This type of public transit is up 220% — and it’s not buses or trains

Ridership across the board is increasing but has yet to return to pre-pandemic levels.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) A Utah Transit Authority bus travels west on 6th Avenue, Friday, May 13, 2022.

The Utah Transit Authority’s smallest form of public transportation has made big ridership gains.

Just under 15,000 people used microtransit services from January through April 2021; while 48,181 rode it from January through April this year — a 224% increase.

Microtransit options are small-scale, on-demand public transit services that can offer fixed routes and schedules, as well as on-demand scheduling.

They often are a hybrid between ride-hailing companies, such as Uber and Lyft, and traditional buses and transit.

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

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

UTA’s most recent data, shared with the public and UTA Board of Trustees on Wednesday, shows monthly microtransit ridership has been growing each month: 8,173 rides in January, 11,021 in February, 14,121 in March and 14,866 in April.

Jaron Robertson, director of UTA’s Innovative Mobility Solutions office, told The Salt Lake Tribune that UTA On Demand launched in late 2019 and met agency ridership goals (224 in Dec. 2019 to 392 in Feb. 2020), and reached 505 riders in March 2020 before the COVID-19 pandemic hit and ridership plummeted.

Rider demographics

UTA officials also shared demographic data, including ethnicities and income levels of riders.

Across UTA transit, minorities make up 25.9% of all riders and 31% are low-income riders.

Minorities also make up 27.4% of fixed bus route riders, 30.3% of TRAX riders and 16.9% of commuter rail riders.

Additionally, low-income riders make up 48.1% of fixed bus route riders, 35.6% of TRAX riders and 26.3% of commuter rail riders.

According to 2020 census data, Salt Lake County is 87.1% white; 18.8% Hispanic or Latino; 4.6% Asian; 2.2% Black; 1.8% Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander; and 1.4% Native American or Native Alaskan.

UTA also concluded, based on its data, that routes serving minority areas have more frequent service than routes in non-minority areas.

For instance, the average amount of time between buses is 37.3 minutes. By comparison, the average time on minority routes is 34.6 minutes and on non-minority routes it is 39.9.

UTA also concluded that a higher percentage of minority populations have access to transit services than everyone within its service area. Its service area includes 2,464,647 people. Of those, 1,182,293 (or 48%) are within walking distance of services.

Of the same 2,464,647 total people, 585,217 (or 23.7%) are minorities. Roughly 350,000, or 60.4%, live within walking distance of public transportation.

Other trends

UTA also shared overall ridership numbers pre- and post-pandemic.

Year-to-year January through April ridership shows a bounce back in 2022:

  • 2019: 14,835,372

  • 2020: 11,394,673

  • 2021: 6,894,923

  • 2022: 9,947,443

UTA’s “Free Fare February” this year led to a 16% increase in weekday ridership and a 58% jump on Saturdays.

Gov. Spencer Cox recently said he is a proponent of making public transportation less expensive or free.

Additionally, UTA’s data shows some ridership numbers for individual modes of transportation have fluctuated with the pandemic.

For example, bus ridership from January through April 2019 was 5,581,233; during the same months in 2021 was 3,746,929; and during the 2022 January through April period was 5,045,911.

The numbers are in line with other data showing how UTA ridership plummeted during COVID-19 and has been rising, though it has yet to reach pre-pandemic levels.