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Every vehicle operated by the Utah Transit Authority proudly carries a sticker proclaiming UTA as the “Outstanding Public Transportation System of 2014” as voted by the American Public Transportation Association. After spending 2 days riding UTA in Salt Lake City, I found there’s much to like about UTA. The system is easy to use, the fares structure is simple and there’s plenty of legible information available at the stations. My trip to Salt Lake City (sometimes abbreviated as SL,UT by the local non-conformist types) began with a very turbulent landing at the airport and ended about 40 hours later on the westbound California Zephyr. All my local transportation in SL,UT was provided by UTA and my sturdy pair of Ecco shoes.

UTA operates 4 different types of transit vehicles: heavy rail (Frontrunner), light rail (Trax), rubber tired buses and a streetcar (S-Line). Thankfully, all 4 modes are managed by just one agency, the UTA, so there aren’t any artificial barriers between the various services and simplicity seems to be the guiding philosophy of UTA. There are 3 light rail lines that radiate from the downtown business district and provide service to the airport, the University of Utah, the basketball arena, the soccer stadium, Amtrak and, of course, Temple Square–headquarters of the Mormon church. All light rail lines operate every 15 minutes from about 6am until about midnight. The light rail lines are designed to create a strong north-south service spine while the buses mostly run east-west and connect to the spine. The single streetcar line connects to all 3 light rail lines and its right-of-way appears to be an old abandoned railroad spur which allows for a mostly grade separated trip. Currently the streetcar runs every 20 minutes but there are plans and funding for a double tracking project that will allow 15 minute headways. The Frontrunner trains look a lot like our Sounder trains but with a different paint job and a broader span of service. Frontrunners operate every 30 minutes at peak hours and every hour middays and evenings. Fans of the Utah Jazz or the Utah Symphony who live in Ogden or Provo can take Frontrunner home after a game or concert.

UTA is easy to use for a visitor. An all day pass costs $6.25–equivalent to 2.5 times the standard fare of $2.50. There aren’t any zones to worry about and the pass allows transfers between light rail, the streetcar and the buses. Frontrunner costs more but a Frontrunner ticket does allow transfers to the other modes. The Trax Green Line connects the airport to downtown, the Red Line serves the University of Utah and the Blue Line stops just outside the Amtrak “station”. (SL,UT has 2 old and beautiful railroad stations that have been repurposed to retail/museum uses. Amtrak is served by a small but efficient wooden shack.) The bus routes run on 15 minute or 30 minute headways during the day and are mostly designed to be connectors to the light rail spine. Very few buses are routed into the central business district and the light rail trains do not usually share their right-of-way with buses. Unfortunately many of the bus routes drop to 60 minute headways after the evening commute hours and there is very little bus service after 9pm. The light rail lines maintain their 15 minute headways until the end of the service day.

If you are planning a trip to Salt Lake City you can skip the rental car and buy an all day pass that will get you easily to most of the local business or tourist destinations.

10 Replies to “Transit Day: SL,UT”

  1. Everything looks great on SL,UT except it might be nice to have headways that were 10 rather than 15 minutes. Also, it would be nice to have service after 21:00 in the evening so you have some way to get home after an athletic event or partaking in a cultural event that lets out after 22:00.

    1. 15 minutes is what a lot of agencies do, including MAX and BART. It’s convenient for overlapping but not so good if you’re on the tails. I’m glad Link has a 10-minute minumum before 10pm; that’s what rapid transit should have. If you go to subways around the world like St Petersburg, 10 minutes is their *evening* minimum between 8:30pm and 1am. The daytime standard is 5 minutes or less.

    2. The problem is that frequency is expensive, and has diminishing returns. 10 minute headways cost 50% more than 15, and saves 15 minutes maximum and 7.5 minutes average. Going to 5 minutes doubles the cost, and saves 10/5 minutes max/average. I think money is much better spent on span of service if that’s a need that isn’t met. Even A route that runs every 30 minutes from 7am to 9pm could (in theory, dependent on specific factors) run hourly until 1am for 7/6th of the cost, whereas making it 15 minutes all day would cost 12/6th, and only make service more convenient as opposed to accessible to more people.

