Michelle Kaufusi: Provo is a champion in the cause for cleaner air

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photos) The UTA Utah Valley Express is part of UTA's bus rapid transit system between Orem and Provo.

As a native Utahn, few things are as important to me as our state’s air quality. Regardless of your personal politics, I think we all care about this one.

It impacts our economy; companies deciding whether to move here cite it as a top concern. But at the heart of the issue is safety and quality of life — for us, our children and beyond. Utah is too beautiful, and so are its people, to be cloaked in smog.

A recent website “study” and Salt Lake Tribune article labeled Provo as the nation’s worst polluting city. That stung, particularly because the Provo I know is on the vanguard of maintaining and improving air quality.

Thankfully, the underlying data reveals we’re not what the website made us out to be. In fact, the data can be used to tout Provo as a leader in clean air, nationally and statewide.

The raw data, which came from the Center for Neighborhood Technology, shows that the more densely populated an area is, the less miles its residents tend to drive (only transportation-related emissions were tracked, contrary to what the website and article said).

Provo, not counting the area stretching to Nevada that the study lumped in with us, is more densely populated than most of the state and country, and correspondingly has lower transportation emissions per household than most of the state and country. In fact, Provo has lower emissions per household than 95% of the 323 cities, towns, and rural areas tracked in Utah. How’s that for headline material?

On the other hand, Provo is less densely populated than most major cities, and, unsurprisingly, we drive more than folks do in large metropolises.

Also, the study focused on per-household emissions, rather than per-capita ones. Provo, with its large families and student population, approaches four people per home, far more than most cities. And more people per home tends to mean more drivers and driving per home.

If Provo wanted to go from last place to first on the per-household measurement, we could build a lot more houses and divide our existing families and roommates into them. But that, of course, would do nothing to improve air quality. If we instead look at things per-person, Provo has lower annual emissions (2.43 tons) than even greater San Francisco (2.65), the study’s second cleanest city.

All that aside, here are a few examples of the kinds of achievements Provo is making toward cleaner air, often with the help of key partners, too many to thank here:

  • Installing UVX, a world-class (and free) bus rapid transit system, using federal funds. UVX provides every-six-minute service, leading to 14,600 boardings a day and keeping untold cars off the road. Kudos to our neighbors Brigham Young University and Utah Valley University, incidentally, for providing a UTA transit pass to each employee, student and family member for a 10-year period. Transit is taking hold in Utah Valley like never before.

  • Securing a $750,000 grant to install electric-vehicle charging stations throughout Provo.

  • Recruiting Provo City’s first sustainability coordinator, who I’ve tasked with moving us toward ever cleaner air.

  • Contracting, through our municipal power association, for a solar field that will provide enough power for 20,000 homes, helping us toward our recently-made goal of 50% renewable energy sourcing by 2030.

Yes, there is more work to do. But with renewed zeal, we will forge ahead with these and other leading-edge sustainability efforts.

As we do, may Provo’s example encourage all of us to join the cause of protecting one of our greatest shared assets: our air.

Provo Mayor Michelle Kaufusi

Michelle Kaufusi is the mayor of Provo.