UTA ends a 4-year ridership skid. The key is free fare and faster service — but is it a formula the agency can repeat?

Orem • Utah Valley University student Kyle Dittmer says that until recently, he never considered riding Utah Transit Authority buses and trains. They were expensive and waits often were long. He liked the freedom of driving.

Now he’s a regular and devoted transit rider. What changed?

“Mainly, it’s free,” at least to him, thanks to a deal by UTA, UVU and Brigham Young University for students and faculty. Also, anyone can ride free on the new Utah Valley Express (UVX) bus rapid transit line, courtesy of a three-year federal grant.

When Dittmer’s car was dying, he stopped driving to save money.

“It’s also convenient now,” Dittmer says. UVX runs every six minutes during peak times. “You don’t have to wonder when the next bus is coming. It’ll be there soon.” He can do homework while he commutes, and UVX connects easily to FrontRunner trains to take him to work in Lehi.

His experience helps to show how UTA recently was able to stop a four-year skid in its systemwide ridership — and finally start to gain riders again.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

“It’s because of UVX,” says UTA interim Executive Director Steve Meyer. The line, which started last fall, removed problems created by cost and infrequent service. “If you can take those barriers to zero, you’re going to see an increase” in ridership.

In fact, UVX quadrupled ridership along its route through Provo and Orem. With that, UTA’s systemwide bus ridership also has increased so far this year by 8.2%. Ridership on FrontRunner commuter trains is up 5.9%, “and that’s because of UVX, too, and UVX riders transferring to it,” Meyer says. It helps that deals with UVU and BYU allow students to use both for free.

It’s a lesson that Meyer says UTA is keeping in mind as it reviews its fare structure, and as it strives to overcome many long-term trends that have eroded transit ridership.

“We can’t just afford to write off fare revenue,” which is now $52 million a year, to offer free rides everywhere, Meyer says. But UTA does want to work with more employers, schools, cities and others to pick up some costs so that final prices to riders will be greatly reduced, or free.

Four-year decline

Like transit agencies nationwide, UTA has seen a steady decline in ridership in recent years. From 2015 through 2018, UTA’s ridership dropped 5.5% overall. Passengers took 2.5 million fewer trips in 2018 than they did in 2015.

Meyer ticks off a long list of reasons for that steady skid.

First, the economy has been good — so more people bought cars. “When you buy a car, you tend to want to drive a car," he says. And that means riding transit less.

Gasoline prices also have remained consistently low in recent years. Transit agencies have found that when fuel is cheap, more people tend to drive cars and skip transit.

“If you said, ‘It’s really costing me 55 cents a mile to drive,’ and I had to plug in and swipe that on a credit card after every trip, I might make a different choice,” Meyer says. People don’t have to do that with cars, but they generally do with transit.

Also, new alternative transportation options — from Uber and Lyft to rental bikes and scooters — are hurting transit ridership. “They are taking away some of our short trips,” Meyer says.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) An electric scooter rider braves the rain in downtown Salt Lake City, Oct. 2, 2108. Scooter and bikes available for rent are cutting into short-hop transit rides.

But he says the new forms of transportation also have the potential to help make traveling the first or last mile from home or jobs to transit easier and could nudge up ridership over time. But that is more promise than reality so far.

Travel patterns also are changing. For example, universities are pushing more online courses and state government urges more employees to telecommute at least once a week from home to cut pollution. “If everyone did that once a week, that’s a 20% reduction in ridership,” Meyer says.

Efforts to reduce crime and move the homeless out of the Rio Grande area of Salt Lake City have reduced ridership. “Quite a few of those people were riding in the free-fare zone. Those are riders who get counted, too,” but Meyer says many stopped riding once a heavy police presence dispersed the large concentration of homeless people downtown.

Of course, the so-called Operation Rio Grande potentially could increase transit ridership by improving public safety in the area. Anecdotally, Meyer says, UTA has seen fewer passenger problems on trains since the Rio Grande effort began. However, “the net effect is a decrease” so far in ridership.

Upward spike

After UTA ridership dropped an average of 1.4% a year for the past four years, it has increased by 1.3% so far in 2019.

Again, Meyer says that is because of UVX — the bus-rapid transit system in Provo and Orem.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) One of UTA's Utah Valley Express (UVX) buses makes a stop in Orem, Tuesday Sept. 25, 2018.

About half of its 10.5-mile route is in bus-only lanes to speed service, and it has limited stops. Buses are longer than normal — 60 feet instead of 40. Most important, fares are free because of a three-year federal grant.

Before UVX began service, older buses serving the same route averaged about 2,400 boardings daily. It is now 9,400 — four times higher. It dropped a bit in May to about 7,500 when UVU and BYU ended their winter semesters but remains high.

Beyond UVX, BYU and UVU recently made 10-year deals with UTA to provide transit passes to all their students for about $1 million a year each. That allows them to transfer to FrontRunner and other UTA services.

With UVX and the BYU/UVU deals, systemwide ridership for buses have increased 8.2% so far this year, and FrontRunner commuter rail is up 5.9%. But other UTA services that don’t connect to UVX are all down: TRAX ridership declined 6.6%, ride-share vans by 7.7% and paratransit by 0.24%.

(Lee Davidson | The Salt Lake Tribune) FrontRunner train arrives at Orem station as crowds wait to board on June 27, 2019. Bus and Frontrunner ridership has increased because of free BRT in Provo and Orem and UTA deals with UVU and BYU that make all transit free for students and faculty.

UTA is looking at more bus-rapid transit lines, including in Ogden, a Taylorsville-Murray line and from Davis County to downtown Salt Lake City.

