The Future Of Public Transportation
Salt Lake City is a beautiful place to live and work, and with its booming tech industry and the forthcoming inland port, growth is inevitable. As Utahans brace themselves for the impending economic developments, they can’t ignore the proverbial elephant in the room―inversion. Residents desire a robust economy, but not at the cost of poor air quality. And public transportation is one of the critical solutions.
Many of the valleys in the Wasatch Front are surrounded by mountains, which create a bowl. In the winter, this creates an inversion―a layer of warm air, like a lid that traps the cooler air below. With inversion, the pollution can’t escape the valley until heavy winds or a storm blows through. In periods of inversion, the pollution doubles every day.
Thom Carter, the executive director at the Utah Clean Air Partnership (UCAIR) said that for about 15 days every winter, there is a hard pressure system. This is when inversion sets in and we can have some of the worst air quality in the world. “Emissions on the first day of inversion stay in the air shed until a storm or rain wash out the inversion,” says Mr. Carter.
As the inversion continues, it affects children and the elderly, and those with asthma and lung problems feel the effects first. “It’s a significant public health issue the longer inversion goes.” When we have increased emissions and we don’t moderate our personal emissions, our air gets worse and worse, which can contribute to lung and heart disease, asthma and COPD.
Air Quality Impacts The Entire Wasatch Front
Andrew S. Gruber, the executive director at the Wasatch Front Regional Council, said in order to tell the story about public transportation and air quality, you have to think more broadly than just Salt Lake City, because air quality from a scientific and atmospheric perspective, does not stop at city boundaries.
“Air quality issues go across the entire valley and Wasatch Front. Same can be said for public transportation,” says Mr. Gruber. He explained how the ability to get around the metropolitan core of Salt Lake City with excellent bus and train service is really important, but there are many people who are commuting from all over Salt Lake County and the entire region to downtown Salt Lake City.
Having a good transit system inside Salt Lake City is critical for reducing emissions and improving the city’s air quality, “But, you have to have really good regional connectivity,” says Mr. Gruber.
“In order for people to leave their car at home and not have the so-called cold start of their engine, which is when the worst emissions come from a trip, and not have to drive their car long distances, we have to provide people viable choices for transportation,” he says.
Mr. Gruber said we can’t expect people to give up driving to walk, bike, or take transit because it’s the right thing to do; it has to be the convenient and affordable thing to do. “We know the majority of people will drive and there’s nothing wrong with that, but we have to provide better options so a greater percentage of the population will make choices to take public transportation.”
The solution? Invest in a good local, regional, and state transportation systems with a core service on trains. While Salt Lake City’s public transportation system has come far over the past 20 years, there’s still room for improvement.
Mr. Gruber envisions a future where FrontRunner and TRAX are more reliable and run more frequently. One where you don’t have to look at a schedule and ask, “When am I getting my next train?” If we invest in our regional train system, more people are going to choose it, and the same goes for our bus rapid transit (BRT). We need frequent bus service and really good neighborhood service, says Mr. Gruber.
Ted Knowlton, the deputy executive director at the Wasatch Front Regional Council said that one of the big benefits of transit is that people aren’t taking their car. “But it’s bigger if people don’t drive their car to a park and ride. When there’s an office building right next to a transit stop or an apartment complex, the chances go way up that people will walk or bike to the transit stop,” says Mr. Knowlton.
“It actually affects the real estate market, how much downtown can be healthy,” he says. It’s part of the reason why Salt Lake City―even though it has essentially no vacant land in the historic areas―is the first or second growing city by population increase in the whole state, because it has great transportation options that make it a great place to live and work.
When growth happens in areas that already have been developed near public transportation, driving distance is shorter. “When we invest in public transportation, we’re also helping cities that enable people to walk and bike to transit. Even for those who don’t, their driving distances are shorter. All of that adds up to improvements to air quality.”
Donna Spangler, communications director at the Utah Department of Environmental Quality agrees. She says public transportation helps get vehicles off the road. “That makes a huge difference in improving air quality considering vehicle emissions are a large contributor to air pollution,” says Ms. Spangler. Her advice is to limit driving and practice TravelWise strategies like carpooling, public transit, walking, and biking.
