Streetcars or buses? Yes!
There is an understandable question among Salt Lake City residents about whether streetcars or buses should be used downtown or in our neighborhoods. Considering the merits of these different mobility modes suggests different, complementary approaches.
To build a "Great American City," Salt Lake City and the Utah Transit Authority (and our partners) are investing in a high-quality public transit network. Over the past several years, the city and UTA have made progress on two streetcar lines: one that has opened in Sugar House and one that is in the planning stages for downtown. Modern streetcar is a new mode of transportation for our region, and just like the early days of TRAX, some question its merits. Many are asking about whether streetcars are a good investment and why we can’t just do the same thing with buses.
In places like Sugar House and downtown, fixed-route transit like streetcars attracts nearby development and riders in ways that buses cannot. Riders appreciate the fixed nature of the route and its predictability, and investors and residents are more willing to invest in a location that benefits from a permanent public commitment. The S-Line in Sugar House has helped create more than 1,000 residential units and nearly 2 million square feet of redevelopment, representing more than $400 million in private investment.
Regular bus routes are as important as streetcars, providing flexible service in our neighborhoods. However, pitting one transit mode against another overlooks the different but important and complementary roles these modes play and what markets they are best designed to serve. Our community needs to build a robust network of transit options that enables our residents and visitors to make more of their trips without a car. Just as our current road network provides choices of routes, an effective transit network will provide riders with numerous options.
Existing service tells us that these modes work well together. In both Sugar House and downtown, bus service runs parallel to TRAX and streetcar corridors. On 400 South in Salt Lake City, the same corridor hosts TRAX and three bus routes. On that same corridor, numerous developments are underway, and a recent University of Utah study concluded that the TRAX line has reduced auto trips and promoted attractive development. The Sugar House Streetcar corridor and 2100 South buses each serve passengers. We can have success with both bus and streetcars.
Residents and visitors should have several convenient and reliable transit options. The choice to ride transit also means fewer vehicles and traffic congestion, improved air quality, and more walkable development.
If we made transit decisions solely on the basis of capital costs and simply moving people from point A to point B, we would choose buses to meet all our needs. If, on the other hand, we made our transit decisions based on serving a variety of different transportation needs, walkable development and return on investment, we would only choose rail. We hope, instead, to provide the right solution for all our transportation needs, and a diversity of transit modes helps us do that, complementing each and making the most of what each has to offer in the appropriate circumstance.
Michael Allegra is president and CEO of Utah Transit Authority. Ralph Becker is mayor of Salt Lake City.
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