Why Daybreak broke with car-centric planning to become a cycling ‘oasis’

The master-planned community focused on making the community walkable and bike-able, proving suburbs don’t have to be all about cars.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Chris Wiltsie, center, of Bike Utah, and his son Soren, 3, join Mike West, a Daybreak resident, as he pedals his cargo bike along the Oquirrh Lake Loop Trail in his neighborhood during a bicycle tour of the area on Thursday, May 25, 2023.

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.

It’s a blue-sky day in May and a slight breeze keeps the weather perfectly temperate. It’s just the kind of early spring morning that beckons you to take a walk, or even perhaps, ride a bicycle.

In Daybreak, Mike West, a resident, and Chris Wiltsie, program director with Bike Utah (but not a Daybreaker), are preparing to hop on their respective rides.

West wears a black t-shirt with a cargo bike and the words “one less car” emblazoned on it. His e-bike has a chariot with child-size seats in front that Wiltsie’s 3-year-old son, Soren, rides in.

The trio is there on a Thursday to tour Daybreak and talk about why the master-planned community in South Jordan feels so safe for cyclists.

“I kind of consider Daybreak a bit of an oasis surrounded by auto-centric sprawl,” West said.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Chris Wiltsie, left, of Bike Utah, and his son Soren, 3, join Mike West, a Daybreak resident, as he pedals his cargo bike during a bicycle tour of the area on Thursday, May 25, 2023.

Daybreak — with its young trees and trashless streets — is roughly 20 miles south of Salt Lake City. The first families started moving into Daybreak in 2004. Rio Tinto’s Kennecott set aside property from its vast land holdings and developed the community before selling to Värde Partners in 2016 who in turn sold it to Larry H. Miller Real Estate in 2021.

Many of the development’s marketing materials talk up a design principle “focused on the careful conservation of energy, land and other resources.” They tout the convenience of TRAX’s red line and the straight shot Daybreak residents can take to the University of Utah.

This is only surprising because suburban life and cars are tenets of American life. Mom and dad fight traffic (alone, in their respective vehicles) to work in the city. Driver licenses are the keys to freedom for suburban youth and the mall and work and home are all disparate places connected by freeways.

While cities from Salt Lake City to Chicago to Seattle are going on “bike-lane-building-binges,” the idea of making suburbs more bike-able is often overlooked, or tacked on later, when cost becomes a greater issue.

But in Daybreak, making the community safe for pedestrians and cyclists was always part of the plan, explained Stephen James, senior vice president of planning and community design for Larry H. Miller Real Estate.

“Daybreak was conceived as a case study for smart growth,” he wrote in a text, “a laboratory of sorts to explore how to get back to more human scale, less automobile dependent development, development that allows transportation mode equity.”

If Daybreak could build a community where schools, groceries and restaurants are a five-minute walk away — might other growing suburbs in Utah follow suit?

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A bicyclist pedals the Oquirrh Lake Loop Trail in Daybreak with the Kennecott Copper Mine visible in the distance on Thursday, May 25, 2023.

Human scale

Mike West begins by biking toward the paths lining Oquirrh Lake, a constructed body of water stocked with fish that serves as Daybreak’s center. The paths along the lake connect to grassy parks, open spaces and through tunnels that allow cyclists and pedestrians to circumvent crossing streets with cars.

The paths aren’t crowded on a Thursday morning — but residents are out walking, catching fish from the stocked lake and wiggling their toes in the shoreline sands.

West is a planner for Lehi (but he wasn’t representing the city in any way that day) and spends a lot of time thinking and reading about the way streets are designed.

After passing through two bike tunnels, West talks about the Dutch design principles of biking design: cohesion, directness, safety, comfort and attractiveness.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A bicyclist pedals a cargo bike with kids along the Oquirrh Lake Loop Trail in Daybreak on Thursday, May 25, 2023.

The tunnels are a good example of these principles — they have painted murals inside (attractive) and they allow cyclists to continue straight along the paths without having to cross a busy street.

Wiltsie mentions the terms “new urbanism,” as a way to explain what’s going on in Daybreak.

What does this mean? Urban planning expert William Fulton wrote in a Lincoln Institute of Land Policy report published in 1996 that “New Urbanism,” principles generally referred to design that included “walkable neighborhoods oriented around the five-minute walk, public transit systems, and greater integration of different types of land uses at the neighborhood level.”

Wiltsie said “new urbanism” incorporates well-tested design principles into more suburban environments — not killing the car, but “recognizing the danger, the harm that they pose and acting accordingly.”

West chimes in: “As a resident of Daybreak, I think this provides a really high quality of life, especially for people who don’t want to live in the middle of downtown Salt Lake.”

Daybreak is for the people who want a yard and space but still want to walk or bike to the grocery store. “It’s more urban,” West said, “but it’s not skyscrapers — some people just don’t want that.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A bicyclist pedals a cargo bike with kids along the Oquirrh Lake Loop Trail in Daybreak on Thursday, May 25, 2023.