Enhancing the Existing Public Transportation System
Mr. Gruber says improvements to public transportation aren’t just about building new infrastructure; it’s just as much about enhancing the functionality of the existing system that we have, so it’s a more viable option for more people.
“If we can make FrontRunner run more frequently, that will make it more feasible for more housing development and job creation around the FrontRunner stations, and how the designs of communities change people’s behavior,” says Mr. Gruber.
As far as enhancements to our existing public transportation system, Mr. Gruber would like to see double tracking and electrification. “On FrontRunner, they are diesel engines, which don’t operate as efficiently and they are not as clean for air quality. If we can convert from diesel and make it electrified, they are faster starting and stopping and they’re cleaner.”
Mr. Gruber explained that if we could double track, if a train was coming north and another was going south, they wouldn’t have to pull over. They could continue on. But right now, a lot of FrontRunner is on single track. The third thing we need to do is enhance the core bus service to the areas that don’t have FrontRunner and TRAX, so they can connect into the rail system.
One of the things the Wasatch Regional Council does is collaborate with UDOT and UTA to develop long-range transportation plans. To get a sense of the plans for public transportation in the Greater Salt Lake City Area, check out the Regional Transportation Plan Interactive Map.
According to Mr. Gruber, there are several planned transit enhancement projects, including: 1) double tracking key sections and electrifying FrontRunner, 2) expansions of TRAX to serve the Point of the Mountain Area and Salt Lake City, and a new line from American Fork to Provo, 3) more streetcar lines, 4) bus rapid transit lines in Ogden, South Davis County, Murray/Taylorsville, Salt Lake County, and Northern Utah County, 5) express bus routes on 5600 West, and serving the Wasatch Canyons, Tooele and Box Elder Counties, and 6) a network of high-frequency core bus routes coupled with more robust local bus service throughout UTA’s service area.
Bus Rapid Transit Expansion in Downtown Salt Lake City
Carlton Christensen, chairperson of the Utah Transit Authority board of trustees said a lot of the future expansion we’ll see is with bus rapid transit. This is because it can almost be equally effective as rail, and it’s a lot cheaper to implement.
“We recently entered an agreement with Salt Lake City where they are investing their general fund dollars up and above what normally comes to UTA for enhanced services on key core routes that run in Salt Lake City, particularly that go east and west and connect the city itself,” said Mr. Christensen.
The UTA is enhancing bus services on the following core routes: Second South, 200 South, 900 South, and 2100 South. “On Second South, instead of having a bus that might go every 30 minutes, come August, they’ll go every 15 minutes,” he says. For people in those communities, they won’t care what the schedule is because they’ll know that a bus will be there every 10 or 15 minutes, Mr. Christensen explained.
In addition to more frequent service, the busses will go earlier in the morning and later in the evening in those routes, and more frequently on weekends, including Sundays, he says. “It won’t be 24-hour service, but more like an 18-hour window.”
Mr. Christensen said that sometimes jobs start earlier and go later in the evening and that’s a challenge. Not because the UTA is unwilling, because that’s how far the money goes. “With the city’s help, we can extend those resources.”
How Businesses Can Help
The UTA works with business customers who encourage employees to take public transportation and find the right solution. As a perk, some Salt Lake City employers pay for all the costs of public transportation, while others offer employees a reduced price. “Building parking structures can be expensive, so transit makes it far more cost-effective for employers,” he says.
Mr. Knowlton brought up how people get to transit. When you walk or bike, we retain a lot of air quality benefit, he says. Do we have safe, comfortable bike routes to get us there? Do we have those nice, safe, walking and bicycling routes? The kinds of routes that you would let your 12-year-old walk down? We don’t have nearly enough of them, he says.
Planners sometimes call those high-comfort routes. We don’t have an extensive enough system. There’s an initiative to add an additional 1,000 miles of family-friendly trails and bike routes. “That’s a part of the air quality solution.”