Victoria Petro-Eschler found herself in a difficult position when her car was totaled in a crash in late October.
It couldn't have happened at a worse time. Petro-Eschler, a resident of the Jordan Meadows neighborhood, was in the middle of campaigning for the Salt Lake City Council District 1 seat, which represents the city's northwestern neighborhoods, when the crash happened just a week before the municipal election.
"We feel disconnected over here. It's very easy over here to not feel like we have transit options," she said of the city's west-side neighborhoods. "Trying to find rides and get around was terribly difficult without a private car."
She's thankful that the crash didn't ruin her campaign efforts leading up to the election, which she won. And because she won, she was sworn in immediately as a City Council member to fill in the vacant seat left by the previous council member who had resigned.
But that experience is why Petro-Eschler is thrilled with a new public transportation microtransit service — a cross between transitional public transit and rideshare technology — that launched in Salt Lake City's west side Monday. The Utah Transit Authority launched its UTA On Demand for a new service area that covers the city's Fairpark, Glendale, Jordan Meadows, Poplar Grove and Rose Park neighborhoods for at least the next year.
The service, available through UTA's partnership with the city and the transit tech company Via, is a one-year pilot program to see if the service is viable for a part of the city that doesn't have as many transit options as neighborhoods in its eastern neighbor. It aids a diverse section of the city, where residents have struggled to feel included because of previous city investments that haven't always helped out areas in the west side before.
"This just enhances our ability to move; but I think also, symbolically, it's wonderful to see an investment like this that lets the west side residents know they're important, that they're valued and we have access to all the things Salt Lake City promises," Petro-Eschler said.
How it works
UTA On Demand will run between 4 a.m. and 12:15 a.m. every Monday through Saturday, and from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Sundays. All rides must start and stop within a defined service area, which is mostly between 2300 North and 2100 South from I-15 through I-215 in Salt Lake City. It also extends as far east as 300 West between the Salt Lake Central Station (250 South) and 2300 North, as well as areas west of 2200 West north of I-80.
Riders who are within the service zone can hail a ride through the UTA On Demand app and have a UTA vehicle arrive on their block, much like a rideshare service. However, riders will be picked up and dropped off closer to intersections instead of exact locations, for efficiency, said Jaron Robertson, the director of innovative mobility solutions for UTA.
"If you're in the service area, we'll come within a short distance of your home. The system may require you to make a short walk to the vehicle," he said.
A driver collects multiple people headed in the same direction, much like carpooling or a bus would do. It costs $2.50 for a one-way fare, which is the same as a bus, and the service is also transferrable to other modes of UTA transportation like TRAX.
"The vehicles are staged throughout the service area, and so they'll look to aggregate a trip when a request is made," Robertson explained. "So, depending on where other people are going, because it is a shared trip, it'll find the vehicle that's closest and makes the most sense going toward that destination, and it dispatches it to that customer."
Anyone seeking rides who may not have the app can also hail a ride by calling 385-217-8191, where a representative from UTA will book the ride when the person calling informs them of the location they are at and where they are going. That representative will inform the caller of where to go to get picked up and when to expect the vehicle to arrive.
Robertson said there's about a 15-minute delay between the time a ride is booked and when a vehicle arrives, regardless of whether the ride is booked on the app or by a phone call — not much different from rideshare apps. That may fluctuate depending on demand, too.
There's also an option for wheelchair-accessible vans, which do provide door-to-door service for residents.
Riders can pay for their rides by using a credit or debit card on the UTA On Demand app or by using a FAREPAY card, an Eco Pass, a student pass or by calling 385-217-8191. Riders can also use UTA paper or mobile tickets or passes by selecting "UTA Paper Ticket or Transfer" in the app.
As an incentive to get new users, Carlton Christensen, chairman of the UTA board of trustees, said new users can get their first 10 rides for free up until March 1, 2022.
How the city got connected with microtransit
About six years ago or so, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall, then a City Council member, joined a handful of other city leaders in a trip to Boulder, Colorado, to see how they ran a public transit system that the mayor called "flexible, affordable and very usable." They wanted to learn how Boulder pulled it off.
When the Salt Lake City leaders returned, they wrote up a new city transit master plan, and voters later approved a bond to pay for items, some of which have already gone into effect or will be soon. The city partnered with UTA to extend bus service for major east-west routes in the city, added new bus stop shelters, a new TRAX station currently being constructed, and a planned extension of the S Line in South Salt Lake and Sugar House.
It was also during that trip when the city became acquainted with Via, leading to the idea of a microtransit system on the west side of the city. The program launched Monday is also funded through the voter-approved bonds from a few years ago. City officials imagine the service will allow residents to have easier public transit access to grocery stores, doctor's visits, parks and connections to other UTA services.
"This is just another milestone ... and Salt Lake City is going to keep growing your ways to connect with every opportunity that we can possibly imagine for you," Mendenhall said. "This system is going to grow in as many ways as we can to fit the needs of our residents of the city. We can't grow (bus routes) fast enough. We can't put TRAX on the ground fast enough. ... In the meantime, get out the app, check it out and get connected with the transit that does exist."
This isn't the first time UTA has worked with Via. The agency first tested its on-demand service in southwest communities of Salt Lake County in 2019. It became a permanent public transportation fixture in the area earlier this year, with a little over 400-weekday boardings in November, according to UTA ridership data.
Robertson said many riders in that area of Salt Lake County use the service to travel from their home to other UTA services, such as the FrontRunner commuter train.
UTA also started testing out service in Salt Lake City during the weekends this summer. Then in October, the agency announced that it would begin more regular service in the city's west side.
UTA On Demand won't replace east-west or north-south bus routes that reach the city's west side — like Routes 4, 9, 217, 519 or 520 — but it does replace flex bus Route F522, which was discontinued in favor of the on-demand service.
The agency will take data from the next year to understand trends and see how the service can be improved, Robertson explained.
As for now, Petro-Eschler is hopeful that the new service will help fix the transit service gaps within the city's west side — the same gaps she noticed after her vehicle was totaled in October. She's thrilled that residents won't have to walk far to find public transit.
"I'm committed to making as many of my neighbors aware of the service as possible," she said. "We do need to raise the profile of this quickly and let people know. But once people know about it, I'm convinced it will become a regular staple in their transit options."
Other UTA changes as ridership slowly returns
The new public transit service on Salt Lake City's west side wasn't the only major change UTA made this weekend. The agency resumed its winter/ski resort seasonal service Saturday, which has different routes that go to Alta, Brighton, Powder Mountain, Snowbasin, Snowbird, Solitude and Sundance resorts, as well as Kimball Junction in Summit County.
Bus Route 454, which connected Salt Lake City and Tooele County was discontinued, much like Route F522. Riders who would normally take the 454 bus are instead encouraged to take Route 451, which runs between Stansbury Park and Salt Lake City. Schedules and service routes for over a dozen other bus schedules have also been adjusted beginning this week. The full list of those changes can be found here.
Lastly, TRAX and S Line service is again running late-night service on Sundays. The light-rail system had ended at about 7 p.m. or 8 p.m. depending on the station, but that's now extended to 11 p.m. and beyond midnight in some cases. It's another step closer for TRAX service to return to the schedule that existed before the COVID-19 pandemic impacted ridership in March 2020.
Per UTA ridership data, average weekday boardings have remained steady at between 90,000 and a little over 100,000 over the past three months. That's the highest it's been since the pandemic; however, it's still well below ridership levels in 2019. For instance, the agency reported 95,564 average weekday boardings in November, up 51% from the same time last year but down 40% from November 2019.