This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to identify solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.
Dave Iltis was riding his bicycle along 700 East when a car turned right on a red light and hit him.
The year was 1998 and the crash shattered his left knee. It took months to recover. Even after he was able to physically get back on a bike, he remained uneasy. It would be another four or five years before he was comfortable, but still cautious, riding around Salt Lake City.
Decades later, Iltis still has some trouble with his knee and the accident continues to shape his cycling activism.
“I don’t want to see anyone ever have to go through what I did,” said Iltis, editor and publisher of Cycling Utah. “The mission of Cycling Utah is to make the world a better place through bicycling,” he said. Conversely, he’s also trying to make the world a safer place for cyclists.
Crossing sections of 700 East by foot or by pedal still feels like an act of bravery.
The road features six total lanes of traffic going in both directions at high speeds and harried commuters driving home and turning right into crosswalks.
The road is an example of Salt Lake City at its most “car-centric,” and deadly. Just this past January, a 31-year-old man was killed after a Chevy truck ran a red light at the intersection of 500 South and 700 East. The driver left the scene and has not yet been found.
The capital city and greater Utah are changing, however. The early months of the pandemic in 2020 induced a world wide bicycle boom. New York City responded by building out more infrastructure and Denver established an electric bike rebate program. In Salt Lake, city and transportation planners are also working to improve infrastructure for cyclists and pedestrians.
“There are a lot more bike lanes than there were in 1998,” Iltis said. He believes that 2023 “is going to be a watershed year in new stuff for bikes and pedestrians coming online.”
As the long winter begins to turn and more families, commuters, and Lycra-clad cyclists hit the streets, the Tribune set out to find what improvements Utahns can expect to see in the coming year, and which barriers remain.
The U.S. wakes up
In the 1970s engineers assumed cyclists could ride in the traffic flow with vehicles, said Jon Larsen, Salt Lake City’s transportation division director. Bicycles were treated as cars despite all the obvious differences between a human-powered two-wheeler and a 4,000-pound machine.
“And clearly, that experiment failed miserably,” Larsen said. “Meanwhile the Dutch and others left us in the dust as they doubled down on creating protected bike lanes and trails.”
But about 15 years ago the U.S. started to “wake up,” Larsen said. The National Association of City Transportation published the Urban Bikeway Design Guide in 2011, sparking more North American cities to embrace protected bicycle lanes.
In 2010, under Mayor Ralph Becker’s tenure, the city passed the Complete Streets Ordinance, mandating that all redesigned streets be designed and maintained for “all modes of traffic” (although that doesn’t always mean bicycle lanes).
The city also created a “Street and Typologies Design Guide,” which isn’t an adopted plan but an “administrative design document,” Larsen explained. “The default is protected bike lanes on pretty much every street,” he said. Protected bike lanes can be formed with parked cars, planter boxes, or concrete barriers.
In December 2022, Iltis wrote an editorial calling on Salt Lake City to adopt “Vision Zero to eliminate all traffic fatalities and injuries in Salt Lake City.”
Just this past January, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall announced plans to do so.
On the state level, in 2017 former Gov. Gary Herbert kicked off a goal to add 1,000 miles of “family-friendly trails and bike paths” in Utah by 2027. And most recently, the Legislature set aside $90 million for an “Active Transportation Statewide Trails Network.”
How have all these lofty proclamations of the past decade actually reshaped Utah’s streets?
One example is the protected bicycle lane Salt Lake City built in 2014 along sections of 300 South. A curb and a line of parked cars separate cyclists from traffic along the thoroughfare. In 2015 the city released a progress report claiming that bicycle traffic along the route shot up by 30%.
Protected bicycle lanes like the one on 300 South are preferred by advocates and avid cyclists like Iltis. “They give you a sense of comfort,” he said. “There’s an actual physical barrier between traffic and you.”
