Should late-night ‘ghost buses’ on the Avenues get a UTA curfew?

The Greater Avenues Community Council cast a vote to support the buses, but not without some heat.

Colleen O’Hara rode the UTA 209 bus to the Corinne & Jack Sweet Branch library in the upper Avenues Wednesday night.

She stopped at the library that evening for a Great Avenues Community Council meeting to vote on a contentious matter: “Ghost buses.” The moniker has caught on in the neighborhood to describe the buses that run late into the night and start again in the pre-dawn hours. Critics say the buses frequently have low to no ridership.

The question at hand: “Should the Greater Avenues Community Council ask the Utah Transit Authority to suspend service on the Avenues section of Route 209 between the hours of 9:30 pm and 6:00 am?”

O’Hara lives in the Avenues and catches the 209 each morning at 5:38 a.m. to get to work in Murray. She opposed any cutback on the service.

“I want the 209 to stay,” O’Hara said, “because I don’t drive and there are a lot of people that don’t drive.”

Debra Anderson, another Avenues resident, was in favor of sending the letter.

“We call it the ‘ghost bus’ for a reason,” Anderson said, “there are rarely any people on this bus.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Debra Anderson talks about the UTA buses running in the Avenues, before the Greater Avenues Community Council meeting vote on Wednesday, June 7, 2023.

Anderson would like UTA to swap out the lumbering, standard 40-foot buses that currently travel the route to smaller, electric vehicles.

Residents upset by the frequency and early/late hours of the 209 route said they were in favor of public transportation. But why, some of them wondered, didn’t UTA take the late-night buses to the ski areas, where service was cut this past winter?

The debate over the Avenues bus route changes is just one example of the challenges public transportation in Salt Lake City faces. With a bus driver shortage, changing ridership patterns and a growing population that officials want to persuade to use public transit — UTA faces a tricky set of conflicting desires.

Is UTA wasting resources and unnecessarily keeping Avenues residents up at night? Or is the agency improving a needed and desired service in a neighborhood serving a mix of renters, homeowners, low- and high-income earners?

“We’re still seeing a stark divide on this issue,” wrote Salt Lake City Council member Chris Wharton in a statement, whose district includes the Avenues. Some in the neighborhood felt they did not receive any information about the impending changes until it was too late, Wharton noted. Others felt like UTA did plenty of outreach.

“Supporters of the service felt UTA provided enough opportunity for public input because they regularly use transit and are more ‘plugged in’ on public transit issues than non-transit users,” Wharton wrote.

Why make the changes?

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the UTA made major changes to many of its routes. People were not using public transit to commute to the office as often, and the tight labor market has made hiring enough bus drivers tricky.

Some of those changes occurred in the Avenues.

UTA canceled Route 6 service along 6th Avenue, and modified routes 1, 223, and 209.

Based on 2019 and 2021 ridership data, that change in service “provides faster travel time, more frequent service, or both, for at least 75% of previous route 6 riders, including riders from the Upper Avenues, Lower Avenues, and Downtown Salt Lake City,” UTA spokesperson Carl Arky explained in an email.

Route 209 now runs through the Avenues about every 15 minutes on weekdays beginning at 4:31 a.m. The last bus of the day stops at 12:44 a.m. at C Street and 9th Avenue. The route goes between Salt Lake Central Station on the north and ultimately to to Fashion Place West Station in Murray.

“Extended hours on route 209 are part of a larger system-wide effort to provide services at a broader range of times to allow for workers who travel outside the historic 9-to-5 commute, as well as serving non-commute trips,” Arky wrote of the change.

Route 209 not only provides “expanded hours of service and frequency compared to route 6,” Arky wrote, but “significantly, these improvements were achieved with fewer overall buses and driver shifts required, due to reduced duplication.”

He called the increased level of service achieved with fewer drivers “a win for UTA.”

Too noisy, too big, too heavy

Carol Fudyma uses a sleep monitoring app each night. Fudyma says she can see spikes of “wakefulness” that correspond to the bus schedule.

“We support public transportation, that has never been the issue,” Fudyma said. “The issue is that the buses are too big, too noisy, too frequent and too late in the hours of sleep.”

Linke Hebrew has lived on 9th Avenue with his wife Penelope for 32 years. “These old homes were never designed to have the weight of these buses coming along in front of them,” Linke said. He, too, felt the size and volume of the buses were an issue.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Linke and Penelope Hebrew talk about the UTA buses running along 9th Avenue, before the Greater Avenues Community Council meeting vote on Wednesday, June 7, 2023. The Hebrews say they once mistook the rumbling of a bus for an earthquake.

The Hebrews say their windows frequently shake and one night they mistook a passing bus for an earthquake.

They are doubly bothered by the fact that few people seem to be using the buses in their neighborhood, noting that they would be more accepting of the noise if it were for a more popular service.

Some residents like the change

While the ghost bus opponents were vocal, the proponents of the route had their own accounts.

“I am a rider of the 209, and of the F11,” said John Pearson, an Avenues resident and president of the Utah Transit Riders Union. “I see people on the bus all the time. It’s pretty packed on the F11 in the mornings, even at 6:40 or 6:20 a.m.” Pearson said he frequently sees riders on the 209 as well.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) John Pearson, president of the Utah Transit Riders Union, supports keeping the UTA buses in the Avenues, on Wednesday, June 7, 2023. The Greater Avenues Community Council voted on a resolution to ask UTA to stop running "ghost buses" along bus route 209.

Former Salt Lake City Council member and Avenues resident Stan Penfold said he loves the new schedule. The frequency and late hours mean he can catch the bus without relying on a schedule and go to cultural events downtown without using his car.

People often complain that low-frequency bus routes with limited hours make public transportation too inconvenient and impractical, Penfold said.

“Having this kind of reliability on a bus line is exactly what people need to see all over,” said Penfold, who served two council terms from 2010 to 2018. “I mean, I kind of hope UTA has the ability to do more of this.”

According to the UTA, since changing the routes between August 2022 and January 2023, ridership in the Avenues neighborhood increased 63% on weekdays; 78% on Saturdays; and 64% on Sundays.

A Tribune reporter rode the 209 around 5:45 p.m. from Central City to the Sweet library on Wednesday. There were roughly a dozen people on board. After the meeting, around 7:30 p.m., buses stopping on 9th Avenue appeared to have only one or two riders.

The council is one of the city’s most active. So many people packed the library meeting room that night that some had to stand along the back wall.

Ultimately, the pro-bus contingent won. In total 145 people voted on the measure in person and online and 83 residents voted not to send a letter requesting a change.

The council’s chair elect Joseph Murphy (who goes by ‘Jerphy’), said he was glad to see the good turnout, but kept his own vote on the issue private.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Chair-elect Joseph Murphy announces the voting results to the Greater Avenues Community Council, on Wednesday, June 7, 2023. The council voted on a resolution to ask UTA to stop running "ghost buses" in the neighborhood.

Of course, there was a question over whether such a letter, if sent, would have done much to sway UTA.

The Tribune asked Arky if the agency would consider the modified hours.

“UTA opposes a bus curfew in the strongest possible terms,” Arky wrote. “People are voting with their feet.”