Transportation Transformed: Multi-modal Transportation Planning for the Land of Zion

Most long time residents of Salt Lake City will tell you, they would have never believed their city could be at the forefront of public transportation innovation. Looking back just a few decades, Salt Lake was just as automobile dependent as most rust belt cities. Local government support for new planning techniques has revolutionized the urban fabric in the last twenty years.  Salt Lake City provides an outstanding example of the positive effects of urban planning and design. Creating an integrated transportation infrastructure has been a great achievement and offers a model for small cities too.

Salt Lake City is center of the Wasatch front, a mixed urban/ agricultural region situated between the Wasatch Mountain range and the Great Salt Lake. This 90 mile stretch of land is one of the fastest growing urban areas in the country. As of 2007, the population in the Wasatch front region was 1.1 million people, and this number is projected to reach 2.5 million by 2020. As the population increases, the number of trips taken by car is expected to double. 

The City of Salt Lake was carefully planned from its inception; in 1848 Latter Day Saints prophet and leader Brigham Young developed a comprehensive grid system featuring large city blocks and wide streets sized to allow for a wagon to completely turn around. The size of one city block in Salt Lake City could encompass 9 city blocks in Portland, Oregon. The original block design was created with the idea of having small tracts of agricultural land within the city limits. Since Salt Lake City has begun to urbanize, these large land plots have become a hindrance to creating pedestrian friendly urban landscape.

Despite these obvious barriers to creating a “walkable” community, Salt Lake City Urban Planners have taken the challenge and run with it.  The wide streets have afforded opportunities for light rail installation, the implementation of wider sidewalks, and the creation of bike lanes.

The first light rail line (TRAX) was created in 1999, service running from Salt Lake City to Sandy, a suburban community located 20 miles south of the city center. A second line from the University of Utah to downtown was completed in 2001, and expanded in 2003. Public reception to TRAX light rail systems greatly surpassed expectations. Since the commencement, UTA has completed four more TRAX line extensions, and a high-speed commuter rail that serves residents in the northern region of the Wasatch Front. These light rail lines now provide service for over 1 million commuters per month, and are projected to reach 2 million riders by the end of 2012.  A quarter-cent sales tax hike was approved in 2008 for the creation of two more lines providing service to the Airport and Draper. These lines will be completed in the beginning of 2013.

Transportation planning has expanded beyond the new light rail system. Mayor Ralph Becker, a huge cycling advocate, has doubled the number of bike lanes within Salt Lake City during his last 4-year term.  Becker also took a few hints from Portland. This new project includes a series of bicycle lockers installed at most major TRAX transit stops. He has also successfully implemented a Car Share program, which has been rapidly expanding around the Salt Lake Valley.

Utah has garnered nationwide recognition for its astounding rapid improvements in transit systems. The US News Report on February 8th, 2011 ranked Utah 5th in the Nation for Best Public Transit Systems. “Salt Lake City’s transit goals, and the progress we’re making toward achieving them, are a reflection of the priorities for the City we all share,” Mayor Becker said. “When we can put partnerships together and involve our residents, policy makers and transportation experts, we see success that is noted nationally.”

Salt Lake City’s Urban Planners are hoping to create a more pedestrian oriented community. Wide blocks have been a significant barrier to creating an urban environment on a more walkable scale. The new downtown master plan Downtown in Motion focuses primarily on creating pedestrian oriented transit development. One of the main facets of this new plan is to subdivide the large blocks with a network of alleyways and passageways that create a more intimate pedestrian experience. These smaller streets will connect to the larger blocks, which will contain multi-modal auto/bicycle/transit infrastructure. “These will provide rich opportunities for public spaces, urban infill and new development, ” says Rick Phillips, director of Urban Design for HNTB Corporation. HNTB has been an instrumental part of the creation of the Downtown in Motion project.

            There are large hurdles Salt Lake City must face to create a true urbanist community. Large blocks and wide streets will have to be overcome to become more attractive in terms of pedestrian oriented development. Planners and community members are working together, aiming to transform Salt Lake into the best multi-modal transit system in the county.