There is nothing better than spending an afternoon with an interesting data set.
Granted, it can be a case of different traits for different people, but I really like digging into a big pile of numbers and seeing what I can find. My brain has always had this digital curiosity.
Needing a break from my basketball and COVID-19 work, I widened my circle a bit. I filtered the list of public datasets on OpenData.Utah.Gov, found the Utah Transit Authority had a lot of fun data that I had a few questions about and started exploring.
As you would expect, UTA closely monitors its number of riders, in all of its different modes of transportation: light rail (TRAX), FrontRunner commuter trains, buses of all forms, paratransit, etc. In fact, it even keeps data about where passengers get on and off buses.
These ridership figures dropped completely from the start of the pandemic – people, understandably, no longer wanted to be in close company with strangers. I wanted to know more about this story: how much have they changed? How much did they get back? Are there any interesting trends in the data?
Change in traffic
Here are the UTA figures showing the average ridership on weekdays separated by mode of transport. In this tool, you can select the mode of transport you are interested in from the drop-down menu at the top left. Last year’s figures are in red, 2021 figures are in blue, and data for the previous three years are in pale colors.
Clicking on the charts, we see really similar patterns in almost every type of transport: a huge drop when the pandemic hit and a slow recovery in the months that followed. On a percentage basis, Utah saw the biggest drops in attendance from FrontRunner, which plunged nearly 90%. TRAX ridership has fallen by approximately 75% and bus ridership has fallen by approximately 70%.
The largest month-over-month upturn occurred in the most recent month for which we have data, August through September 2021. But as you can see, it’s also a month in the past. during which UTA typically sees its greatest traffic overall. Overall, UTA still has traffic figures around 40% lower than normal.
It is also interesting to note that the ski bus lines lost the least traffic. While the numbers vary more month-to-month than on other routes (and remember, these are weekday numbers), in February the ski bus had only experienced a 38-percent drop. % of traffic; during this month, all other forms of UTA transport fell by 60%. Maybe congestion in the canyons pushes people to buses even when they don’t want to use them in other aspects of their lives.
Bus stop data
UTA also has data on each bus stop in its system, there are thousands of them. Here I have mapped them all out for you. This is a fun map to click on – find the closest bus stop to you, click on it, and see how average weekday ridership has changed!
The red dots are the bus stops that experienced ridership losses between February 2020 and October 2021. The blue dots are bus stops that saw ridership gains between those same months. The more red there is, the greater the losses; the more blue there is, the greater the gains. And as you can see, there are more red dots than blue dots; this is to be expected when it comes to overall losses such as those described above.
I was curious to see if there were any trends I could discern regarding which bus stops were seeing the biggest drops. I had a guess: basically, these cushy east and south could have been quicker to stop taking the bus than their west and north counterparts. So I performed a calculation to see if there was a correlation between the latitude / longitude coordinate of the stop and its drop in attendance.
What did I find? Well, that my hypothesis was true, but by the smallest margins. In fact, there was only a correlation of 0.02 between the north-south coordinate of a stop and its ridership, and only a correlation of 0.05 between the east-west coordinate of a stop and its traffic. traffic. In fact, this means that less than 1% of a stop’s change in ridership can be attributed to its coordinates on the map.
It does make sense, however. If you click on these maps, you will see very different numbers, even at very close bus stops. The opening or closing of a business near this stop, the construction of an apartment building, or even the simple move of a new transit-conscious family can dramatically change the number of riders in the city. any stop.
And with UTA trains? Well, let’s take a look at this map:
There are two stops that saw their attendance increase. Both are on the green TRAX line. I suspect the increases here are due to the temporary stop change at the airport causing passengers to get on and off this line earlier.
And on this map, due to the reduced number of stops, it’s a little easier to see trends in the data. Ridership in downtown, the University of Utah and the southern end of Salt Lake City County declined the most, with declines in the range of 50 to 70 percent. But in the middle of the valley, the drops are much closer to 30%. The Fairmont Station stop, the last stop on the infrequently used streetcar line at Sugar House, saw only a 10% decline as this area is growing.
Meanwhile, FrontRunner traffic drops were less seen in Ogden, which saw a 37% drop. Provo, too, always seems to rely on the train the same way. But FrontRunner traffic has declined much more in Salt Lake City proper and in the suburbs, with drops of 50 to 60 percent.
This data takes into account both people getting on and off the train, so the results surprised me a bit: I generally think of FrontRunner as a service to bring people to Salt Lake City from outlying areas and vice versa. This data indicates that this could change somewhat, as maybe more people make further trips from Ogden to Farmington, for example.
Overall, however, the use of public transport is not particularly close to what it was just two years ago. How many of those trips have been completely phased out versus how many have been replaced by personal cars is an interesting topic of exploration – but we’ll save that for another afternoon.
Andy Larsen is a data columnist for The Salt Lake Tribune. You can reach him at [email protected].