It’s a tough and complex problem. If we suffer with dirty air today, what will conditions be like in 2040 when our grandchildren will be into their adult lives? The Wasatch Front population will soar by 60 percent -- more than 1 million people -- with additional cars and driving, more homes needing light, heat, and air conditioning, more consumer electronics, and more industry. As noted yesterday, nearly everything we do in society produces pollution. The simple acts of daily living produce emissions that get stuck in bad Wasatch Front inversions.
There is some good news. New technology and stricter regulation will undoubtedly result in cleaner industrial processes, cleaner vehicles, more energy-efficient homes and electronic devices. Per-capita energy use might actually decline. But improved energy efficiency will likely be offset by the increased number of people, more driving, and more overall energy needs. Think of a cool million more people on top of the current Wasatch Front population.
So how can we plan for a future that doesn’t include disgusting air? A large part of the solution lies in good land use and community planning, aligned with transportation planning and infrastructure.
A couple of years ago, Lt. Gov. Greg Bell published an article in Zions Bank Community Magazine (see page 66) outlining an exciting vision: Wasatch Choice for 2040 (see the documents here).
Bell noted that Utah is blessed to have leaders, both at local and state levels, who are thinking far ahead. Among them are the city, county and community leaders comprising the Wasatch Front Regional Council (WFRC), Mountainland Association of Governments, Envision Utah, and transportation leaders and planners in the Utah Transit Authority and Utah Department of Transportation.
They have produced a 2040 Vision document that is quite different, and exciting. It could make a big difference on air quality 30 years hence. In his article, Bell said the 2040 Vision takes an almost revolutionary approach by showing where and how at least a portion of future growth SHOULD occur, rather than simply projecting where it WILL occur. The idea is to encourage at least a share of the growth to occur in clusters around urban centers and town centers. These mixed-use developments would feature housing, retail, commercial offices and entertainment, creating walkable communities with open space and an enviable quality of life.
Such development “could mean the difference between sprawl, congestion, and dirty air, and a high quality of life that takes advantage of an excellent transit system, with more walking and biking, less congestion and better air quality. Families would be able, if they choose, to live close to where they work, shop and play.”
In developing the Vision document, WFRC took advantage of the Regional Growth Principles developed and advocated in cooperation with Envision Utah. Over several years, Envision Utah has worked with local governments across the Wasatch Front, engaging thousands of citizens in visioning exercises to determine how they would like their cities and counties to grow, what sort of transportation systems they would like, and how they would like to see open space, housing, and commercial developments proceed.
Thus, this vision of “cluster” development has emerged from the bottom up, not from the top down. The approach was endorsed by citizens and local government leaders. It reflects demographic changes. More and more young professionals, singles and retirees embrace walkable communities -- living, shopping, playing and working in the same mixed-use urban center, with easy access to other population centers via TRAX, FrontRunner, Bus Rapid Transit, and traditional bus service.
Two examples of this type of cluster development are the Daybreak community in South Jordan, and the new City Creek Center owned by the LDS Church in downtown Salt Lake City.
Bell wrote that not everyone, obviously, will want to live in a condo or multi-family housing in a mixed-use development. Families with children may want bigger lots in traditional subdivisions. So the market will dictate how development proceeds, and the Vision anticipates a variety of housing and lifestyles choices.
But the number of traditional households with two parents and children is now less than half of all households. The lifestyle of living, working, playing and shopping in the same community, with public transit access to other urban centers, has great appeal to many single adults, childless couples, and retirees.
So how would the fulfillment of this vision impact air quality? Utah Transit Authority planners project that if a reasonable share of future growth occurs as envisioned in the 2040 Vision, some 25% to 30% of all commuter trips would utilize public transit, totaling around 300 million annual transit passengers. That would make a significant difference in highway congestion and air quality, with vehicle miles travelled reduced 10-15% under what it would be otherwise.
In addition, higher-density housing would be more energy efficient, and citizens would be able to live healthier, more active lives, staying in their own neighborhoods without needing to drive a car as often.
UTA’s nearly-finished TRAX and FrontRunner backbone already allows mixed-use urban centers and town centers to be clustered around major transit stops. But to really make the Vision viable, buses and trains need to run more frequently, and in-fill transit expansion is necessary, including streetcars, Bus Rapid Transit, TRAX expansion into Davis and Utah counties, and increased bus service -- providing 90 percent of households a major transit stop within a short distance.
To have a real impact on air quality, we will need to make decisions right away regarding land use planning and transportation infrastructure. The investments we make will be greatly appreciated by our children and grandchildren. They need clean air.
Said Bell: “The reality is that adoption and implementation of this Vision may be our last best chance to get ahead of the enormous growth that is coming, instead of being overwhelmed by it. It will take strong leadership from city, county, and state leaders, along with involved citizens who care about the future.”