How to Fix the UTA

UTA (Utah Transit Authority) TrainHere in Utah County one of the biggest current debates is over whether we should put in a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) line from the Orem FrontRunner station to the Provo FrontRunner station.

While there are some who think that BRT has no place in Utah Valley, most agree that some kind of mass transit is not only inevitable, but also desirable.

I tend to fall in the latter camp. I have been to cities all around the world that have amazing mass transit systems and they can make a world of difference, transforming a city from one where you have to have a vehicle to travel beyond a certain distance to one where standard vehicular traffic and mass transit work together to provide travel flexibility to residents and visitors alike. Currently our system has some good pieces as well as some that makes mass transit look like a waste of taxpayer dollars. If we are to truly move into the age of mass transit, we should change how we run UTA.

Here are a few ideas of mine to start with:

1. Eliminate boondoggle.

This is easy to say and a little harder to describe.

What exactly do I mean by boondoggle? I mean that the entire system should support itself, instead of expanding into enclaves where there is little hope of making any money from the riding public. These side trips are usually paid for by the taxpayer instead, as UTA promises to add service to a small area in order to continue getting state funding.

In defense of UTA, they are in a no-win situation every time they propose moving stops or changing service because somebody will be angry. Nevertheless, as this is public transit, it should serve the public as a whole, not small special interest groups. A great case-in-point of this is the proposed cog railway up Little Cottonwood Canyon. UTA has traveled to Switzerland to study it, but a better option would be to excise it from the plan all together. This is a small route that would be orphaned out at the end of the route system (or connected at great expense to the existing TRAX system) and thus doesn’t make much sense at the present time.

The proposals I’ve seen include shutting down all vehicle access to Little Cottonwood, which would certainly drive the value of the system up, but it would likely decrease the number of visitors to Little Cottonwood, as the trouble of getting to the ski resorts would likely drive visitors to other, more easily accessible, resorts. That wouldn’t benefit the resorts, the tourism board, or the state in general. Instead, if those dollars need to be spent, they should be spent on the existing route system. My vision for UTA would be much as Japan Railways. After the Japanese government privatized Japan National Railways in the 70s, the regional JR divisions had to make a profit to survive.

I think UTA should move towards becoming a self-funded operation as well. I wouldn’t go so far as to privatize it at this point, but the pressure to actually be profitable would lead to a very different decision-making process than we see today.

2. Rationalize routes.

This goes hand-in-hand with the first point. If you take a look at UTA’s current route map in Salt Lake County, you’ll notice that it isn’t built to get from Point A to Point B very well. Routes tend to meander, the primary transfer points are at FrontRunner or TRAX stations, and some routes run so infrequently that it would be foolhardy to expect you can get where you need to go quickly.

There are some exceptions to this generalization – the express routes run regularly and are somewhat rational – but by and large, if you were designing a transit system that goes from merely being adequate to becoming world class, you wouldn’t have this spaghetti bowl of routes.

For a comparison point, here is a bus route map from Kyoto, Japan. While there are some differences between the two areas – Salt Lake County is twice as large as Kyoto (area-wise) and Kyoto is about one and a half times larger than Salt Lake County (population-wise) – there are some great lessons to be learned from the Kyoto map. First, note the overlapping routes. This is a tactic that is used in almost every major mass transit system. While there are overlapping UTA routes, there are far too many orphans that only overlap on very small portions of their routes or not at all.

If routes were rationalized to overlap along a greater portion of their route, these heavy use corridors would have constant bus service that people could count on that then spreads out only at the end of the line to serve smaller pockets of riders.

3. Inform the public.

Right now if I want to know when a bus will stop someplace, I have to plan ahead. I have to either get a printed timetable or I have to go to the UTA website to find out my schedule.

When I’m there, I’ll find out that I may be lucky if a bus will come sometime that day. There are routes that run very seldomly, but without foreknowledge of that fact, I could arrive at my stop and leave disappointed.

What I have seen in the best transit systems are electronic boards that communicate with buses along the route that let people know when they are arriving. Installing and maintaining these boards would be an expensive proposition, however, if we had them only along heavy use corridors (as described in point 2), that would decrease the overall cost and maintenance of the system.

For smaller outlying stations, something as simple as a QR code on the bus stop sign that takes a smartphone to a simple page that says when the next bus will arrive (updated in real time using GPS data from the buses on the route) would probably suffice.

4. Simplify maintenance.

I have seen a variety of bus frames, and while I don’t know the maintenance figures on the UTA fleet, I believe the Southwest Airlines model could apply here. We should simplify the rolling stock of UTA over time down to a single model, with all buses using the same seats, fuel, and seating configuration. This would cut down on the number of parts needed and give UTA better access to the economies of scale that it should be enjoying as a large purchaser of parts, fuel, and maintenance.

5. Utilize airline strategies.

This gets down to logistics and some advanced financial tactics.

While the airline model hasn’t always been a paragon of how to do business, there are some smart strategies that UTA can learn from. One was described in greater detail above under rationalizing routes. Another would be to create more hubs. These hubs would be where different bus lines intersect to take people across the valley. Logistically, these should be set up not at TRAX or FrontRunner stations as they are now, but also along bus routes.

My goal would be to get as many people as possible to their destination with one transfer or less. These routes should be timed so that there is a minimum amount of time spent waiting for your connection. For example, when I was traveling to Woods Cross this weekend, I put my destination into Google Maps to see where it was. Google Maps came up with transit directions, but said that it would take me 18 hours to get there from Provo using UTA. Most of this time was spent waiting at transfer points, not actually traveling to Woods Cross. As another point of comparison, it actually would have been quicker to walk to the same location than to wait for mass transit.

Another area that UTA could take advantage of is ramping up fuel hedging as the airlines do.

Fuel costs are one of the largest line items in UTA’s budget and utilizing some of the hedging tactics that airlines use for jet fuel could help reduce these costs. We should also look at alternate fuel sources over time, but there would have to be a good return on investment for using these sources – for example, UTA shouldn’t just go and buy buses that run on hydrogen fuel for the environmental sign of approval. Instead a rigorous cost/benefit analysis should be run with an eye towards the bottom line.

If we start here, we can get a UTA that better serves the state, that is self sufficient, and that is utilized closer to capacity than our current system. By doing this, everybody wins. What other ideas do you have that would make our transit system better?

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