      Inter-agency transfer coordination though doesn’t cost any service hours, and is something I wish ST/Metro did well.

      1. There is also the opposite case.

        Portland is every 15 minutes on some lines and somewhat less on those lines in evenings so that service hours may be concentrated at peak periods when some lines need 3-5 minute service.

        Each agency only has a certain amount of operating revenue, and each has to decide what works best for their situation.

      1. If there ever is a place where streetcars might work, downtown Providence might likely be the place. The bus plan involves running 7 different routes along the corridor in a frequent service pattern. The problem with coordinating 7 different route schedules is pretty obvious: if any of the routes are off-schedule there will be bunches and gaps in the frequent service schedule.

        The Providence Amtrak Station is busier than King Street Station despite the fact that the Providence metro area is about 40% the size of Seattle-Tacoma. The Kennedy Plaza Station is the main downtown bus hub with plenty of frequent service uphill to Brown University via the bus tunnel. With dedicated streetcar or bus lanes the service should be very reliable within the corridor, but with some of the buses coming from Pawtucket or TF Green, it will be hard to guarantee reliable schedules.

        I think the problem with the streetcar plan is that it would be too expensive for a system the size of RIPTA. The bus plan is asking for $17 million to build the bus corridor, no streetcar system could be built in any US city for that amount of money.

  2. Nice report! I grew up in SLC and I’d say that it punches above its weight when it comes to transit. That said, there’s so much to be improved in the Salt Lake Valley. There’s no “frequent network” of bus service to complement the rail system, for instance. TRAX is mostly a park-and-ride model that doesn’t scale very well; its ridership is not very impressive for such a large system. Pedestrian access in the city remains a challenge with the long blocks and wide streets. There have been some attempts to increase density around transit hubs, but they have been pretty limited. So…Salt Lake does well compared to its (American) peers, but is a long way from being a multi-modal city.

    1. The Salt Lake Valley suffers from it’s own impressive vista.

      No one thinks sprawl because, well, .. it’s only a hop, skip and a jump from the Oquirrhs to the benches along the Wasatch.

      They do have that odd duality going on down there, though. They built the loop highways way before they needed them, and also voted the extra tax increase to speed up building Trax and Frontrunner.

      Go figure.

  3. I drew a quick comparison map transposing SLC’s TRAX light rail system onto Seattle to compare the scale. Check it out! http://mapfrappe.com/?show=48355

    What strikes me right away is how similar this would be to ST2 if it hadn’t fallen prey to Spine Destiny. Their long southwestern dogleg to Daybreak is about the same length as East Link. Their main north-south line from downtown to Draper lines up pretty well with Northgate to SeaTac, oddly enough.

    The part where I get jealous is that their three east-west segments around downtown would pretty closely match lines to Ballard, West Seattle, and First Hill through Central District. Meanwhile, after Northgate we will spend years connecting exurban park and rides, serving up to several hundred riders a day, via concrete freeway castles, before adding another actual place, with residents and businesses nearby, in Seattle itself.

    The Salt Lake valley has a lot of similarities to the Puget Sound lowlands: bounded on east and west by geographic barriers, so development is funneled into a north-south corridor about 30 miles wide. They even have superficial stand-ins for Tacoma and Everett: Provo and Ogden, respectively, lie almost exactly the same distance south and north of downtown SLC as our neighbors do to Seattle. And they both have heavy rail service, with apparently somewhat better service than our Sounder. Their light rail construction has been much easier though, with a lot of legacy rail routes, a flat gridded city with ridiculously wide roads, no bodies of water separating major population centers, and therefore much less need for tunneling and bridging.

    If you’re curious, I also overlaid my ST3 map onto SLC here: http://mapfrappe.com/?show=48353
    It confirms what overlaying ST3 onto anything always confirms: light rail lines to Tacoma, Everett, and Issaquah look totally preposterous. Wikipedia says they are thinking of going to Orem (almost Provo), so that gives our Tacoma extension a run for its money.

    1. Very revealing graphics–thanks for doing the work and posting. What sets SLC apart from the Puget Sound region is geography, as you pointed out. The SLC urban area is flat and gridded with wide, wide boulevards and very little vertical development currently.

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