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Matt O'Brien, AP
FILE - An autonomous shuttle bus, foreground, is seen Wednesday, May 15, 2019, in Olneyville Square in Providence, R.I. The vehicle, operated by Michigan-based May Mobility, was operating during the public launch of a state-funded pilot for the shuttle service called "Little Roady." The shuttle offers free rides on a 12-stop urban loop that links to a train station.

SALT LAKE CITY — Those today who opt to leave their cars at home are typically left to choose between paying for an Uber or Lyft, walking to a train station, or heading to the nearest bus stop — a question of money versus time.

But the Utah Transit Authority wants to shake up that scenario.

This fall, the agency will test out a pilot "microtransit" program in southern Salt Lake County.

What is "microtransit?"

It's a "technology-enabled transit solution" that will allow UTA to dispatch vehicles in a way that doesn’t require them to stay on a fixed route, like traditional buses, according to Jaron Robertson, UTA program manager for innovative mobility solutions. They’ll be on demand for riders using smart phone technology.

Mary Archbold

Think Uber meets bus.

"This is a really exciting project that we're doing, and it's allowing us to get a better feel of when we talk about frequency vs. coverage, is this a model that we can use long-term to look for more effective ways to put service out there when a traditional fixed-route bus just doesn't work," Robertson said.

UTA plans to test the project starting sometime between August and October in Herriman, Riverton, Bluffdale, Draper and South Jordan.

"It may not necessarily be the entire city, but it's going to be in that region," Robertson said.

The pilot program is estimated to cost $2.1 million, with funds coming from fourth quarter funding, part of a Salt Lake County initiative passed last year, Robertson said. Marketing to inform the public about the project might take more funds.

How it will work

Passengers will hail the small shuttle vehicles that can carry six to eight people through an app or, for those who don't have smartphones, by calling.

Though all the details aren't yet ironed out, UTA is discussing the fare costing $2.50, the standard fare price for the UTA system, and being transferable to any other mode of UTA transportation, Robertson said.

Apps that provide similar dispatching services already exist, and UTA is soliciting proposals to choose a vendor for the app and a contractor for the vehicles.

For customers with disabilities, some of the vehicles will be wheelchair-accessible and might go door-to-door. Other passengers might need to walk a couple hundred feet to meet the vehicle to make the service more "operationally efficient," Robertson said.

If the passenger is in the vehicles' defined region and it's during service hours — which will most likely be Monday-Friday from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. — the vehicle will pick them up and drop them off anywhere within that region.

Jeff Chiu, Associated Press
FILE - In this April 14, 2015, photo, a Chariot shuttle bus drives in San Francisco. A company called Leap, a bus company that offers rides with spacious seating, free Wi-Fi and attendants who deliver snacks, launched the service last month with morning and evening commutes that follow public bus routes between the tony Marina district and the heart of downtown San Francisco.

There are several rail stations within the region in southern Salt Lake County, so customers can "utilize transit for their entire commute," according to Robertson. They can also be taken directly to grocery stores, doctor visits, etc.

The software will route the vehicle to where it can pick up as many people as makes sense for that trip. "We don't necessarily want the vehicle to deviate 30 minutes to pick up a second customer, but we do want some parameters that say it might deviate 5, 10 minutes," Robertson said.

There are several reasons why UTA wants to test the system in southern Salt Lake County.

"We do want to look to improve the current service that is out there and expand coverage. … There's a lot of commuters there, and so we need those connections in those areas and to the rail networks that we have in place already," Robertson said.

Current bus service will not be discontinued during the microtransit pilot.

'Different service'

In the long-term, UTA will decide whether the existing service will be changed or if the microtransit program will continue.

"The existing service, it's limited to where it's accessible to the community, it's limited in the hours of operation. We only run 30-minute peak service and 16-minute off-peak service," Robertson explained. "These might be more effective from a ridership perspective and a cost. … And it brings about a lot of potential if it's successful as to how we can provide service in the future."

UTA already has a paratransit service. But Robertson said the microtransit service will broaden offerings to those with disabilities, especially those who don't qualify for paratransit services.

Robertson said there are no current plans for riders to need to tip drivers.

He emphasized that Uber and Lyft provide "a very different service." The microtransit service will still be public transportation and might still require wait times and walks to get to vehicles.

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Several other cities and transit agencies are testing similar systems. Denver already permanently operates a similar system, while Kansas City, L.A. Metro and Orange County are all piloting on-demand services. UTA officials have talked to those transit agencies about how their programs work and what lessons they've learned "so that we're better prepared to roll a pilot out ourselves," Robertson said.

A lot of those programs are successful but some have failed, he added. That's why UTA is piloting the microtransit service first.

"We see this, if it works, as just another mode of transportation that seamlessly connects into rail, into bus, into street car systems," Robertson said.