundays in January was 3,827, compared to the February Sundays’ average of 3,981, an increase of only 4%.

Saturday ski bus ridership even decreased by 2%, from an average of 4,607 over the last two Saturdays in January to February’s Saturday average of 4,536.

Additionally, UVX Saturday ridership increased by 5% (an average of 4,037 over the last two Saturdays in January vs. an average of 4,237 in February), while weekday ridership decreased by 5% (6,980 over the last five weekdays in January vs. an average of 6,606 during weekdays in February).

Carl Arky, media relations specialist for UTA, said the dashboard currently reflects raw data and additional adjustments are being made as their experts factor in many considerations. The final report will be available this week or the week after, he said.

Arky also said he couldn’t comment on speculative scenarios, such as what would happen to ridership numbers if fares remained free or if numbers will ever rise back to pre-pandemic levels.

However, when it comes to why people should ride public transportation, “there are several benefits,” Arky said, including “reduced pollution, reduced traffic congestion on highways and roads ... [and] less maintenance of roads, saving tax dollars.”