The old joke for transportation policy wonks is that support for public transit polls well among people who have no intention of actually using it. There are always people who hope that if enough other folks ride the bus it will mean less traffic and more available parking when they drive their cars to work.
Now that my quadruple-vaxxed self is working from the office more often, and now that I have reached the age that I qualify for the Utah Transit Authority’s reduced fare perk — basically a buck a ride — I am guilty of no such hypocrisy. I have rediscovered the joy of public transit and highly recommend it.
I could recommend it even more highly if the service were quicker and the fares super cheap — or even free — for everyone.
The idea of an always-free system is held back by the fact that nobody ever bothers to figure out how much the loss of fare revenue — about 14% of total revenue — would be offset if UTA no longer had to pay what must be the substantial costs of collecting those fares.
The spreadsheet folks at UTA and other public planning agencies, I am told, should soon have the cost-benefit analysis of what the agency would save by not having to buy, service and constantly fix TRAX ticket machines and otherwise maintain a system of selling and checking passes and tickets.
It probably wouldn’t be the $50 million UTA says would be lost annually if it stopped charging fares, but it’s got to be something substantial, another benefit to go along with reduced auto traffic and the 68 tons of air pollution we were spared just during the system’s Free Fare February experiment. Enough to justify any necessary increase in tax subsidy, as robust transit use benefits those who never set foot in a bus or train.
The system’s plan to run more frequently through the Avenues, meanwhile, has run into some opposition from folks who fear that a route that goes through their neighborhood every 15 minutes instead of every 30 will mean more noise, an increased hazard to pedestrians and giant vehicles that people’s cars and large emergency vehicles won’t be able to get around.
UTA’s planners argue they’ve run the simulations and the trials to determine that they aren’t creating an appreciable hazard. And the argument raised by those who oppose increased service to the neighborhood — that only 6% of the folks there ride UTA — is exactly the reason why the increased frequency is a good idea. It will get more Avenues residents on that bus, cutting down on auto traffic, and the accompanying air pollution, along the small streets.
I asked the UTA’s public information folks if they’d considered running smaller buses through the Avenues or other residential neighborhoods, if only to make them less imposing to nonriders. The answer was they had tried that in the past, but the kind of bus they used was prone to all kinds of mechanical problems and that, at least at rush hour, just didn’t have enough room. That was particularly true on Avenues routes, I was told, when West High School students fill the seats and the aisles.
Almost as much as cost, frequency of service is the key to make drivers into riders. Waiting as much as half an hour for the next bus or train to come is just too much. Half of that, or even less, is tolerable. The best public transit experience I’ve had, on the London Underground, is with trains that arrive every three minutes at peak times. Going any other way becomes foolish. (Except when the system is on strike.)
Riding public transit is like visiting major tourist landmarks. When you are visiting a city, you do the research and find out how to get around, as I’ve done, over the past 30 years, in London, Paris, Edinburgh, Montreal, New York, Washington and Phoenix.
Avenues residents should know that huge double-decker buses smoothly negotiate very narrow streets in Edinburgh, as was certainly observed by the then-unknown J.K. Rowling as she sat in Scottish coffee shops and concocted a world that included a magical night bus that could squeeze Harry Potter through any passage.
But when it comes to your own hometown, well, public transit is like visiting the Empire State Building or the Louvre when you live near there. Visitors may flock to them, while it’s something the locals will get around to someday.
For me, someday is now. I’ve figured out how to buy and load money on a UTA Farepay card, used various websites to calculate which of the four nearby bus routes is best for me and ride a bus that, unlike TRAX from my neighborhood, doesn’t require that I change half way along in the trip. I have to walk a block or two on each end, but I can use the exercise and, unless the weather is awful, it’s better than $5 gas and finding a place to park.
See you on the bus.
George Pyle, opinion editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, thinks UTA should also run the cost of adding free donuts to their morning runs.