For some the planned-to-perfection vibe of Daybreak can be unsettling. Too much planning inevitably leaves little room for hole-in-the-wall shops. Daybreak might be listed as an antonym to “gritty” in the dictionary. Its commercial heart — SoDa Row — feels similar to a lot of gentrified shopping districts in America.

But that might all be beside the point.

The way the homes, open spaces and stores are plotted (all very intentional) make Daybreak a different kind of suburb.

“We developed a planning strategy that distributes community amenities every quarter-mile or five-minute walk and linked them with trails in a visually compelling setting so the trip is enjoyable,” James, with Larry H. Miller Real Estate, texted.

“This is the key,” James wrote. “It is not enough to simply link destinations with paths. The trip must be pleasant enough to make the choice between walking/biking or driving an easy one.”

Decades after Daybreak’s conception, more planned-communities are evolving. The Point, planned for the site of the old state prison grounds in Draper, will be a walkable 15-minute-city and feature a large central park. In rural Hoytsville, Daybreak’s mix of density and commercial space along with open land preservation might serve as inspiration for a new planned community. Plus, South Jordan absorbed more than 2,000 acres of land near the Oquirrh foothills to create what might essentially become a second Daybreak.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Chris Wiltsie, left, of Bike Utah, and his son Soren, 3, join Mike West, a Daybreak resident, as he pedals his cargo bike along the Oquirrh Lake Loop Trail on Thursday, May 25, 2023. Bike paths in the planned development were built to keep riders a safe distance from road traffic.

Cars as guests

West turns the tour to the streets of Daybreak, leading the group of cyclists into the space where cars usually rule.

Except the cars in Daybreak seem timid in their domain. On one narrow street, a couple pulls their vehicle off to the side to let the cyclists pass.

Extended curbs, leafy sidewalks and roundabouts all slow traffic down in Daybreak, West explains while pedaling.

Down another street a hammock hangs between two trees— an important indicator, Wiltsie says, “You know you have a good, walkable, environment because you have houses that are interacting with the sidewalk.”

The streets are so quiet. The occasional resident is very friendly. People are smiling and waving to one another. Even a suburb-adverse urbanite might enjoy cruising down these streets where the potential for sudden death by collision — or death at all — feels less probable.

“It’s like biking in ‘Leave it Beaver,’” Wiltsie jokes.

Finding jobs close to home

But for all the beautiful paths and quiet streets within Daybreak — there is still the need (and perhaps desire) to occasionally leave.

There aren’t currently many employment opportunities close to home, said West, who works in Lehi.

“That’s the one thing missing to make it a little less car-centric,” West concedes.

The trip from downtown Salt Lake City to Daybreak via TRAX is a fairly straightforward one, however.

In his 1996 article, Fulton foresaw some of these problems, writing, “New Urbanists have struggled to move the public perception of their movement beyond the simple idea of designing suburban neighborhoods toward focusing on metropolitan areas.”

Jeremy Nielson, deputy city engineer for the city of South Jordan and another Daybreak resident, said the city is also trying to make walking, biking and taking public transportation easier.

They work with Daybreak to make sure “everything the city is planning connects to what Daybreak is planning,” Nielson said. Connecting South Jordan with adjacent cities is also a priority.

Nielson said he, too, is an avid cyclist and uses the UTA on Demand app to get to work.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Bicyclists pedal the multi-use Oquirrh Lake Loop Trail in Daybreak on Thursday, May 25, 2023.

James told The Tribune that the plan is to build out an “entire community as a transit-oriented development.”

“What I mean by this,” he wrote, “is that once you decide to leave your home in a car, the likelihood that you’ll park it and get on a bus or train is low.”

But if you walk out your door and can take a five-minute walk to the TRAX line, public transit becomes a viable option.

Plus, Daybreak is now roughly eight square miles and plans are underway to further build out its “downtown” area. The Larry H. Miller company plans to move the Salt Lake Bees to a new stadium in the community in 2025.

Utah is growing, and the Larry H. Miller Real Estate team is “now working on other communities along the Wasatch Front and Back that will build on our experience with contextual smart growth and cycling at Daybreak,” James wrote.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Mike West tries to get a high-five from Soren Wiltsie, 3, during a tour of his bike friendly Daybreak neighborhood on Thursday, May 25, 2023.

Still, the warning of critics still loom. As Fulton wrote, “Proponents and critics alike fear that widespread application of the movement’s design principles apart from a regional context may simply cause suburban sprawl to be replaced by “New Urban” sprawl.

While Daybreak may not have the kind of density that dyed-in-the-wool urbanites might desire, it does present a vision for a less car-centric way of life that people who love their cars might get behind.

“You see kids out on their own, independent all over the place,” West said. “They go fishing.”

There’s a chance that if you throw in fishing and independent kids, people in Utah might might actually say yes to more communities like it.

[Subscribe to our newsletter here]

Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.