Some of Utah’s growth challenges take a breather — but not for long

Salt Lake City 05

Everyone wants to know – what will conditions be like when the pandemic crisis recedes and life settles into a “new normal?”

While some aspects of post-pandemic life are obvious (more e-commerce and more telecommuting), other things are harder to predict: Will traffic congestion quickly return? Will air pollution emissions rise to previous levels?

In the area of transportation and land use, the smart people at the Wasatch Front Regional Council (WFRC) have taken a stab at what conditions might look like 2-5 years from now when society has reached “equilibrium” — settling in while perhaps still dealing with COVID-19. This article is based on a presentation made by Ted Knowlton, WFRC deputy director.

All of this is speculative, of course, because much depends on the medical side of the pandemic – whether an effective vaccine and other treatments are developed. The “new normal” in a few years might be quite a bit like it is right now if we’re still aggressively fighting virus spread. But if the virus can be effectively prevented or treated, then life might return to something at least closer to what it was pre-coronavirus.

Either way, things will be different. Many experts have said the pandemic has accelerated societal trends that were already occurring. Even if people feel relatively safe, the future will be changed.

WFRC has some great planners and modelers whose mission is to look ahead and predict transportation and land use patterns so state and local governments can know how to best invest transportation and development dollars.

They have made some educated forecasts in a few areas showing, within ranges, what the world might look like at “equilibrium” 2-5 years hence. They started with the peak of “stay-home” conditions, which have been measured fairly accurately.

Here are some highlights:

  • E-commerce has been up 40 percent during “stay-home” conditions. That’s a dramatic increase. At equilibrium, 2-5 years from now, WFRC forecasts e-commerce may remain between 10 and 20 percent above pre-pandemic levels. That has ramifications for retail shopping and travel. Fewer people may be on the road to go shopping, but that may be offset by more delivery vehicles.
  • Telecommuting also rose by 40 percent. It is expected to potentially remain 10 to 20 percent higher at equilibrium than before the pandemic crisis. More people working at home could also reduce highway congestion. And it could be a boost for rural Utah if people can live anywhere they desire and still do their jobs – assuming they can access high-speed Internet services.
  • Public transit use has fallen a whopping 70 percent during the stay-at-home period. It’s difficult to maintain proper social distancing on a train or bus. But the future is hard to predict, so equilibrium could mean transit use ranges from a minus 30 percent to a positive 10 percent. New safety practices, lower fares, and an effective vaccine might lure commuters back to public transit. And Utahns who are enjoying improved air quality might want to keep emissions down by riding the bus or train.
  • Cycling is up a remarkable 100 percent (estimated). WFRC expects increased cycling to continue, with equilibrium ranging from a positive 10 percent to 30 percent. That will be helpful for air quality and fitness. It means state and local governments and transportation agencies need to focus on biking infrastructure and safety.  This increase in cycling is partly composed of inexperienced riders who are cycling on relatively less busy streets.  A question is what their experience will be like when traffic levels increase. 
  • Open space use across the Wasatch Front is also up a whopping 100 percent. Parks and trails have become extremely popular. After being stuck at home, Utahns have enjoyed getting into the outdoors. And increased use in the range of 10 to 30 percent is expected over the next 2-5 years. State and local governments and planners need to take that into account. Even though Utah has millions of acres of federal “open space” in its mountains and deserts, citizens need parks and trails in close proximity to their neighborhoods, perhaps even more so with tele-work increasing.
  • Freeway traffic volumes have declined by 40 percent in the COVID-19 crisis phase. Equilibrium forecasts range from a minus 20 percent freeway traffic to 0 percent (same as before the crisis). 
  • Overall travel by auto is down 15 percent since the coronavirus hit. Looking ahead, travel could stabilize between minus 10 percent and 0 percent.
  • Finally, WFRC looked at air emissions from transportation, which were down an estimated 38 percent. Emissions at equilibrium could range from minus 15 percent at the low end, to minus 5 percent at the high end. That’s good news. But it will be a challenge to maintain low emissions levels.

While WFRC did not specifically provide modified population growth forecasts, experts across the board predict that Utah will continue to grow at higher rates than most other states. Growth will come from strong internal increase, and if Utah quickly bounces back economically, people may move here to find good jobs.  Shifts away from brick and mortar retail and potentially from offices will present challenges and opportunities for landowners and local governments in how to utilize land and buildings in the future.

Thus, while Utah has a little breathing room, our growth challenges are not going to disappear. Politicians and planners must look far ahead to maintain and improve Utah’s enviable quality of life.   

Dana Meier is area manager & vice president for WSP, an international engineering firm. LaVarr Webb is publisher of and does some consulting work for WSP.