Despite lower gas prices, public transit ridership is increasing nationally and in Utah.
A recent New York Times article noted that about 2.7 billion passenger trips were taken on public transit systems in the third quarter of 2014, an increase of 1.8 percent, or about 48 million trips, over the same period a year ago.
Utah Transit Authority reports an even higher ridership increase, 2.26 percent, for third quarter 2014, an increase of 247,074 passenger trips over the same quarter in 2013. The trend continued in November, with ridership up nearly 2 percent (1.96%) over November 2013. Weekday ridership in November was even higher, increasing by 2.74% over the same time last year.
Commuter rail has seen the greatest increase, with 15.62% higher ridership in November 2014 compared to November 2013. FrontRunner trains are packed at peak times.
Here’s the third quarter breakdown:
3rd quarter total
% Change 2014 vs. 2013
The national increase puts public transit ridership at a 58-year high. In Utah, more people are riding public transit than ever before. Utah’s urban areas have also seen big upticks in walking and biking, activities that complement public transit.
Officials are waiting to see if dramatically lower gas prices slowed ridership increases in December. But transportation experts believe that passenger trips will increase over the long term, even with lower gas prices.
That’s because much of the ridership boost is due to changed lifestyles, cultural factors and even real estate development patterns. Demand for expanded public transit is also increasing among local elected officials and business leaders. Young people are not purchasing cars and driving as much as previous generations. More mixed-use, walkable developments, both commercial and residential, are being built around transit stops. More people are interested in urban living.
So what’s next for Utah Transit Authority? The agency has gone through a period of rapid system expansion, with several new rail lines constructed ahead of schedule and under budget. With the backbone now built, the focus is now on operational excellence — taking public transit to the next level by improving convenience and frequency. That means transit stops closer to neighborhoods and buses and trains that come by more frequently to boost ridership numbers significantly.
Metropolitan areas that have higher ridership than the Wasatch Front almost all have systems in which buses and trains arrive at stops every 10-15 minutes. With increased frequency, riders don’t need to check schedules. They know a bus or train will arrive soon after they get to a stop.
Increased convenience and frequency will require more funding. Local officials and business leaders are asking the Legislature to provide additional flexibility so that local governments can raise funds for expanded transit services.