This story is part of the Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to identifying solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.
[Subscribe to our newsletter here]
The sky was gray, the air was cold and we had a bus to catch.
I stood at a bus stop in Sugar House with Innovation Lab reporter Saige Miller and photographer Rachel Rydalch, looking up and down the street for our bus. The Transit app said it should have arrived several minutes earlier, but we still hadn’t seen it.
When I joined the Innovation Lab in February, Saige and I started discussing how to deepen the rhythm of transport. Last year, Utahans averaged 79,645 weekday transit trips per month, so it’s no wonder this is a hot topic for so many people.
To write about transportation more effectively, Saige and I thought we should experience it for ourselves. Not a quick bus ride or a hop-on hop-off with TRAX; instead we decided to travel from Salt Lake City to West Valley City to Provo using only public transportation.
We traveled on a Tuesday in February to take advantage of the Utah Transit Authority’s Free Fare February initiative.
Along the way, we chatted with other riders about why they use transit, what they like, and what they could change.
Here’s what we learned.
The first leg of our trip was to West Valley by bus. Our first observations were with the Transit app, which provides real-time transit data and which UTA’s website urges riders in Utah to use.
We liked how it allowed us to simply search for our destination and then gave us step by step instructions on how to get there.
However, real-time updates meant that bus schedules constantly changed, which we found more confusing than helpful.
We managed to make all of our buses, but wondered how someone without cell phone access could even start navigating local bus routes. Saige also noted that the app quickly drained his phone’s battery.
She observed that most people drove for about four stops and felt that we spent more time waiting for the buses than getting on them.
Still, the people we spoke to had almost nothing but positive things to say about Utah’s bus system.
Bus driver Maribel Fillmore said she takes the bus whenever she can because it helps improve air quality.
She also finds it a convenient way to travel, as it runs every 15 minutes, she said.
Fillmore said she doesn’t always have enough money for bus tickets, so Free Fare February has been incredibly helpful.
“I know it’s only $2.50, but sometimes it’s too much,” she says.
Saige and I also wondered how safe people, especially women, felt on public transport.
But no one we spoke to had anything negative to say about it either.
For example, Yenny Jeri said the bus system is a safe and affordable way for her to take ESL classes at Salt Lake Community College five days a week.
Saige, Rachel, and I took a series of buses to West Valley Central Station (2750 W. 3590 South), where we took a TRAX train to downtown Salt Lake City.
The route map from the station was easy to read and departure times were clearly displayed on each train, making this leg of our trip simple to navigate.
During our ride, we spoke with University of Utah student Tyler Bordeaux, who said he takes TRAX four to five times a week.
It’s a particularly convenient form of transportation for him, he said, because he can use it for free as a student. He would likely pay for a UTA pass if its fare wasn’t already included in his tuition, he added.
Bordeaux said its biggest complaint about TRAX is that the timetable is not consistent – trains often arrive too early or too late.
“The schedule has been very off lately,” he said.
He also said he would prefer TRAX to go to more places, like Millcreek.
We then arrived at the North Temple FrontRunner station and took the train to Provo. From there we took a bus to Center Street, had dinner and caught another bus back to the train station in time for the drive back to Salt Lake.
The train to Provo was packed that day and noisy too. Transit ridership increased in February due to free fares, which may have contributed to our busy commute. The drive home several hours later was not as complete.
Towards the end of our trip, we took stock of the length of our trip that day: in total, 8 hours, 17 minutes and 33 seconds, according to Saige’s calculations.
About two and a half hours of that time was spent traveling to and from Provo via the Frontrunner, not including time spent waiting and riding the buses.
Comparatively, simply driving from Salt Lake to Provo and back can take between an hour and a half and two hours depending on traffic.
It struck us that all that extra travel time is perhaps the biggest downside of using public transport to get from one city to another. It takes so much longer and involves a lot of waiting at stops and stations.
Our day spent riding public transport gave Saige and me a lot to think about. What would it take to add extra stops along the routes? Is it possible to minimize the time needed to reach a destination by public transport? Are there better ways to split bus and train schedules? We look forward to exploring these questions and many more in the months ahead.
Editor’s note • This story is only available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers. Please support local journalism.