Better Air Quality will Require Expanded Public Transit

The Wasatch Front has one of the best public transit backbones in the country

 (Bell, 2013). Many Utahns are increasingly willing to embrace public transportation, especially forms of commuter rail like Frontrunner, which now stretches 80 miles from Ogden in the north to Provo in the south. The Utah Transit Authority (UTA) launched four new light-rail lines in 2013 alone, and local officials are interested in new streetcar lines and more bus-rapid transit and bus services (Lee, 2013).

Even so, Utah’s major roads and highways remain badly congested by traffic. By 2054, the population of Salt Lake, Davis and Weber Counties is projected to grow 60%, effectively doubling the size of the 17 largest cities in those counties. This projection doesn’t include Utah County’s Provo-Orem metropolitan area, the fastest growing metro area in the country (Pugmire, 2012). As the state’s population continues to explode over the next 30 years, how will Utah’s transportation infrastructure handle the increase in cars? And what will happen to Utah’s air quality? The Wasatch Front’s natural geography makes it impossible to prevent winter weather inversions that often produce the nation’s dirtiest air (Ogden Standard-Examiner staff, 2013).

These “Red Air” days damage Utahns’ health and undermine the state’s efforts to promote economic development and tourism. Utah’s industrial sector produces many sources of pollution, but even if all of the Wasatch Front’s “refineries, factories and mines disappeared tomorrow, the particularly unfortunate combination of a growing number of cars buzzing around a valley subject to frequent atmospheric inversions does not offer a sustainable future” (Salt Lake Tribune editorial, 2013).

Utah has no choice but to get more cars off the road. To this end, state officials should endeavor to make travel by modes other than the automobile more affordable and convenient by investing additional resources in its mass public transit system and its “active” (walking and biking) transportation infrastructure as a way of improving air quality along the Wasatch Front.

Plans already exist to increase the convenience and frequency of public transit use in Utah. For example, the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce has endorsed a Utah lawmaker’s proposal that would lift the cap on local-option sales tax funding by one quarter of one percent, enabling counties to ask voters to beef up public transit in the name of improving air quality (Webb, 2014).

Currently, public transportation displaces 120,000 car trips along the Wasatch Front each day and carries 25% of commuters to downtown Salt Lake City, eliminating 2,000 tons of emissions each year. A quarter cent funding boost could increase public transit ridership by a projected 90% within five years, reducing pollutants by 74% and resulting in an annual emissions reduction of 3,600 tons (Webb, 2014).

Additional sales tax revenue could also help pay to restore UTA night and weekend bus services cut during the recent economic recession and fund the purchase of “equipment that makes paying fares easier, such as the recently introduced electronic FAREPAY cards” and “mobile apps to make it easier for riders to find travel information” (Lee, 2013). As a Salt Lake Tribune editorial (2013) puts it, “every person who draws a breath in the Salt Lake Valley has an interest in the success of the Utah Transit Authority. That public agency’s ability to attract passengers who will willingly, even happily, give up the freedom of their own automobiles and use buses and trains for their daily commutes and other trips is key to reducing the vehicle emissions that the source of the majority of our air pollution.”

It is also in the state’s long-term interest to make active transportation modes like walking and biking more convenient for Utah residents. The Wasatch Front Regional Council (WFRC) has offered one proposal that addresses this goal. Its “2040 Vision” plan identifies six different types of Wasatch Front population centers divided into two categories: metropolitan, urban, and town centers; and station, main-street, and boulevard communities (WFRC, 2011).

The plan seeks to improve regional mobility between these population areas through a variety of interconnected transportation choices that would expand opportunities for Utahns to live within walking and biking distance of work and shopping without sacrificing access to public transit and roads. New investments in active transportation infrastructure (funded by a new “¼ of the ¼” county sales tax) would include sidewalks, bike lanes, wayfinding signage for both pedestrians and bikers, and walking and biking trails through urban greenspace and regional greenways. Particular emphasis would be placed on improving the convenience of walking and biking in proximity to passenger rail and bus rapid transit stations.

Even if these new investments in public and active transportation are successful, not every Utahn will want to trade the convenience of their car for the hassle of public transit or leave the countryside to live in a mixed-use development in the city. After all, what could be more quintessentially American (besides baseball and apple pie) than the typical two-car suburban family?

These caveats aside, the era of the dominance of cars in American culture may be ending. According to Garrick (2010), the number of vehicles per person in the U.S. “peaked in 2001. In fact, [the decade ending in 2010 was] the first since the automobile era began in 1900 that the number of vehicles per person was smaller at the end than at the beginning of the decade. Likewise, the number of miles driven in America for each man, woman and child peaked in 2004”—with the economic downturn of 2008 only accelerating these trends. Today, more and more Americans seem willing to forgo the radical mobility enjoyed by previous generations if that sacrifice results in improvement in other areas of life, such as the quality of the air they breathe.

Utahns have not been immune to this shift in attitude. A recent Brigham Young University poll found that 84% of Utah voters favor improving air quality and rank air pollution as one of the top three issues Utah lawmakers will face in the 2015 legislative session (Brown, 2014).

By expanding public transit and encouraging more walking and biking in the ways outlined above, per capita driving in Utah could by reduced by 10% by 2050, reducing daily automobile emissions by 8% (Webb, 2014). The goal of cleaner air is within Utah’s grasp but it will require a change in state and local planning strategies.

According to former Utah Lieutenant Governor Greg Bell (2013), past transportation planning documents have simply made growth forecasts and then mapped out proposed transportation corridors to follow that population growth. Today’s Utah leaders must be more proactive than that, identifying where growthshould occur rather than simply projecting where it will occur and then harnessing land use and transportation planning efforts to facilitate the development of communities in which living, shopping, and working all occur within the same population cluster. The distinction between these two planning approaches may seem subtle, says Bell (2013), but it “could mean the difference between sprawl, congestion, and dirty air, and a high quality of life that takes advantage of a best-in-the-nation transit system, with more walking and biking, less congestion and better air quality.”

(Editor’s Note: This article was originally written as a college research paper)


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