Lost in the celebration about Friday’s free fare day on UTA bus and rail systems is the reality that mass transit service is still inadequate.
The effort to encourage mass transit ridership on one of the biggest shopping days of the year in downtown Salt Lake City is commendable but misses the point that there should be a more concerted effort to encourage mass transit ridership throughout the year. That requires better service.
During the UTA budget discussion, General Manager Jerry Benson said that service increase was the biggest request of riders. During public comment, Claudia Johnson pointed out that she cannot use the transit system when she goes to a show downtown because the bus system essentially stops after 8 p.m.
An important issue on the free fare plan is that studies show that long-term ridership increases from free fare programs do not work when the free fare attracts so called undesirables. Without an inviting and safe shelter system, the homeless and others who tend to disgust many people will ride transit. Although they ride transit now, when there is a system wide free fare, their ridership will increase significantly, especially when the weather is freezing. Encouraging new riders to use mass transit is difficult if they see a large number of so-called undesirables riding mass transit.
When free fare was implemented on shuttles from a Florida airport to the hotels, vagrants utilized the system to the point that hotels asked for a fee to discourage ridership of those who just wanted to get out of the weather.
It would be nice to be able to go downtown on mass transit to see the lights around Temple Square. As Ms. Johnson pointed out, there is almost no bus service from downtown after 8 p.m. This results in the downtown area experiences major traffic jams in the evening with cars trying to find parking (which Salt Lake City contends is adequate) and pollution from stop-and-go cars that increases our bad air.
Studies also show that reducing fares and even a free fare system does not work well if there is not enough parking at the rail stations and bus stops.
Although ticket machine throughput also limits lowering fare efforts, use of the FarePay card would eliminate that limitation. But UTA has stopped promoting the FarePay card which charges $1.50 for a bus ride and $2 for TRAX. Whenever I ride the bus, I see many people putting in $2.50 without realizing that using the FarePay card would save them a dollar.
Another limitation on increasing ridership is the continuing effort to try the most expensive plan to increase ridership. Salt Lake County gave $4 million to UTA (which added $2 million) to double track the Sugar House streetcar to increase frequency to 15 minutes from 20 minutes. But that $6 million would have paid for significant bus service increases in the area that is becoming an entertainment center. That would have a bigger effect on increasing ridership than double tracking that is estimated to result in 150 more riders a day (above the present day 1,400 a day ridership).
Unfortunately, many in government still believe or hope that expensive projects will provide more increases in ridership than bus service increases. The efforts by the Legislature seem to be focusing on billions of dollars in new projects (centered in the Point of the Mountain area) instead of focusing on bus service increases. They seem to be going towards a .25 cent tax increase similar to the failed Proposition One.
The question needs to be asked, where is the bus service increase and why isn’t the focus on what the riders want, service increases?
George Chapman is a former candidate for SLC mayor and writes a blog at georgechapman.net.