This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to identify solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.
The sky was gray, the air was cold and we had a bus to catch.
I stood at a bus stop in Sugar House with Innovation Lab reporter Saige Miller and photographer Rachel Rydalch, looking up and down the street for our bus. The Transit app said it should have arrived several minutes previously, but we still hadn’t seen it.
When I joined the Innovation Lab in February, Saige and I began discussing how to dig more deeply into the transportation beat. With Utahns averaging 79,645 weekday public transit rides per month last year, it’s little wonder that this is an important topic to so many people.
To write more effectively about transportation, Saige and I felt we should experience it for ourselves. Not a quick bus ride or a hop on, hop off stint with TRAX; rather, we decided to travel from Salt Lake City to West Valley City to Provo using only public transportation.
We traveled on a Tuesday in February, to take advantage of the Utah Transit Authority’s Free Fare February initiative.
Along the way, we talked with fellow passengers about why they use public transit, what they like about it and what they might change.
Here’s what we learned.
The first leg of our trip was to West Valley via bus. Our first observations were about the Transit app, which provides real-time public transportation data and which UTA’s website directs Utah riders to use.
We liked how it allowed us to simply search our destination and then provided us with step-by-step instructions on how to get there.
However, the real-time updates caused the bus schedules to constantly shift, which we found to be more confusing than helpful.
We managed to make all of our buses, but we wondered how anyone without cellphone access could even begin navigating local bus routes. Saige also noted that the app quickly drained her phone’s battery.
She observed that most people rode for about four stops, and felt that we spent more time waiting for buses than actually riding them.
Still, the people we chatted with had almost nothing but positive things to say about Utah’s bus system.
Bus rider Maribel Fillmore said she takes the bus whenever she can because it helps better the air quality.
She also finds it to be a convenient way to travel, since it comes every 15 minutes, she said.
Fillmore said she doesn’t always have enough money for bus fares, so Free Fare February was incredibly helpful to her.
“I know it’s only $2.50, but sometimes even that is too much,” she said.
Saige and I also wondered how safe people, especially women, feel on public transportation.
But no one we talked to had anything negative to say about that, either.
For instance, Yenny Jeri said the bus system is a safe and affordable way for her to attend English as a Second Language classes at Salt Lake Community College five days a week.
Saige, Rachel and I took a series of buses as far as the West Valley Central Station (2750 W. 3590 South), where we caught a TRAX train into downtown Salt Lake City.
The station’s route map was easy to read and the departure times were displayed clearly on each train, making this leg of our journey simple to navigate.
On our ride, we spoke with University of Utah student Tyler Bordeaux, who said he takes TRAX four to five times a week.
It’s an especially convenient mode of transportation for him, he said, because he can ride it for free as a student. He would probably pay for a UTA pass if his fare wasn’t already included with his tuition, he added.
Bordeaux said his biggest complaint about TRAX is that the schedule isn’t consistent — the trains often arrive too early or too late.
“The scheduling has been way off recently,” he said.
He also said he would prefer if TRAX ran to more places, such as Millcreek.
We next arrived at the North Temple FrontRunner Station and took the train all the way to Provo. From there, we took a bus to Center Street, grabbed dinner, and took another bus back to the train station in time for the ride back to Salt Lake.
The train to Provo was absolutely packed that day, and noisy, too. Public transportation ridership numbers went up in February due to fares being free, which may have contributed to our busy ride. The ride home several hours later wasn’t nearly as full.
Toward the end of our journey, we took stock of how long we’d be traveling that day: in total, 8 hours, 17 minutes and 33 seconds, according to Saige’s calculations.
About two and a half hours of that time was spent getting to and from Provo via the Frontrunner, and that’s without including the time spent waiting for and riding buses.
Comparatively, simply driving from Salt Lake to Provo and back again can take anywhere from an hour and a half to two hours depending on traffic.
It seemed to us that all of that extra travel time is possibly the biggest disadvantage of using public transportation to get from one city to another. It just takes so much longer, and involves a lot of waiting around at stops and stations.
Our day spent riding public transportation gave Saige and I a lot to think about. What would it take to add additional stops along routes? Is it possible to minimize the time it takes to reach a destination via public transit? Are there better ways to distribute bus and train schedules? We’re looking forward to exploring these and many more questions in coming months.
And if you have any transportation-related story ideas you think we should explore, you can reach us on Twitter (@katbancroft and @saige_miller) or through email (firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com).
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