How successful was Free Fare February? UTA still isn't sure

It appears Free Fare February was a smashing success in bringing riders back to public transit, but exactly how successful was it? Even Utah Transit Authority officials still aren't entirely sure at the moment.

In its monthly ridership report published Thursday, the agency says there were 108,309 average weekday riders. That number is also higher than the 102,670 average weekday riders listed on a different UTA data webpage devoted to Free Fare February numbers. Both numbers are at least a 17% increase in ridership from January and both would mark the agency's most successful month in two years.

But both are also premature estimates subject to change, according to Carl Arky, UTA's spokesman. He said a different figure may end up on the final report of last month because the agency's analysts are still sifting through a "mountain of data" before coming up with a conclusive number. That report is expected to be released next week.

That said, UTA leaders are pleased with how February turned out.

"I would preliminarily label Free Fare February very successful, given what we saw," said Jay Fox, UTA's executive director, during a UTA board meeting Wednesday.

Arky says he understands why everyone's clamoring to see how well the month did. UTA had never had a program where all of its public transit options were free to riders in its five decades of existence. While the event was pushed forward by government entities and lawmakers, he said everyone at UTA is equally curious how it turned out. That's why they are making sure all the numbers are as accurate as possible before publishing the report.

The way that UTA collects data didn't change at all for Free Fare February. The ridership information that's been made public since 2017 is based on a system in place that automatically counts riders who use any of its modes of transportation. It's not based on who paid fares or how they paid fares.

"There are different types of considerations, and they're trying to look at all those types of things," Arky said. "I think there was an expectation that when Free Fare February ended, it would be like a baseball game and we would know the final score. That's not the case."

A graph of average weekday boardings from January 2020 through February 2022 published by the Utah Transit Authority Thursday. UTA officials said the 108,309 average weekday riders is a preliminary number subject to change. An official number may be released next week.
A graph of average weekday boardings from January 2020 through February 2022 published by the Utah Transit Authority Thursday. UTA officials said the 108,309 average weekday riders is a preliminary number subject to change. An official number may be released next week. | Utah Transit Authority

Both preliminary figures — 102,670 or 108,309 — would be the highest since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Public transit ridership took a nosedive in March 2020 when the pandemic shutdowns resulted in fewer Utahns commuting or congregating. The agency also began to cut back on the frequency it ran its buses and trains to account for fewer riders.

Ridership tumbled from 163,293 in February 2020 to 104,557 in March 2020 to 45,742 in April 2020. It's been a slow recovery since. Before last month, 101,143 in September was the highest average weekday boardings across all UTA systems.

The figure reported Thursday would be a 20.6% increase in ridership from 89,804 average weekday riders in January, while the 102,670 figure represents a 17% uptick from the previous month. Bus, FrontRunner, TRAX and other forms of transit all experienced ridership upticks, per both reports.

Fox used the figures from the Free Fare February dashboard during the UTA board meeting Wednesday. He said it's still well below figures in February 2020; however, UTA leaders are hopeful that Free Fare February helps in the journey back to pre-pandemic ridership levels.

"The fact that we've recovered and we're now moving in an upward direction, and now at (about 66%) of our (pre-pandemic) ridership, is very encouraging — a very positive sign and directly related to the Free Fare February event," he said.

Based on those preliminary figures, total ridership rose from 2.1 million in January to 2.45 million last month. Fox noted there was also a 45% increase in weekend ridership, which could signal changes in how people ride public transit.

However, Arky admits it's too early to know if it's a tipping point. The program also ended right as Utah gas prices soared to a record this week as an economic fallout to Russia's invasion of Ukraine at the end of last month.

It's also unclear if people are switching to public transit — even with the $2.50 fare price restored — because they find it a cheaper option. Initial March data isn't expected to be released until April 10 at the latest. If gas prices remain as high as they are now and it results in more riders, Arky said it's possible UTA will add an extra car on FrontRunner or adjust bus routes to accommodate the growing number of riders.

But, like Fox, Arky says there's always "a cause for optimism" any time ridership increases.

"We had a lot of people who tried public transit for the first time in February and came away with a very positive perception of the experience," he said. "We hope that more people will at least give it a try."