Other cities have increased transit ridership with free fares. Is it Salt Lake City’s turn?

Salt Lake City has already shown that increased convenience from an expanded bus network on three east-west routes can increase ridership. Now it wants to know if residents want free rides to go with it.

Residents have a few more days to speak their minds about whether they want free fare in Utah’s capital city, or simply to pay for it in a new way before stepping on a bus, train or light rail. The result could be an increase in ridership, as other cities with offering free fares have seen. 

The survey alone shows that leaders continue to consider improving transit service for those who either can’t afford a car or would rather not contribute to the region’s unhealthy air quality and global climate change.

Simply put, if you want to show your support for free fare in Salt Lake City, this survey is your chance to let the city know there’s a force backing the idea.

The survey asks whether there’s an appetite for free transit, or for some other version of payment that doesn’t involve paying for each trip.

It’s asking how often residents would use transit if the city found a way to “give every city resident a transit pass.” 

But it’s not just looking to see whether there’s support for subsidizing transit the way the state subsidizes its roads and highways or cities subsidize car parking.

If it couldn’t find a way to give the seemingly free trips out, it’s asking how much people would pay each month, and if they’d like to make that payment attached to a utility bill or another way.

When Missoula, Montana, eliminated its bus fare in 2014, ridership increased 70%.

Its program was funded by a mill levy and partners including the university, county, regional planning organization, mall and others in town. That program is paid for through 2020.

Ridership figures on Missoula, Montana’s Mountain Line bus routes before and after residents agreed to support free fares in 2014. Graphic by Taylor Anderson.

Utah, too, saw ridership climb when it offered two free-fare days this year. (Lawmakers approved funding for up to seven free-fare days, but only when the air gets unhealthy enough).

A new free rapid-transit line in Utah County with six- to 10-minute intervals averages about 14,600 boardings daily after its first year, the Salt Lake Tribune reported.

Two months of data

Salt Lake City, too, has found that increasing rider convenience can attract people onto buses.

In the two months since the Utah Transit Authority and Salt Lake City turned three lines into high-frequency routes in July, the early data seem to show that riders here are like riders everywhere else.

With 15-minute intervals, rather than 30-minute intervals or longer, transit offers more convenience that requires less planning.

It turns out people like taking the bus to the commercial neighborhoods of 9th & 9th and Sugar House on the weekend. The 900 South route, which didn’t offer Saturday service before the change, got weekend service and has quickly attracted riders.

Ridership on the routes that travel on 2100 South, 900 South and 200 South in Salt Lake City saw a significant jump after the city and Utah Transit Authority made the lines more convenient for riders. Graphic courtesy of Salt Lake City.

Ridership on Route 9, which now connects the city’s west side with its east, nearly tripled after the change. The data is equivalent to removing about 15% of the motorists who drive alone on 900 South between 700 East and 1300 East. (Most people commute alone, according to federal Census data).

The improved route on 2100 South effectively removed about 10% of the average traffic from the road between 900 East and Highland Drive in Sugar House.

If you or someone you know thinks this region suffers from traffic, you might suggest they fill out this survey after you do. The deadline to do so is Nov. 8.

Posted by Taylor Anderson

Taylor Anderson grew up near Chicago and made his way West to study journalism at the University of Montana. He's been a staff writer for the Chicago Tribune, Bend Bulletin and Salt Lake Tribune. A move from Portland, Oregon, to Salt Lake City opened his eyes to the importance of good urban design for building strong neighborhoods. He lives on the border of the Liberty Wells and Ballpark neighborhoods.