UTA bus expansion in SLC: Will it be enough to attract more riders?

UTA’s “Change Day” is upon us, where the agency annually tunes up its routes and schedules. This August’s changes are notable especially in Salt Lake City and the I-15 Tech Corridor near Lehi. 

Salt Lake City will see enhanced service on four (mainly) east-west lines (2nd South, 4th South, 9th South, and 21st South). The Lehi area near I-15 will enjoy the new 864 and 871 routes.

Will they be enough to reverse a nationwide trend in declining transit ridership, including Utah, defied in UTA’s service area only by FrontRunner and the UVU bus rapid transit route?

UTA bus on 200 South in Salt Lake City. Photo by Luke Garrott.

SLC’s bet on busses

UTA’s 2017-18 governance restructuring was accompanied by a new consensus on Capitol Hill and in Salt Lake City Hall to rebuild bus service after a decade of aggressive rail expansion. Salt Lake City, under the leadership of a mayor tepid on alternative transportation but insistent on equity, followed suit with a Transit Master Plan built mainly on bus service.

Boosted by equity concerns and an influx of new sales-tax funding, Mayor Biskupski and the City Council decided to focus on improving east-west connections that have been missing from the city’s transit service.

Under their Funding Our Future initiative, the City will pay UTA just over $6 million this year for the expanded routes. The two entities recently signed an agreement that paves the way for 20 years of service-for-purchase. 

Calling the expanded bus service “a game changer for Salt Lake City,” the Mayor claimed the changes “will improve the lives of thousands of people in our City.” 

Here are the improvements in SLC

FTN = Frequent Transit Network, from Salt Lake City’s Transit Master Plan (2017). This graphic accurately represents the increased frequency and service hours ONLY on the improved 2nd South route. The enhanced 4th, 9th, and 21th South busses terminate at ~9:00 pm on weekdays, earlier on weekends.

Bus 2: 200 South from Central Station (600 W+200 S) to University Medical Center

The enhanced Bus 2 will run on weekdays and Saturdays from ~5 am to Midnight, on Sundays from ~7:30 am to 8 pm. It will have 15-minute intervals on Mon-Sat from ~8 am to 7 pm, with 30-minute service in the hours earlier and later.

Bus 4: 400 South+Redwood to Foothill+3900 South

The newly construed Bus 4 will improve connections Downtown to the West side significantly. Plus, more frequency on Foothill Drive should well serve East Bench commuters to the U of U and Downtown. Service stops at ~9 pm on weekdays and Saturdays, and ~7 pm on Sundays.

Bus 9: 4th South+Redwood to U of U Olpin Union

Bus 9 used to terminate its westbound service at 300 West. It will now drop down to 1300 South and continue to up to Redwood Road, north through Glendale. The lack of a direct east-west route along 900 or 800 South is likely to reduce legibility and efficiency for riders.

Bus 21: Central Pointe Trax (2100 S+200 W) to U of U Olpin Union, via 2100 East

Bus 21 will travel the same route, but have expanded hours and better frequency during peak commuting hours. Service will be from ~5 am to Midnight on weekdays and Saturdays, on Sundays from ~7 am to 7 pm. Bus headways will be 15 minutes from ~6 am to 9 pm on weekdays and Saturdays, and half an hour at other times.

Will the improvements move the needle in SLC?

Besides the importance of offering more services to traditionally under-served West Salt Lake residents, what’s the point of better service on these four bus routes?

The logic is simple: improve service and ridership will increase. Transit ridership nationwide was steady or expanding until 2014, a pattern that UTA’s service area reproduced. From 2014-18, service cuts are one of the factors identified by researchers at the University of Kentucky that led to a declining number of riders.

Yet the decline in transit riders also tracks closely to the introduction of rideshare companies like Lyft and Uber into the cities in this study. Researchers also cite the major factors of abundant cheap gasoline, increased car ownership, transit system reliability issues related to deferred maintenance, and increased bicycle and scooter use contributing to fewer transit riders. 

Another group of researchers found that service cuts and expanded car ownership were the main causes behind the declining number of people taking transit.

Seattle and San Francisco: success cases against the grain

Since 2014 and the influx of Lyft and Uber, Seattle is the only city to have added riders to their transit system. Graph courtesy of TransitCenter, “Who’s on board?” (2018).

Increased spending that improves the rider experience (speed, reliability, frequency, comfort, cleanliness) is the reason most studies give to explain the success of both Seattle and San Francisco increasing ridership as it declines nationwide. 

UTA has been promoting its bus rapid transit (BRT) service in Orem-Provo and West Valley with a similar philosophy. The same principles will be applied to new UTA BRT routes in Odgen and North Salt Lake.

Another reason given for Seattle’s success is widespread public support for transit. “Being straight with voters” about voting for tax increases helped their cause. Salt Lake City residents seem primed for major transit improvements, given results of a recent poll.

Making public transportation competitive with owning and operating a private car is a common-sense and research-backed solution to attracting more riders to transit.

Whether Salt Lake City’s new investments will move the needle in the right direction, despite nationwide winds against it, is yet to be seen.

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