Utah’s micro solution to the big challenge of making public transit faster

UTA On Demand functions a little like a ride sharing service; bikes and scooters are also options.

(Lee Davidson | Tribune file photo) A van for the UTA On Demand microtransit service opens the door for passengers to enter in Herriman.

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.

[Subscribe to our newsletter here]

When The Salt Lake Tribune asked readers why they don’t ride public transportation, one reason was named more than any other: the amount of time it takes to get from point A to point B.

And when Salt Lake Tribune reporters spent a day riding public transportation from Sugar House to West Valley to Provo and back to the Salt Lake area, it took them over eight hours to complete the trip.

Utah Transit Authority’s microtransit services might be able to help.

Microtransit options are small-scale, on-demand public transit services that can offer fixed routes and schedules, as well as on-demand scheduling, according to the American Public Transportation Association.

They’re often a sort of hybrid between ride-hailing companies, such as Uber and Lyft, and traditional buses and transit.

And they can fill the gaps in traditional public transit by getting travelers to their destinations faster and more directly.

Utah’s program is called UTA On Demand, and it’s accessed through an app or by calling 385-217-8191.

Riders are then matched with passengers going in the same direction and are picked up close to their starting point.

One-way rides cost $2.50 each (the same as one-way trips on TRAX or buses), and must start and end within designated service areas. UTA On Demand currently services two zones: Salt Lake City Westside, which covers Rose Park, Poplar Grove, Fairpark and Glendale; and Southern Salt Lake County, which covers 65 square miles in the cities of Bluffdale, Draper, Herriman, Riverton and South Jordan.

Hours are Monday through Friday from 4 a.m. to 12:15 a.m. In the Salt Lake City Westside zone, Saturday hours are 6 a.m. to 9 p.m.; in the Southern Salt Lake County zone, Saturday hours 6 a.m. to 1:15 a.m.

“Those hours are really designed to align with TRAX and [with] our other services so that people can use this as a personal last-mile solution,” said Jaron Robertson, director of UTA’s Innovative Mobility Solutions office.

A growing service

Robertson said UTA On Demand launched in late 2019 and met agency ridership goals (224 in Dec. 2019 to 392 in Feb. 2020), and even reached as high as 505 riders in March 2020 before the COVID-19 pandemic hit and ridership plummeted.

Despite pandemic-related setbacks, the service is growing again. Robertson said it saw a 30% increase between January and February, compared to a 26% increase in January, a 26% increase between February and March, and April is on the same trend.

At its highest point in 2021, the program’s ridership saw an average of 407 weekday rides in November.

Though that’s significantly smaller than bus ridership (at its highest point in 2021, an average of 42,863 weekday rides in September) and commuter rail ridership (at its highest point in 2021, an average of 10,262 weekday rides in September), Robertson said microtransit is about first and last mile solutions.

In other words, microtransit is meant to complement traditional public transportation by helping people get to and from bus and train stops.

“Given the nature of this service, you can expect to see lower ridership than really good performing fixed route service,” Robertson said. “If we were seeing those types of numbers, we wouldn’t be running [a] microtransit service.”

Partnership with Via

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) A UTA bus picks up passengers in West Valley City, Thursday, Feb. 10, 2022.

UTA On Demand didn’t launch by itself. The program partnered with Via, a transportation technology company that has over 500 partnerships with cities, schools and other organizations across the globe.

In addition to microtransit, Via also runs paratransit, student transportation and other programs.

Krista Glotzbach, who runs the western region team for Via, said UTA On Demand is reaching “all time ride records” right now, with 650 rides a day April becoming the program’s highest monthly ridership yet with more than 13,000 rides.

“Across our services, including this one, we’ve seen very high ridership in March and April, which may be an effect of high gas prices,” she said.

Glotzbach said cities typically implement microtransit to serve low density areas where it’s hard to run buses or where there’s no access to public transportation at all.

She said when Via surveyed microtransit riders, 75% said they use it because they didn’t have access to public transit, while 25% said they use it because it saves them an average of 40 minutes when they don’t have to walk the first and last miles of their trips.

However, she emphasized that microtransit is meant to complement traditional public transportation, not replace or rival it.

“We would never say ‘Hey, go deploy microtransit instead of your fixed route bus in the heart of Salt Lake City,’” she said. “Buses make a ton of sense. You can move a lot of people from point A to point B. … What microtransit does is it serves areas that have less access.”

Microtransit is very targeted, Glotzbach said. Part of what Via does is think about factors like how many people are in an area, what overall car ownership is like and how people can access jobs and other opportunities in a region.

“We usually have a pretty darn good sense of how many people will ride [microtransit] before we deploy it,” Glotzbach said.

Microtransit isn’t always about just connecting people to more traditional public transportation; Glotzbach said it really depends on the needs of specific areas.

For instance, she said places like West Sacramento don’t have much public transportation at all, so they see more point-to-point transfer trips through microtransit.

“[Microtransit] is not a broad-based solution,” Glotzbach said. “It’s something where we have a challenge… [and] depending on who we’re serving, that will define how we deploy it.”

Micro-mobility solutions

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) GREENbikes in racks at 9th and 9th in Salt Lake City on Thursday, October 3, 2019.

UTA On Demand isn’t the only option for covering the first and last miles of trips. Salt Lake City also has micro-mobility options, which allow people to rent bikes or scooters for one-way trips.

For instance, travelers can use GREENbike ($7 for a day pass), Spin scooters ($1 to unlock plus $0.15 to $0.39 cents per minute) or Lime scooters (a fixed rate to unlock plus an additional small fee per minute, which varies by city).

Chris Wiltsie runs Bike Utah’s 1000 Miles Campaign which in 2017 set a goal of adding 1000 new miles of bike paths, lanes and trails to the state by 2027.

He said microtransit works in environments where origins and destinations are compact, which biking fits into well.

“The sweet spot for biking is probably around three miles,” he said.

Wiltsie said Bike Utah’s research shows that in urban environments, people tend to ride short distances at slow speeds, and that they use their bikes predominately for practical rather than recreational purposes.

“So the origins and destinations that we saw were matched up pretty precisely with car origins and destinations,” he said. “Our data suggests [that biking is] being used primarily as a means of transportation, primarily for lower income folks.”

Biking isn’t necessarily faster than other types of transit, however. Wiltsie said how fast a person can bike to their destination depends on how a city is designed. In urban environments like Provo and Salt Lake, Wiltsie said he’s traveled faster on his bike than people in their cars during rush-hour traffic; but places like Lehi with sprawling roads are designed for cars.

Another issue is that there aren’t always bike-friendly roads or trails to and from destinations.

Wiltsie said this is because people often build around the idea that biking is a recreational, not practical, activity.

For instance, he said multi-use pads like the Jordan River Parkway or the Murdock Canal Trail are great recreationally, but as soon as people get off of them, they’re “sort of spit out into a bicycle hellscape.”

This can make it uncomfortable to use bikes in any sort of practical way, Wiltsie said, especially when recreational areas are far away from places to eat, shop and work.

“So what we need to do, I think, as a state, is build more practical, transportation-minded facilities,” he said.

Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.