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Public transit key to better air
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The health risks to our community from poor air quality are well-documented. Mobile transportation sources, primarily commuters in single-occupancy vehicles, produce the largest share of unhealthy PM 2.5 pollution.

Fortunately, Boulder, Colo., and the University of Utah provide models of successful transportation strategies that have increased public transit ridership and thereby reduced emissions and vehicle miles traveled.

Boulder, a high-altitude city facing air-quality challenges similar to Salt Lake City's, applied several innovative strategies to encourage more transit ridership, and now boasts the highest percentage of residents using alternative modes of transportation to commute downtown of any medium-size city in the West.

Nearly half of downtown employees get to work by alternative transportation, mostly public transit buses. Some 60,000 residents out of a population of 100,000 have annual bus passes. And, more than 90 percent support the expansion of bus services.

Rather than provide employees with inexpensive parking, the City of Boulder, in alliance with the Boulder Chamber of Commerce, embraced convenient, inexpensive public transit and adopted these strategies to encourage public transit use:

Downtown employers with more than 20 employees purchase heavily discounted annual transit passes for at least 60 percent of their employees.

The transit agency receives an upfront annual cash flow and is assured a large, stable ridership for planning purposes, which enables the transit agency to provide frequent, convenient bus service to commuters.

Since waiting time is the primary objection to using public transit, bus service is offered every 10 minutes on key commuter corridors, eliminating the need for bus schedules.

The transit agency employs easy-loading, low-to-the-ground buses with high-tech, clean-burning engines.

Major employers coming into the region must negotiate a transit agreement with the transit agency that ensures the majority of employees will have access to and use public transit. Bus service and routes are established to bring employees directly to the point of business, and employee parking is restricted.

The University of Utah has achieved similar success in persuading students and staff to use public transit by offering a Utah Transit Authority "U-Pass." Other conditions on campus also encourage people to use alternative modes of transportation, such as the limited number of parking spaces on campus and the cost of a parking pass.

The university provides UTA passes to full-time students, faculty and staff through a negotiated group purchase agreement. This arrangement results in about one-third of the 42,000 people on campus using public transit to access the campus.

The U. accounts for 8 percent of UTA's total ridership, which is the agency's largest public transit ridership — 6,000 people per day and 3.1 million for the academic year.

NOTE: The discounted UTA passes could be sold "at cost" to an additional estimated 5,000 to 8,000 part-time and continuing education students. Presently, only full-time students who pay annual student fees that help fund the "U-pass" program are eligible for the UTA passes.

The discounted transit passes must be combined with other policies such as limiting free parking and improving transit service to develop a comprehensive public transportation strategy.

With the majority of residents demanding action and major Wasatch Front businesses and the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce voicing concerns over the region's air quality, it is time for our political, community and business leaders to work together to implement sound public transportation strategies.

Chad Mullins is former chair of the Salt Lake County Bicycle Advisory Committee. He lives in Holladay.

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