A third of recent UTA pass holders say they may never return

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) A UTA bus in Downtown Salt Lake City, Aug. 6, 2019.

Even as COVID-19 restrictions started easing in May, Utah Transit Authority ridership was still down by 65% compared to normal that month — and down 31% for the year, the UTA Board was told Wednesday.

So, as the agency is anxious for more riders to return, it conducted a survey of recent pass holders to ask if they plan to ride its buses and trains again once their schedules return to normal.

Unfortunately for UTA, one of every three said it’s somewhat to very unlikely that they will ever return.

Many have other possibly safer options than being in close quarters with strangers on a bus such as using personal cars, and many reported they may be working from home for the foreseeable future and don’t need transit.

So UTA surveys also asked recent pass holders what would help persuade them to return or keep riding — and the agency reported that it is working to provide those items.

“We learned that 47% said that passenger loads and social distancing would be a factor that would increase their likelihood of riding again,” said Megan Waters, UTA community relations director.

While UTA has reduced schedules because of lower demand, it has added more buses or train cars as ridership rises on individual routes to help allow safe social distancing — and plans to continue that while COVID-19 is a concern.

Safety in general is a big concern for recent pass holders, as 46% said better cleaning and disinfecting would help them consider returning, and 19% making personal protective gear available would help.

Perhaps helping address that UTA on Tuesday began requiring face coverings systemwide by riders and employers, and had begun that on Saturday in Salt Lake and Summit counties because of county orders there.

“We are going to be providing masks if riders don’t have those,” said UTA Executive Director Carolyn Gonot. The agency has ordered dispensers for masks and hand sanitizer that it plans to install on buses and trains.

She said UTA aims to enforce the requirement “with education and information,” and “it’s not our intention to refuse service — but if there are concerns we will deal with that” with supervisors empowered to make enforcement decisions.

The face covering requirement “should not be a burden to anybody,” said UTA Board member Kent Millington.

The move also comes after some state legislators two weeks ago called for that step, saying lack of face coverings may be one reason why UTA’s ridership has remained low (while highway traffic has returned to near-normal levels) because people feel buses and trains are not safe.

“I can’t think of a space that makes me more uncomfortable” than mass transit “where it’s difficult to socially distance, and you’re sharing the same air” in a small confined space, said Rep. Kyle Andersen, R-North Ogden, during a Transportation Interim Committee meeting.

UTA also has increased deep cleaning of its vehicles and plans to continue that for the foreseeable future. A survey of people who have been riding UTA during COVID-19 restrictions found they gave the agency a rating of 5.2 on a scale of 1 to 7 for its cleaning, the highest rating the agency received on such things as safety and providing service.

Also, surveys said 40% of recent pass holders said they might return to using UTA once they are required to work in an office location again and not at home, and 33% said they might be persuaded to return with increased service levels.

The survey found that 93% percent of recent pass holders have access to a personal car, so when they ride UTA it is out of choice and not necessity.

In contrast, a separate survey of riders (not just pass holders) found that 37% of them are essentially a captive audience — and have no access to cars — and they have continued to use UTA for their essential trips.