This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2017, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
George Chapman's op-ed this past Sunday, "What will be the future of mass transit in Utah?," is thoughtful and largely correct (with an exception noted at the end of this piece). However, the op-ed casts the funding of bus and rail service as an "either/or," when in fact the two go together.
UTA has expanded its rail system dramatically since I arrived in Salt Lake City nine years ago. Tourists come to Salt Lake City and are amazed that this red state would invest heavily in mass transit. It is not the buses that produce this reaction, but the trains rolling around the community and adding a sense of urbanity. The American Public Transit Association awarded UTA the Outstanding Transit System of the Year award in 2014. Again, it was the rail system that propelled us to the top.
I am glad we made the historic investment in rail for three main reasons. First, rail is fixed while regular bus service can always be rerouted. George refers to the "permanence" of rail, but does not explore the implications. The fact that rail is permanent causes it to influence regional development patterns. Specifically, it induces developers to invest in transit-oriented development (TOD) at or near rail stations. TOD is our best hope to curb sprawl in the valley. The kind of development that is occurring near TRAX stations in Salt Lake City, South Salt Lake, Murray, Sandy, South Jordan and elsewhere is dense and mixed use, the exact opposite of suburban sprawl.
We recently completed a study of trip and parking generation at five exemplary TODs around the U.S. What we found is astounding: these TODs have transit, walk and bike shares ranging from 25 to 75 percent of all trips. They produce, on average, about half as many auto trips as comparable suburban developments with the same number of housing units and same amount of commercial floor space. They require about half as much parking, again on average.
Second, rail has the ability to attract more "choice riders" than does bus service. This statement applies to all bus service except, perhaps, bus rapid transit, and the jury is still out on that. Transit planners and travel modelers speak of a "psychological rail factor" that causes transit users to prefer rail to otherwise comparable bus service. Traffic on 400 South had been rising steadily up to that time and had reached over 40,000 vehicles a day by 1999. With the university TRAX line, traffic volumes dropped to about 20,000 a day. Annual average daily traffic has remained below 24,000 since 2001. The last time university students and staff were surveyed, results showed that 37 percent of them use transit to get to the U, and nearly all use TRAX.
Finally, the region has invested in rail because rail systems produce lower operating cost per passenger mile than bus systems. In 2015, UTA's operating cost per passenger mile on bus was $1.19, whereas it was only $0.55 for light rail and $0.31 commuter rail. The reason is that a train can carry 10 times as many passengers with a single operator (driver) as a bus, and a major cost component for both is the operator.
Referring back to the beginning of this piece, bus and rail are complementary modes of travel. Having expanded rail dramatically, I agree that it now makes sense to put new dollars into bus service, as George suggests. We need both, good bus service and good rail service. Because of its higher speed, rail is more likely to capture long work trips. But for households that choose to shed a car, or simply cannot afford a car, local buses can better serve short trips for other purposes. Also, buses provide feeder service to rail.
Now the correction to George's piece. George says there has been a 30 percent cut in bus service. The number of bus revenue miles peaked in 2005 at 17,500,666 miles. In 2015, bus revenue miles totaled 15,367,510, a drop of only 12.2 percent. And total revenue miles of service, including both bus and rail, were 17.6 percent higher in 2015 than in 2005. Since the first TRAX line opened in 1999, UTA has seen massive increases in ridership as well. The Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports, which are publicly available on UTA's website, contain an annual history of statistics including revenue miles and ridership.
It has become sport to dump on UTA. It is about time someone said something nice (and balanced) about the organization and its services.
Reid Ewing is chair of City and Metropolitan Planning at the University of Utah, and a transportation planner. His latest book is "Costs of Sprawl," published by Routledge.