Utah Needs Better Incentives to Reduce Traffic and Increase Mass Transit Use

Here in Utah where I live, there’s a big deal coming up if you’re a fan of mass transit. The Front Runner, commuter rail train from Salt Lake County to Utah County is opening in a couple of days. But the question for me, remains that the value of the service is still too hard to justify.

Look, I am a HUGE FAN of mass transit.  I really, really, really want to love it, use it and promote it.  I even gave an impassioned speech on the matter once in college.

But…. then reality sets in, and it’s not pretty.

See, in Utah, it’s comparatively simple to just get in a car and drive it. Utahans own on average two cars per household along the Wasatch Front, and make 77% of our daily trips alone (with no passengers in our cars with us). I personally can attest that it is unquestionably hard to get around and get things done in this state unless you have your own set of wheels.

The Utah Transit Authority has made significant improvements in the last several years with commuter rail and light rail services running throughout the state. I’m motivated by the South county commuter rail line as well as the downtown to airport light rail line that’s going in. These should all be successes–I hope.

However, I’m not blind to the realization that mass transit is an uphill battle to fight in Utah. As “progressive” as a state we want to believe we are, we are also very independent and, frankly, set in our ways of doing things. I imagine that asking Utahans to give up their cars would be nearly as problematic as asking them to give up their guns

  • I realize that Utah’s transit system has not nearly the public funding that other states enjoy.
  • I also realize that our mass transit system has a significantly smaller percentage of ridership that other states where mass transit is a way of life.

Yet, the challenge remains: If I, the consumer and commuter, are going to shift my spending from filling the tank in my car to purchasing commuter passes, the upside needs to be significant. Either monetarily or socially. Unfortunately, In the state of Utah, neither of these compensatory factors is readily available.

And, just like when the Daybreak TRAX line opened (shutting down bus line 327) if the new transit options–as shiny, speedy and free-wifi-laden as they are–are impractical for people, “they just take their cars.”

I’m not trying to be negative on this. I can honestly see that the UTA is really fighting this, but I wonder if they are losing some ground? In just my perusal of UTA related online comments and discussions, it seems like UTA representatives are always on the defensive, relating challenges due to funding, ridership, energy costs, ridership, lack of public input, lack of corporate sponsorship, ridership and, oh… ridership.

I came across an interesting TED talk by Jonas Eliasson on “How to solve traffic jams” using incentives (especially used in managing free-market economies) to naturally help with traffic flow patters in Stockholm:

Personally, I already don’t get to spend enough time at home. Why would I sacrifice up to an additional 2 hours daily time at home for the opportunity to sit on a train with complete strangers?

The right incentives could help make up for this:

If the UTA and Utah Department of Transportation work together, perhaps there are incentives that could be extended one way or another to those who choose mass transit over driving their own vehicles. Or perhaps, if the state wants to make significant changes in it’s drivers’ behavior, it needs to seriously consider adding economic incentives to encourage people to drive differently than they do today.

Some possible solutions include:

  • Increased expense for driving during rush-hours.  This is hard to do without a bridge to naturally limit traffic going into downtown, but converting a number of regular lanes on I-15 into HOV/toll lanes as traffic approaches downtown so that drivers who choose not to carpool or do not pay a toll will find the commute more difficult on their own would make a significant difference.  Drivers would carpool, pay the toll (subsidizing the system) or seek alternate transportation/routes or times of traveling–all cutting down on congestion.
  • Provide significant tax benefits to those who shift their spending dollars to mass transit instead of fueling their own vehicles. For example, give a 100% tax deduction for all monthly transit pass purchases by Utah residents and companies, and you will see some shifting of spending.
  • Tax gasoline in Salt Lake, Davis and Utah Counties and publicly post a big sticker on every gas pump in the Greater Wasatch Front area that 1¢ of every gallon of gas is directly going to fund Utah Mass Transit systems.  This action, combined with a visible increase in volume of routes/rides per day from UTA and a visible decrease in ticket fares will change driver behavior. Every time someone fills up, they are simultaneously trading their own money for the personal benefit of driving their own car and voluntarily subsidizing the mass transit system.
  • Incent employers to provide better benefits to their employees through employee pass purchase programs. Utah transit Authority already tries to do this, but the discount does not seem very lucrative to companies, requiring a significant number of their employees to commit to the program. Perhaps the UTA can publish success stories of companies that have a good “responsible commuting” initiative, helping small and large companies who invest in the benefits of providing passes to employees (or assisting with commuting) get recognition for their efforts.  This will help especially small/otherwise unknown businesses recruit more people and can’t help but make the CEO smile to see her company’s name in positive ink!
  • Discounts for not companies, but just “groups”. If small groups of like-minded employees or groups of people were to band together, is there any discounts that the Utah Transit Authority could provide in, say, multiple pass purchases for a small department of a company, colleagues who work at various companies in an office park, a family, a neighborhood, church, or school for example? Small groups of people banding together could make a huge difference if there are the right incentives to cause them to act.  This is the initial business model of Groupon: A discount/special offer is given, but it’s only available if a certain number of people commit to buy it.* Bonus idea: Fundraiser for non-profits: If a non-profit can get x-many pass purchases sold each month, they get a cash donation from UTA payable only for official use by a non-profit such as a charter school or a charity, etc.

If you were in charge of the UTA and UDOT, what would you do differently to incent drivers to naturally avoid congestion on the roads?

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3 thoughts on “Utah Needs Better Incentives to Reduce Traffic and Increase Mass Transit Use

  1. Historically my idea for how to avoid the “empty bus syndrome” UTA suffers from, would be to drop the price or (ideally) make it free. People have an easier time justifying “free but takes me a lot longer.” When reading this post, the thought that came to mind is that, basically, when public transit becomes easier/faster than going it *by car* then it would become more popular/feasible. Until then…

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