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A recent Brookings Institution study proclaimed the Salt Lake City metro area tops in the nation for mass transit's potential to connect people with jobs with 64 percent of residents living within a 90-minute ride of a typical job.
But other figures show the vast majority of area residents don't take advantage of those connections.
Only 2.9 percent of area workers reported regularly taking public transit to work in 2010, according to a Salt Lake Tribune analysis of U.S. Census survey data.
That puts the area at No. 46 among the nation's metro regions in transit use for commuting. The New York metro area was highest with 30.7 percent of commuters taking transit, followed by San Francisco at 14.6 percent and Washington, D.C., at 14 percent.
Nationally, metro areas average 6.6 percent of workers commuting by public transit, twice as high as the Salt Lake City area. However, the median or midpoint for the nation's 155 metro areas is 1.9 percent, lower than here.
Transportation planners say Salt Lake City's percentages are low because Westerners love cars, and transit is not yet sufficiently cheap, convenient, fast and reliable enough to attract more riders but they are working on that. Worsening traffic congestion and air pollution also are creating incentives.
"The relatively low percentage of people who use transit now show there is significant capacity to increase bus and train travel in the future. That's essential as our region is expected to grow by 65 percent over the next 30 years," said Andrew Gruber, executive director of the transportation-planning Wasatch Front Regional Council.
"The automobile is our primary competitor now," said Utah Transit Authority spokesman Gerry Carpenter.
In fact, 2010 Census survey data show 77.7 percent of Salt Lake City area residents drive to work alone; 11.3 percent carpool; 4 percent work at home; 2.3 percent walk; and 1.8 percent use other means such as bikes or taxis.
"We in the West are a very car-centric society," Carpenter said. "After World War II, we tore up all of the streetcar rails and everybody bought cars."
Still, pockets of commuters have converted in big numbers to transit. For example, about 30 percent of University of Utah commuters take transit.
"If you count those who walk or bike, alternative transportation there is about 50 percent," Carpenter said. "Similarly, a high percentage of people who travel to downtown Salt Lake City take transit. But in areas like, say, Herriman, the percentage who use transit is very low, because it isn't really accessible or convenient for many."
Carpenter said UTA has found, "In order to make transit competitive ... you have to make it fast, reliable, convenient, affordable and attractive." He said the agency is trying to improve in each area.
"We have been introducing more high-speed options," he noted. "Instead of just local buses on local streets that are stuck in traffic with everyone else, we've invested in light rail and commuter rail."
UTA last year completed TRAX extensions to West Valley City and South Jordan. It is scheduled to open a FrontRunner leg from Salt Lake City to Provo in December. TRAX routes to Salt Lake City International Airport and Draper are poised to debut next year, along with a new streetcar line to Sugar House.
"Another way to increase the speed," Carpenter said, "is to reduce the number of transfers, and ensure when people do have a transfer that it is short and convenient."
UTA has tried to reduce transfers by analyzing trip-tracking data collected by requiring users of discount passes to "tap on, tap off" at the stations' electronic readers. However, many riders complained about the tickets that UTA police issue to those who forget to do so.
Carpenter said UTA also plans more "bus rapid transit," sort of a TRAX on rubber wheels, where people buy tickets from machines before they enter in any door. The buses have dedicated traffic lanes and the ability to turn signals green for them. One line is operating in West Valley City, and plans call for them throughout the Wasatch Front. He said UTA is trying to keep fares competitive in part by holding down costs, including plans to use buses powered by cheaper compressed natural gas.
UTA also is moving toward "distance-based fares," in which passengers pay for each mile traveled instead of a flat fee for going anywhere in the system. He said that could make short trips much more affordable, and the agency hopes for a time when everyone would carry a fare card to make those jaunts.
Although transit usually takes longer than driving to a destination by car, Carpenter said UTA is working to promote transit as more productive, less stressful and better for the environment.
"A lot of people who ride TRAX and FrontRunner use it to do homework or catch up on email or read a book instead of spending their time having to drive for their commute," he said. "We try to offer amenities like Wi-Fi [to provide the Internet] on FrontRunner and our express buses to make the ride more attractive."
Gruber said increasing ridership on mass transit is a key to handling projected growth. He notes that Wasatch Front communities are pushing the idea of developing "town centers" that cluster higher-density growth around transit stations to encourage ridership.
"By providing transportation choices, we enable some people to leave their cars at home," Gruber said. "That benefits not only the people using transit, but also the people who will be driving on less-congested roads."
Carpenter gives examples of ridership growth that UTA hopes to see with the help of such planning.
He said that when new train lines are complete next year, 75 percent of the Wasatch Front population will live within three miles of a major transit stop.
By 2030, UTA hopes that 90 percent of residents will live within a mile of such a stop.
While UTA riders made 41 million trips last year, Carpenter said, UTA hopes to have 57 million trips by 2020, 74 million by 2030 and more than 90 million by 2040.
"We expect to continue to grow," he said, "as we improve service in outlying and underserved areas."
And then transit will work even better in getting Utahns to work.
How Salt Lakers commute to work
Public transit • 2.9 percent, ranks No. 46 out of 155 metro areas nationally
Drive alone • 77.7 percent, ranks No. 94
Carpool • 11.3 percent, ranks No. 27
Work at home • 4 percent, ranks No. 86
Walk • 2.3 percent, ranks No. 91
Other (such as bikes, taxis) • 1.8 percent, ranks No. 60
Source: The Salt Lake Tribune analysis of 2010 U.S. Census survey estimates