Ogden trolley

A Utah Transit Authority trolley travels Historic 25th Street in Ogden in 2019.

Despite the progressive loosening of COVID-19-related social distancing restrictions, ridership across major Utah Transit Authority platforms remains in an extended downturn.

During 2020, while hordes of people stayed home as much as they possibly could amid the heightened days of the pandemic, UTA saw a historic drop in ridership. Over the course of last year, system-wide ridership at the agency dropped 47% from where the numbers were in both 2018 and 2019.

And through one quarter of 2021, the trend continues.

“Ridership dropped quickly in March of 2021,” said UTA Chief Operating Officer Eddy Cumins, “and unfortunately has remained relatively flat since that time.”

A year ago, in part as a response to what were already significant declines in ridership, UTA began scaling back service systemwide. For example, the agency reduced the frequency of service along specific bus routes from once every 15 minutes to once every 30 minutes. Stops on weekday FrontRunner service went from every 30 minutes to every hour. More than 90% of the service was restored in August 2020 and remains in effect today, but ridership hasn’t followed the service increase.

Cumins said when compared to the first quarter of 2020, ridership so far in 2021 has fallen another 50%, from about 10 million to 5 million riders on the transit agency’s system. Ridership on buses was down 44% during quarter one this year, with FrontRunner seeing a decrease of 66%. The numbers are slightly deceiving, Cumins said, because for the first part of last year’s first quarter, the pandemic wasn’t an issue.

“We do expect to make up some ground as we start to compare COVID ridership to COVID ridership,” Cumins said. “January and February of 2020 were pre-COVID months.”

Another reason the agency doesn’t quite believe the sky is falling is that compared to lows seen during the height of the pandemic, ridership numbers are moving slightly upward from that point, albeit slowly. For example, at its lowest point, FrontRunner and bus ridership was down some 80% last year.

“We’ve been trending up in all of the modes, just slightly, (but) we have a long way to go,” Cumins said.

Cumins said a ridership recovery team was recently established and has been meeting regularly. He said, among other things, the team would look to increase marketing, look to partner with large-scale community events and further relationships with local universities. He said a presentation on recommended campaigns and promotions will be made to the UTA Board of Trustees soon, but refinements are still being made to the plan.

“Ridership recovery could be a multi-year effort,” Cumins said.