Combine ride-hailing services Uber or Lyft with a city bus system and you would have something similar to a new “microtransit” system that the Utah Transit Authority plans to test in southwestern Salt Lake County this fall.
Like with Uber or Lyft, people use a smartphone app to hail a ride to a specific destination — and get an estimate of when it would pick them up and drop them off.
But like traditional bus service, the fare is a set amount no matter the distance traveled (current cash fare is $2.50 for a regular one-way trip or $1.25 for a senior). Transfers may also be allowed between microtransit and regular buses and trains.
“It is a really exciting project,” said Jaron Robertson, UTA’s program manager for innovative mobility solutions. “If this is successful, it brings a lot of potential for the future of transit in our community.”
While many specifics are still being worked out, the service is expected to include:
• Vehicles will be much smaller than a bus, perhaps vans that carry six to eight people.
• They will pick up and drop off other people headed in the same direction (similar to the UberPool shared service, which currently is not offered in Utah but is in other areas).
• The service area will be limited to roughly a 65-square-mile area, including parts of South Jordan, Riverton, Herriman, Bluffdale and Draper.
• Exact door-to-door service may not be offered. The service may ask riders to walk a short distance to a pickup or drop-off point on a major street to improve efficiency, akin to walking to a neighborhood bus stop.
• The service will provide both “first/last mile service” to connect to other transit stops, plus direct rides within in the service zone to grocery stores, entertainment centers, schools, doctor offices and more.
• It will be operated by a contractor, not UTA itself. That contractor will provide all vehicles, drivers and dispatching. UTA is seeking proposals from interested vendors and has budgeted $2.1 million for a 12-month pilot program aiming to start this fall.
“We would not be the first ones out there to do it," Robertson said, “but we’re not behind the game either.”
He said that technological advances that led to the birth of Uber and Lyft are also now allowing this new breed of public transit.
“The use of the smartphone to really use that dynamic dispatching, dynamic routing and the ability to match multiple riders to the same trip is what is allowing this to happen."
But Robertson said UTA is also trying to develop a way for people without smartphones to call in and request rides.
UTA is choosing to experiment in southwestern Salt Lake County because current flex bus routes there — usually smaller buses on fixed routes, which will deviate up to three-quarters of a mile for an extra fee — do not have high ridership.
They “don’t really meet our productivity standards,” Robertson said. They don’t cover all areas and are not very frequent during some times of the day. So microtransit is seen as a way to improve coverage, frequency and perhaps ridership — and at the same time test a new system.
The flex bus routes and other UTA services in the area will continue operation during the yearlong pilot program.
Robertson said microtransit may also boost options for people with light disabilities who do not meet the strict guidelines to use door-to-door paratransit service. He said many microtransit vehicles will be handicapped accessible.
UTA is looking at using some money from a recent sales tax hike for transit approved by Salt Lake County to help fund the pilot — and, if it works well, to continue or expand the service.
The agency repeatedly has said it wants to use the new revenue to increase frequency and coverage of transit, particularly buses.
“That’s a priority for us when we’re talking about reducing single-occupancy vehicles, reducing traffic congestion and improving air quality,” Robertson said. Such a new ride-sharing option “would make sure we have that capability.”