Meyer says the Utah County UVX gains show what could happen if passengers could have free fare and frequent service.

“Yes," he says, “if you could do that everywhere, wow, that would be exciting.”

Park City and Cache Valley transit districts offer free fare on all buses.

But Meyer says UTA, which serves a vast six-county area along the Wasatch Front, cannot eliminate the $52 million a year it now collects from fares.

“We can’t afford to maintain the level of service we have now and not have that $52 million,” he says.

Funding the gap

UTA has found some ways — which it hopes to expand — that help riders get free or greatly reduced fares, while still bringing in needed revenue to the agency.

Mostly, that is through passes made available through partnerships by UTA with universities, employers, ski resorts, groups serving low-income people, cities, the state and others.

“If partners are funding the gap … then to us, it’s not free fare,” he says. “We still get our money.”

UTA has dozens of such partnerships. It has some standard packages for partnerships but also will cut specialized deals with large employers or others.

These range from passes for all students and faculty at BYU, UVU and the University of Utah to deals for large employers such as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and agencies that give passes or tokens to low-income people.

Some deals are a little unusual, such as one with the U. to allow tickets to its sports games to double as free UTA passes on game day.

Meyer says the deals greatly reduced or even solved many parking problems at the universities, and perhaps freed up some parking areas for construction of buildings or other uses — bringing the partners big benefits. It has allowed some retail and housing developments to include less parking than otherwise would be required.

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) A UTA TRAX train at the City Center station in Salt Lake City is reflected in a pillar, June 5, 2019. UTA has cut a number of deals with universities, large companies and government agencies to provide free or greatly reduced fare.

The pass-providing partners also are not charged full cash fare rates, allowing them to offer perks to patrons and workers that are more valuable than what they paid.

For example, Monica Morton, UTA’s director of fares, told the UTA board that the agency aims to charge colleges and schools between $1 and $1.60 per expected ride for the passes it sells them. Full cash fare on most UTA buses and trains is $2.50 per ride.

UTA currently is reviewing its fare structure, but Meyer says he expects to seek more pass deals and partnerships.

Because of them, he notes that while ridership declined in recent years, fare revenues actually increased a bit — even without raising fare rates. He says that is because of pass programs providing constant revenues, often no matter how many people were riding.

Changing habits?

On top of the pass programs, a few other partnerships provide free rides — such as the federal grants funding free rides on UVX, funding from the Legislature for free rides on a few days with bad pollution and a longtime deal with Salt Lake City for a free-fare zone downtown.

Meyer says the passes and free-ride perks may help persuade people to try UTA, and many of them to stick with it.

That appears to have worked with sisters Amelia and Lusi Saafi, who live in Salt Lake City but commute to UVU. Amelia just started school there this summer and had been driving. She decided to pick up her UTA pass from the college, and she and Lusi spoke to The Salt Lake Tribune after their first day of using it.

“I should have done it sooner. It was great,” she said while waiting for a FrontRunner train. “It’s fast. It’s free. There was hardly any wait at all for UVX,” which had several buses waiting when her train arrived earlier. “I’m going to keep using it,” she said, adding that her first experience hooked her.

Similarly, Dittmer — the UVU student who says he never considered UTA until it was offered for free — says he may now be a rider for life. Even when he must start paying once he leaves UVU and its deal, “I’d like to keep riding as long as it is convenient and makes sense” to help the environment and escape the daily fight through traffic.

Other efforts

Meyer says UTA has other efforts in the works to help transit make sense for more people.

For example, while Uber and Lyft may have attracted away many short-trip riders, UTA is trying to copy their success by soon launching its own hybrid version of ride sharing that it calls microtransit.

In a pilot test area in southwest Salt Lake County, people soon will be able to use a smartphone app to hail a UTA ride to a specific destination — and get an estimate of when it would pick them up and drop them off. The service will likely use six- to eight-passenger vans that will pick up other passengers headed in roughly the same direction.

Like traditional bus service, the fare for the new service will be a set amount no matter the distance traveled. It may allow transfers to other UTA service. It has a limited area and is designed largely to take people where they can connect to TRAX or FrontRunner trains for longer trips.

If it works, UTA hopes to expand it — and sees it as a way to stop ridership declines.

Meyer says the agency also seeks to overcome other obstacles people often list for not using transit.

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Mark Isaac, a principal of Pinyon Consulting LLC chats with UTA’s Interim Executive Director Steve Meyer, after the groundbreaking ceremony of UTA’s S-Line double track project, on 300 East and 2233 South, June 11, 2018.

He says UTA is working to ensure predictable schedules, quicker travel time, security, cleanliness, better customer information and to improve onboard Wi-Fi.

It is finishing studies on how to balance offering greater frequency versus how to cover more area.

UTA allows customers to secure some discounts on their own — even if they don’t have an employer or school willing to subsidize their trips. For example, people who buy UTA’s electronic FAREPAY cards get a 40% reduction on regular bus fare, and 20% off TRAX.

The agency also offers reduced-rate monthly passes, group passes and packs of bus tokens.

What does future hold?

Will those efforts turn around ridership in the long term, or are recent gains just a temporary blip?

“It depends on how all these factors play out,” Meyer says.

If gasoline goes down to $1.50 a gallon, he says people will be driving cars and transit will suffer. If gas prices goes up dramatically — such as because of increasing tension in the Middle East between Iran and the United States — transit may attract more riders.

If the economy sours, people may abandon cars. If it booms, they may buy and drive autos more.

“There are just so many factors that we can’t control,” Meyer says.

“We can control providing the best possible service we can at an affordable price and try to make transit a competitive option for people to use. We’ll try to do the best we can with that.”