Here’s how Microtransit can speed up your commute

When The Salt Lake Tribune asked readers why they don’t use public transit, one reason was cited more than any other: the time it takes to get from point A to point B.

And when reporters for the Salt Lake Tribune spent a day taking public transit from Sugar House to the West Valley to Provo and back to the Salt Lake City area, the trip took them more than eight hours.

The Utah Transit Authority’s microtransit services may be able to help.

Microtransit options are small, on-demand public transit services that can offer fixed routes and schedules as well as on-demand schedules, according to the American Public Transportation Association.

They’re often a kind of hybrid between ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft and traditional buses and transit.

And they can fill the gaps in traditional public transit, getting travelers to their destinations faster and more directly.

Utah’s program is called UTA On Demand and is accessible through an app or by calling 385-217-8191.

Drivers will then be matched with passengers traveling in the same direction and picked up near their starting point.

One-way fares are $2.50 each (same as one-way TRAX or bus rides) and must begin and end within designated rest stops. UTA On Demand currently serves two zones: Salt Lake City Westside, which includes Rose Park, Poplar Grove, Fairpark and Glendale; and Southern Salt Lake County, which includes 65 square miles in the cities of Bluffdale, Draper, Herriman, Riverton, and South Jordan.

The opening times are Monday to Friday from 4:00 a.m. to 12:15 a.m. In the Westside zone of Salt Lake City, Saturday hours are 6:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m.; in the Southern Salt Lake County zone, Saturdays from 6:00 a.m. to 1:15 a.m

“These hours are really designed to be consistent with TRAX and [with] our other services so people can use this as a personal last mile solution,” said Jaron Robertson, director of the UTA Office of Innovative Mobility Solutions.

A growing service

According to Robertson, UTA On Demand was launched in late 2019 and met the agency’s ridership goals (224 in December 2019 to 392 in February 2020) and even reached up to 505 riders in March 2020 before the COVID-19 pandemic hit and ridership plummeted.

Despite setbacks caused by the pandemic, the service is growing again. Robertson said there was a 30% increase between January and February compared to a 26% increase in January, a 26% increase between February and March, and April shows the same trend.

At its peak in 2021, the program’s ridership averaged 407 weekday rides in November.

Though that’s significantly lower than bus ridership (at its highest point in 2021, averaging 42,863 weekday trips in September) and commuter trains (at its peak in 2021, averaging 10,262 weekday trips in September), Robertson said , microtransit be it via first and last mile solutions.

In other words, Microtransit aims to complement traditional public transport by helping people get to and from bus and train stations.

“Given the nature of this service, you can expect lower ridership than a really well-functioning fixed line service,” Robertson said. “If we saw numbers like that, we wouldn’t run [a] microtransit service.”

Partnership with Via

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) A UTA bus picks up passengers in West Valley City, Thursday, February 10, 2022.

UTA On Demand did not start by itself. The program has partnered with Via, a transportation technology company that has over 500 partnerships with cities, schools and other organizations around the world.

In addition to microtransit, Via also operates paratransit, student transportation, and other programs.

Krista Glotzbach, who leads the western region team at Via, said UTA On Demand is just setting “all-time ride records,” with 650 rides per day, which in April was the program’s highest monthly ridership to date with more than 13,000 rides.

“Across all of our services, including this one, we saw very high ridership in March and April, which may be due to high fuel prices,” she said.

Glotzbach said cities typically implement microtransit to serve low-density areas where buses are difficult to operate or where there is no access to public transit at all.

She said when Via surveyed microtransit drivers, 75% said they use it because they don’t have access to public transit, while 25% said they use it because it saves them an average of 40 minutes when they’re not have to walk the first and last mile of their journeys.

However, she emphasized that microtransit should complement, not replace or compete with, traditional public transport.

“We would never say, ‘Hey, put micro-transportation in the heart of Salt Lake City instead of your fixed-route bus,'” she said. “Buses make a lot of sense. You can take many people from point A to point B. … What microtransit is doing is serving areas that have less access.”

Microtransit is very targeted, Glotzbach said. Via thinks about factors such as how many people live in an area, overall car ownership, and how people access jobs and other opportunities in a region, among other things.

“Usually we have a pretty damn good sense of how many people are going to be driving [microtransit] before we use it,” said Glotzbach.

Microtransit isn’t always just about connecting people with more traditional public transit; Glotzbach said it really depends on the needs of specific areas.

For example, she said that places like West Sacramento don’t have much public transit at all, so they’re seeing more point-to-point transfer rides through microtransit.

“[Microtransit] is not a broad-based solution,” said Glotzbach. “It’s something where we have a challenge… [and] Depending on who we serve determines how we use it.”

micro mobility solutions

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) GREENbikes in stands on the 9th and 9th in Salt Lake City on Thursday, October 3, 2019.

UTA On Demand isn’t the only way to cover the first and last mile of trips. Salt Lake City also has micro-mobility options that allow people to rent bikes or scooters for one-way trips.

For example, travelers can use GREENbike ($7 for an all-day pass), Spin-Scooter ($1 to unlock plus $0.15 to $0.39 per minute), or Lime-Scooter (a fixed price to unlock plus an additional small fee per minute, which varies by city) use ).

Chris Wiltsie leads Bike Utah’s 1000 Mile Campaign, a 2017 goal of adding 1000 new miles of bike lanes, lanes and trails to the state by 2027.

He said microtransit works in environments where start and finish locations are compact, where cycling fits well.

“The ideal spot for cycling is probably around three miles,” he said.

According to Wiltsie, Bike Utah’s research shows that people in urban environments tend to ride short distances at slow speeds and use their bikes more for practical purposes than for recreation.

“So the origins and destinations that we saw were pretty closely matched to the origins and destinations of the cars,” he said. “Our data suggest so [that biking is] used primarily as a means of transportation, mainly for low-income people.”

However, cycling is not necessarily faster than other modes of transport. Wiltsie said how quickly a person can cycle to their destination depends on how a city is designed. In urban settings like Provo and Salt Lake, Wiltsie said he rode his bike faster than people in their cars during rush hour; but places like Lehi with wide streets are designed for cars.

Another problem is that there are not always bike-friendly roads or routes to and from destinations.

Wiltsie said this is because people often build on the idea that cycling is a recreational activity, not a practical one.

For example, he said multipurpose pads like the Jordan River Parkway or the Murdock Canal Trail are great for recreation, but once people get off them, they “spit out like a bike hellscape.”

This can make it uncomfortable to use bikes in any practical way, Wiltsie said, especially when recreational areas are far from places to eat, shop and work.

“So what I think we need to do as a state is build more practical, transport-oriented facilities,” he said.

Editor’s Note • This story is available only to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers. Thank you for supporting local journalism. Here’s how Microtransit can speed up your commute

Joel McCord

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