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A new study finds that reports of bad weather and air actually decrease ridership on the UTA.
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Study: Weather reports affect public transportation

Inversion along the Wasatch Front on Sunday, Dec. 9, 2018. (Scott G Winterton Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — Is there a correlation between weather reports and how much we use public transportation?  New research from a team at the University of Utah seems to suggest it. And the takeaway is, when forecasters predict bad weather and air, people take buses and trains less. 

Daniel Mendoza, assistant researcher professor with both the Department of Atmospheric Sciences and the Department of City & Metropolitan Planning, along with others, looked at how media coverage of the weather and air quality jibbed with transit ridership.  From 2014-2016, they studied 40 Utah media outlets for reports with particular words related to weather or air quality. Words like “cloudy” “freezing” or “summer”, and “red air day” ozone” or “particulate matter.”  

BAD WEATHER MATTERS

“What we found is that mentions of good weather [doesn’t affect ridership much.]  However, the use of keywords such as ‘rain,’ ‘cold,’ or snow,’ particularly in the winter, would decrease ridership,”  Mendoza said emphasizing though that isn’t true of all public transportation trips though.

For example, Frontrunner is primarily used for commuting on longer trips which is what Mendoza’s team calls “mandatory” trips. He says those who use Frontrunner don’t waver much in any kind of weather or air quality.   

Trips by bus and Trax are a different story though.  They are used for what Mendoza calls “flexible” trips and he says when there is a media report of a bad weather people were less likely to ride. Some of that he says may have to do with many bus stops being uncovered.

“Although they’ve added some in recent years, still most bus stops don’t have a weather shelter,” he says, adding that one has to get to a Trax station somehow, either by walking or another bus.  

Mendoza says bad air days are a little harder to unpack.  Inversions are normal byproducts of stretches of cold in the dead of winter.  Granted, there wouldn’t be any rain or snow, but cold weather still counts as bad weather.  So, when hen forecasters mention “a heavy particulate matter day,” do people bail on waiting outside for a bus or Trax train because of crummy air, or the cold?

SEPARATING MOTIVATIONS TO FIND SOLUTIONS

Mendoza isn’t sure how to “dis-entangle” that question but says there are some solutions to attack both ends.  To increase ridership during purely bad weather he suggests more shelters at bus stops.

“I think an increase of these shelters make people more comfortable and feel safer,” he reasoned. 

As far as bad air, Mendoza says too often we try to work on lessening the impact of our driving pollution when there is already the problem, smack dab in the middle of an inversion.  He says a bill passed last year is part of a solution.  The bill mandate giving out free fares on Trax before poor air quality days, before the inversion builds.  

Mendoza asks the larger question. “We know the media has this potential negative impact on ridership… how can we have the media increase ridership?”