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Jay Evensen: Would 'microtransit' get Utahns out of their car and onto a train?

An electric bus that will go into service later this summer is pictured at the Utah Transit Authority Park & Ride in Millcreek on Friday, May 31, 2019.
An electric bus that will go into service later this summer is pictured at the Utah Transit Authority Park & Ride in Millcreek on Friday, May 31, 2019.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Would you ride mass transit if someone out there offered you a cheap way to get from your neighborhood to the nearest station or bus stop? Is that what’s stopping you?

And if that someone was a tax-subsidized van you could summon with a smartphone app, would that be fair to the private companies that are trying to help you get there right now but that have to charge a higher price to stay in business?

The Utah Transit Authority announced this week that it soon will begin a one year “microtransit” pilot project in the southern end of Salt Lake County, where a lot of people have access to TRAX and FrontRunner lines. Use your phone to hail a ride, and a van seating six to eight people will show up — maybe not at your doorstep but a few hundred feet away. This would take you to the nearest transit line, or even to the grocery store or doctor, if you’d like, probably at the current UTA fair price of $2.50.

Which is about half or less what Uber or Lyft might charge for the same trip — and much less than a taxi.

Unfair, right? Well, if you are expecting those private companies to be upset, you don’t appreciate how complicated this issue is.

“Uber commends the Utah Transit Authority’s continued commitment to ensuring those in Salt Lake County have access to multiple and complementary modes of shared transportation solutions,” an Uber spokesperson told me in an email Tuesday.

That may seem slightly contradictory to what the company said in a document in advance of an initial public offering earlier this year. In it, Uber noted a “massive market opportunity” to provide a substitute for public transit in many markets.

For its part, Lyft has gone on record saying it wants to drive people from their homes to transit stops and back again — essentially what UTA’s microtransit would do.

And yet these companies may end up competing with others for the contract to provide the van service for UTA, so they have an incentive to say nice things. In fact, Uber already contracts with transit systems in various parts of the world. In Denver, you can use the Uber app to plan a mass-transit trip and buy tickets, then summon a car to take you to the nearest station.

In Innisfil, a city near Toronto, riders pay a low, flat fare for Uber rides to certain community centers. But taxpayers pick up the rest of the tab, which goes to Uber.

Thus, yesterday’s disruptive technologies become today’s institutions.

Of course, other companies will be at a competitive disadvantage to whichever company wins UTA’s contract to give you a ride.

And to further complicate things, all these services are competing with the rental scooters and bikes that litter downtown streets, as well as Zipcar.

It’s getting crowded out there, but that still doesn’t answer my original question, or what I like to call the George Jetson problem.

No, I don’t mean the problem of getting your car to fold into a briefcase in an age when no one carries a briefcase anymore. I mean that George was so wrong in predicting the future.

The show’s opening sequence showed him in a flying car with his family, dropping people off on the way to work.

The future is so different. Most of you still make that drive alone.

A survey by the AAA-Foundation found we spent a combined 70 billion hours behind the wheel last year, which was an average of 20 minutes more than in 2014.

Transit ridership, meanwhile, was down nationwide in 2018, something researchers from the University of Kentucky attributed, ironically, to Uber and Lyft. UTA’s overall ridership has fallen slightly over the last three years, although some services, like FrontRunner, have seen an increase.

Utah’s situation, of course, contains one more complication that must be mentioned — bad air.

Getting people out of their cars and onto a train or bus would be a great start toward helping people breathe easier during temperature inversions. That adds a sense of urgency, and a note of virtue, to UTA’s efforts.

Maybe the transit agency could sign agreements with multiple providers to pick you up near your home, thus minimizing market distortions.

That still doesn’t answer the question, though. Would this get you onboard?