UTA’s new on-demand service shows it’s high-tech, easy, cheap — and underused

(Lee Davidson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A van for the new UTA On Demand microtransit service opens the door for passengers to enter in Herriman on Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2019.

Herriman • It was my driver’s first day on the job. I was his second-ever passenger on the Utah Transit Authority’s new “UTA On Demand by Via” microtransit service. We were driving in an area that the driver admitted he does not know well. What could go wrong?

Not much actually.

I found it relatively smooth sailing (and inexpensive) with some fascinating technology that makes it easy and fun to use. I can see why UTA Chairman Carlton Christensen figures microtransit might just save mass transit and help boost its dwindling ridership.

One nice thing you don’t see on regular bus routes: My driver waited for a passenger that was a little late, after phoning her to see if she was coming. One red flag for the new service: Drivers are apparently sitting around for hours with nothing to do as few passengers are using the new service.

Like Uber or Lyft, microtransit allows using a smartphone (or even calling from a landline) to seek a ride quickly to go anywhere in a 65-square-mile area in southwest Salt Lake County. It is cheaper than Uber and Lyft, costing the same as UTA bus fare — and cheaper for now because of some temporary promotions — and allows transferring to other transit services.

I don’t give positive reviews easily — just ask UTA. I once raced its Sugar House Streetcar on foot to show how walking is actually often faster and cheaper than that slow-moving line. I wrote how UTA built an airport TRAX line that fails to serve early or late flights. UTA hasn’t liked our investigations into its scandals that helped lead to federal intervention.

Despite that, I do not hesitate to say that my first two rides on the new microtransit service show it is pretty cool, and recommend that others try it.

I chose to test it in a far southwest corner of Herriman, at the home of the parents of my daughter-in-law, Lindsey Davidson. She lives in Ogden, and sometimes visits her parents by taking the FrontRunner train and transferring to the TRAX Red Line to Daybreak — the nearest train stop to her parents’ home.

The only bus service between there and her parent’s house is inconvenient — taking 55 minutes and requiring a walk of 1.3 miles, according to UTA’s online trip planning tool. So Lindsey always asks her parents to drive and pick her up, a 15-minute trip one way.

“I’ve never even thought about trying to take the bus here,” said Brian Broadhead, Lindsey’s father, because of the long hike needed to get to a route — which doesn’t run often and has a small service loop area. He says he had not heard about the new microtransit pilot project but said it could be handy for Lindsey’s visits.

My first step was to sign up online for the service. It took less than five minutes to find and download the app for Via (the name of the contractor operating the service) and put in my personal information including a credit card number to pay for trips.

With my granddaughter sitting by me in Herriman, I ordered my first ride in an app that mirrors how Uber and Lyft operate.

(Lee Davidson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Reporter Lee Davidson and his granddaughter, LeAn Davidson, watch a smartphone screen as he orders his first ride on UTA's new microtransit service.

It automatically found where I was and asked me to confirm it. Then it asked for my destination. I wanted to go to the Daybreak Parkway TRAX station, where my daughter-in-law would normally travel for visits to her parents.

As I started typing, nearby TRAX and Frontrunner stops appeared on the screen as options since the service is designed largely to connect to them — but the service could also take me anywhere in the 65-mile experiment area in Herriman, Riverton, South Jordan, Draper and Bluffdale.

I confirmed my destination. It gave me some different time options for pickup and said my trip would cost $1 (lower than the regular $2.50 bus fare as a promotion).

The app then said it was looking for a driver, and finally said “Henry A” was coming and would arrive in 18 minutes, and showed his picture, van model and license plate number. (The driver later told me he was at the Draper FrontRunner station, where Via drivers park when not on call, and it took that long to get to Herriman).

Microtransit is not quite a door-to-door service like Uber, and it asks users to walk to a nearby corner to help speed service. A map online showed me where to go — less than a block away. It followed my steps until I reached the exact spot where it wanted me to wait for a brand new Mercedes Benz six-passenger van.

(Lee Davidson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The app for UTA's new microtransit service sent reporter Lee Davidson to a nearby corner to wait for a van.

Driver Henry Alvarez actually arrived two minutes early and would have waited for me had I not already been there. I opened the van door and entered, where Henry apologized because he was having trouble figuring out how to operate controls to open the door automatically (he did figure it out quickly).

He said it was his first day on the job. Just after noon, he said I was only his second passenger for the day for a shift that had begun at 7 a.m. “Not many people know about this new service I think,” he said. It had been operating only seven days on the Tuesday when I rode. Unlike Uber drivers who are paid by the ride, microtransit drivers are paid by the hour.

I was the only passenger at first, and buckled in. I rarely am able to have conversations with UTA bus or train operators, but Alvarez and I had a nice talk about how he was an engineer in Venezuela, and now is an insurance agent. He’s driving for Via in the mornings before his afternoon/evening insurance work to save for a cruise for his wife.

Alvarez said he wasn’t very familiar with that part of Herriman, but his phone app gave him turn-by-turn directions ensuring he could not get lost. I also could see our route (and progress) on a map on my smartphone, along with an estimated time of arrival.

(Lee Davidson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A UTA microtransit van waits for a passenger in Herriman on Nov. 26, 2019.

Via interrupted our trip because another passenger had just requested a trip on our way — actually to the same TRAX stop — and we diverted to pick her up. That’s a difference from Uber and Lyft, which make no such diversions in the Utah market.

The other passenger wasn’t there when we arrived. Alvarez waited, but the app soon told him it was time to go. He called the passenger, who apologized and said she was just about there — and arrived while talking to him on the phone. (That doesn’t happen on bus and rail lines).

Jasmine Bainson, a University of Utah student, entered and apologized saying she had forgotten the transit pass that she would need for her TRAX ride to school, and ran back for it. It was her first ride on the new service, too.

In warm weather, she rides a bicycle to the TRAX station. “It’s been too cold lately,” said Bainson who does not drive a car. “So I’ve been taking Lyft a lot lately, but sometimes it costs $20 a day. My mom told me about this new service, and I decided to try it. The idea is amazing.”

Even with the slight diversion, we arrived about 17 minutes after I was picked up — compared to the 55 minutes or more that other UTA bus service would have required with a long walk included.

After a few minutes at the TRAX station, I requested a return trip on the app. This time the driver was only two minutes away — and again it was Alvarez. We returned in about 15 minutes, and this time picked up no extra passengers.

(Photo courtesy of Utah Transit Authority) Officials speak at the grand opening of UTA's new microtransit pilot project on Nov. 21, 2019.

I see the new service also offers an easier and quicker option for my daughter-in-law’s trips to her parents. She can take FrontRunner to the Draper Station and take microtransit from there — skipping the hassle and delay of transferring to TRAX to go to Daybreak.

After each ride, the Via app asked me to rate my driver. Via also emailed me receipts showing my trips and the amount paid. Another email thanked me for taking my first ride and gave me a referral code to use to urge friends to try the service. It promised that when a first friend uses it, Via would give me a $5 credit for future rides.

UTA plans to continue the experiment for a year, and it is funded in part by newly increased sales tax for transit. The agency will then evaluate how well it works. It then may drop it, tweak it, continue it, or expand it.

UTA isn’t the only agency nationwide experimenting with microtransit. Among others doing so are Denver; West Sacramento, Calif.; Los Angeles; Orange County, Calif.; and Kansas City.