2 of every 5 riders who left UTA during pandemic say they likely never will return

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) This Sept. 24, 2020, file photo in downtown Salt Lake City shows a digital notice that masks are required on UTA buses. A new survey by UTA found that 41% of those who quit riding mass transit after COVID-19 hit say it is unlikely they will ever return — even after the pandemic.

Utah Transit Authority ridership recently has been down 57% compared to pre-COVID-19 levels. Worse, two of every five (41%) of those lost customers say it is unlikely they will ever return, even after the pandemic.

UTA found that in a survey of current and former riders that it conducted in October. Preliminary findings were reported to the UTA Board on Wednesday.

UTA Executive Director Carolyn Gonot said the survey was designed to “help us figure out what we need to do to have people feel comfortable about taking transit again, and also look at what the forces are that are keeping them away.”

A similar survey last spring just of former pass holders and not all riders, found only a third said they were likely done riding UTA forever — so that percentage appears to be rising as the pandemic grinds on.

When the new survey asked why passengers stopped riding — and allowed them to list all of their contributing reasons — 55% said they now work from home, 48% said they switched to driving personal vehicles, and 42% said It was because of concern for their personal health and safety.

When nonriders were asked what would increase their likelihood of returning, their top four answers in order were: continuing to limit passenger loads to accomodate social distancing; better cleaning and disinfecting; a change in their need to travel to work once the pandemic ends; and offering increased service levels.

Current riders gave a slightly different list about what would help keep them riding. Their top answers in order were: cleaning and disinfecting; limiting passenger loads for proper social distancing; increased service levels; and reduced fares.

UTA already is requiring passengers to wear masks, has limited passenger loads and has increased cleaning and disinfecting. Also, service currently is at 91% of pre-pandemic levels despite lower ridership. UTA this week altered its fares — raising some and lower others — but they are similar to pre-pandemic levels.

Despite the bleak prospect that 41% of former passengers may never return, UTA officials hoped aloud that such responses merely reflect some pandemic weariness, pessimism and uncertainty — and that those people can still be persuaded to come back.

UTA Board Chairman Carlton Christensen said former riders may be “assuming that the freeways would be like they currently are” after the pandemic. People “kind of became oblivious” to the traffic congestion that existed prior to the pandemic, he said.

“I think as employers bring people back and congestion hits the freeways, that mindset could change a little bit. It won’t be instantaneous. I do think there will be a lag.”

UTA Board member Beth Holbrook said that so many people saying they are unlikely to return “really is reflective just of uncertainty in general” caused by the pandemic

For example, when the survey asked when people thought their work or school schedules and places would return to normal, 33% said they do not know, 35% said it would be after New Year’s or later, and 23% said they already had returned to normal.

The new UTA survey, when compared to the one it took last spring just after stay-at-home orders were lifted, did find that current riders have grown more comfortable in using transit for more types of rides.

The percentage who use it at least sometimes to go to work increased from 37.5% to 52%; those who used for errands increased from 22% to 33%; riders using it for visits increased from 7% to 22%; and those using it to go to school or college rose from 1.7% to 24%. Those who used it for health care visits dropped from 14.75% to 11%.

Holbrook said actions guided by the data from such surveys are “going to be really valuable when we actually have … a vaccine or something else that can really change people’s confidence levels.”

Newly appointed UTA Board member Jeff Acerson said UTA officials should analyze the survey data carefully to “chart a course forward that will help encourage people to get back on transit.”