People spend a lot of time traveling public streets, and Salt Lake City is working on major redesigns that better reflect what its residents value.
Streets typically make up about 80% of a city’s public spaces, but they’re lumped into three broad categories — local streets, arterial streets (such as high-speed highways) and collector streets that funnel traffic between the two.
Salt Lake City is in the process of diversifying its streets into 15 different designs, or “typologies,” with new priorities. The typologies guide will help pave the city’s future with streets that add a lot more green space, sidewalks and bike lanes.
“More than anything else, our streets define who we are as a community, but traditionally our streets have been focused on one thing, and that is moving our cars and storing our cars,” said Tom Millar, a transportation planner with the Salt Lake City Department of Community and Neighborhoods, in a recent virtual town hall. “We know our streets can do much more.”
The city began designing its new street typologies after gathering feedback with a survey last year. About 1,200 Salt Lake City residents participated. The survey identified five basic street functions — personal mobility like walking and biking, greening with trees and vegetation, placemaking by making streets a place to linger, curbside uses like parking and bus stops, and vehicle mobility. It then asked respondents to rank them.
Vehicle travel was consistently low on the list, which Millar said came as a surprise.
“Even the people who said they never walked or took the bus or rode a bike, they still prioritized things like greening … higher than vehicle mobility,” Millar said in an interview, adding that the rankings were similar among different demographics and incomes. “Personal mobility was the highest. Vehicle mobility wasn’t always last, but it was near the bottom.”
With those priorities in mind, transportation planners went to work designing new street types. They include “Urban Village Main Streets” with two-lane roads, transit stops and wide sidewalks, slated for areas like 3rd Avenue and 1100 East. There are also “Two-Way Thoroughfares” with transit lanes and tree-lined medians, which planners envision for Beck Street and sections of Redwood Road. All the typologies make room for bike lanes and lots of vegetation, including industrial areas.
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But not everyone is on board with the city’s vision, especially when it comes to residential streets. In all five design typologies for neighborhoods, the plan limits parking to one side of the street or cuts it entirely.
“This seems like a solution in search of a problem,” said Erik Christensen, who lives on Logan Avenue. “It’s not something I’ve ever heard neighbors complain about. The amount of parking [proposed] would be very problematic.”
Sandy Rowland lives in Sugar House and has a rental property in the Avenues. She called the typologies guide “ridiculous.”
“Especially in the Avenues, most people don’t have driveways much less garages. Ninety percent of the parking is street parking,” Rowland said.
Tracy Evans, who has a house on 2300 East, said the reduced parking plan won’t be feasible until the city improves public transportation.
“This is not serving citizens, especially the families that have a lot of cars,” she said.
The residents also complained about the city’s poor outreach in communicating the street redesign guide. Some wondered where the funding for street rebuilds would come from, especially during budget shortfalls brought on by the pandemic.
“If I hadn’t heard about this from my neighbor I wouldn’t be aware of it now,” Christensen said. “I still don’t have a great sense of what started this process, who’s driving it and to what end.”
Salt Lake City has hosted a website explaining the typologies with surveys for each to gather public feedback since June. But the formal name of the plan, “Salt Lake City Street and Intersection Typologies Design Guide,” is quite the bureaucratic mouthful and some residents said it was difficult to find as well as confusing to understand.
“I have neighbors in their 50s who aren’t on the computer all the time and they need help to find this,” Rowland said. “I would just hope they postpone this until they can call an actual, in-person meeting.”
Millar with the Department of Community and Neighborhoods said the city has received hundreds of comments so far, with perspectives across the spectrum. He acknowledged that the reduction in street parking has been a common complaint.
“As I’ve been talking with people who have that concern, it’s been great to listen to what their concerns are, what the circumstances are on their individual streets,” Millar said.
He also offered some assurances.
First, the typologies guide is just that — a guide. Any of the designs can be adjusted. When a city is up for a rebuild, there will be another public input and planning process allowing residents to weigh in.
“The downside of this being a citywide design guide is it offers a lot of ideas,” Millar said, “but in no way is it perfect or exact.”
Second, street changes are not imminent.
“Some of [the designs] definitely reduce the amount of street parking. [While} that is the long-term vision of the city, it can’t happen all at once. It takes generations for change like that to happen,” Millar said. “Habits take a really long time to change. The typologies aren’t saying it has to be this way in five years or 10 years.”
Last, the city isn’t squandering its budget on a citywide street upgrade. While tax initiatives like Funding our Future have created additional revenue for Salt Lake City to improve transportation, Millar said there’s not a budget earmarked for updating streets to align with the typologies guide. Instead, the city will refer to the designs when a street needs to rebuilt due to deterioration or other upgrades.
“The project doesn’t come with any funding behind it, nor does it require any funding,” Millar said.
Rethinking streets to cater to more than just cars is one of the most important things a city can do to increase its livability and equity, according to Chris Wiltsie, program director with Bike Utah. He supports the new typologies.
“We talk a lot about privilege these days, that’s exactly what having a transportation network created for your cars is,” Wiltsie said, noting that Black people and people of color rely more on alternative forms of urban transportation than white people.
He pointed to Salt Lake City’s recent redesign of Broadway/300 South downtown as an example of a well-done design with its bike lanes, medians, planters and art.
“If you ride or drive down Broadway, it’s a very different experience than other adjacent streets,” Wiltsie said. “They’ve taken into context that it’s a commercial area, they want people to be comfortable walking.”
A 2015 city analysis found that sales tax receipts increased by 8.79% and bike use was up by 30% along the corridor after the rebuild was complete.
Wiltsie said he understood concerns about losing access to convenient parking, but he compared cities’ focus on cars to running a retail shop.
“If the only thing you thought about was how many people come to your store and how fast they traveled through it, and you didn’t care about how much money they spent or the pleasure they had interacting with your store ... what is lost in the experience?” he said.