However, finding protected bicycle lanes in Salt Lake is a bit of an Easter egg hunt. Iltis said it seems like there is not much political will to expand protected bicycle lanes, and recent reconstruction projects like 200 South won’t include parking-protected bicycle lanes.
“Ideally, you have protection everywhere,” Larsen said. But “there were some technical challenges” with the 200 South project. The current plan includes buffered bike lanes that run to the left of designated bus lanes.
Slowing down traffic
The city is prioritizing protected intersections, “because that’s where we see most of the issues,” Larsen said. According to the CDC, about 27% of fatal bicycle deaths occur at intersections.
One way to make street crossings safer is through “intersection hardening,” Larsen said. That basically means anytime a car is turning, the infrastructure should force them to slow down and be more alert. Curbs that force drivers to take sharp turns can help.
The city also announced a concerted effort to revive traffic calming measures last August.
Building more roundabouts, speed bumps, and narrowing roads could all help to slow cars down. Sweet Streets Salt Lake City, a nonprofit dedicated to “people-first planning”, successfully lobbied to lower speed limits on residential streets from 25 to 20 miles per hour — a move that could also help families feel more comfortable sharing the roads and cycling.
These measures could prove especially useful in neighborhood byways — like 600 East — which already employ some tools to discourage cars from using the routes, like the right turn only lane at 600 East and 900 South. Sweet Streets is calling on the city to fund and build more neighborhood byways by 2025.
Iltis points to cities like Berkeley, Calif., as a potential model for building out the byways, sometimes called bicycle boulevards. The college town has concrete barriers that effectively turn streets into one way for cars but allow cyclists and bicyclists to travel through. These measures help keep only local traffic on the streets.
Some protected bike lanes coming
Although making intersections safer and slowing cars down remain a focus, a few new bicycling trails are coming to the city in the next year, Larsen said. The 300 West reconstruction will include a two-way bike path, parts of which are already done.
On 900 South, the city is working on the 9 Line Trail. The four lanes of traffic will be narrowed down to just two, making room for a trail with some landscaping on the south side of the street, Larsen said.
Ultimately the trail will run from This is the Place Heritage Park, near the mouth of Emigration Canyon on the east, and west to Redwood Road.
“We’re far from satisfied, we know we have a long way to go,” Larsen said. “But we are a little bit better every year.”
Cycling for families
For the average person, a painted bike lane won’t provide much comfort said Chris Wiltsie, Bike Utah’s 1,00 Miles Program director. A casual rider, Wiltsie said, “want[s] these high comfort, high safety facilities and painted bike lanes don’t represent that.”
“The vast majority of what’s being built are multi-use trails and painted bike lanes,” Wiltside said. “And we have this whole kind of missing middle of bicycle infrastructure.”
Wiltsie helps communities across the state incorporate active transit plans and address that missing middle.
Cities such as Orem and West Jordan “can be very difficult just because the scale of everything is so built for cars,” Wiltsie said. But thoughtful zoning and public transportation design can help. “I think there’s a lot of really interesting planning efforts going on,” he said.
Springville, in Utah County, is examining its downtown core and thinking about how to make it more bike friendly and walkable. Daybreak, in South Jordan, is another example of a community planned to take cyclists into account. “You can ride through the neighborhoods of Daybreak without feeling like you’re going to die,” Wiltsie said.
But improving infrastructure for bicycles is more than just building bike lanes. Wiltsie believes cities have to plan so people actually want to bike or walk because homes, grocery stores and parks are close to each other.
Often, conversations around bicycling focus on carbon emissions, or reducing traffic or improving air quality. But it’s also about injecting a little joy and pleasure into your day. The freedom to move and go wherever your legs can take you.
Iltis sees walking or cycling or taking public transit as a way to build community, to talk and see the people you live around.
“You’re happier because you’re out, you’re moving around under your own power,” he said. “You’re getting sunlight on your face. You’re getting exercise and you feel better when you’re done.”