Eric Ewert: Want to clean the air? Plan for people instead of cars.

Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune Exhaust from cars stopped in traffic at 1700 South 700 East, Salt Lake City, Thursday December 12, 2013.

Thankfully, another season of “red air” days is just about over in Utah.

Unless you were recently born or just moved here (like the more than 50,000 new babies and residents added in 2019), you know about life during a red air day. The obvious brown muck hangs like a toxic fog from Logan to Spanish Fork. The gunk stings your eyes, feels scratchy in your throat and quickly irritates your nose, sinuses and lungs.

If you’re young or old, sick or infirm, or have any respiratory problems, health officials advise that you stay inside. For the rest of us, they say don’t undertake any physical activities out-of-doors.

Also thankfully, the hand wringing and the political posturing in the Utah Legislature is nearly over as well. As usual, blame is assigned everywhere, but very little meaningful responsibility is assumed. Committees form, lobbyists from both sides argue endlessly, some timid bills pass, money is allocated and, in the end, not much changes.

Why doesn’t much change? Because our regional air pollution is the result of complex and cumulative causes such as geography, weather, economic incentives, population growth, settlement patterns, transportation choices and personal preferences. In short, it’s complicated.

A new book by The University of Utah Press tackles our complicated air quality problem from a variety of perspectives and offers up details on causes, impacts, and solutions. In “Utah’s Air Quality Issues: Problems and Solutions,” well-researched chapters on geography, politics, economics, regulation, personal preferences, health and others explain just how byzantine and insidious our air quality problem is here. But while all the influences together are complex, the solution to scrubbing our air of pollution is really quite simple: plan for people instead cars.

For more than a century now, Utah has been building for cars and not the people who drive them. With every far-flung housing subdivision, strip mall, drive-through, low-density suburb and distant workplace, we have to drive. And in Utah, we drive a lot.

Utah drivers average 15,500 miles per year, which is up 10% in the last five years and more than 1,000 miles per year above than national average. In just Salt Lake County, drivers rack up 27 million miles per day, according to UDOT. Utahns average 43 minutes and 30 miles commuting (just for work and not all the other trips), 10 vehicle trips per day per household, and spend more than 80% of their travel time alone in a personal vehicle. Obviously, with nearly 60% of air pollution due to transportation, our car-centered lifestyle is the major culprit.

Our lifestyle, though, is really dependent on our landscape. What if our landscape favored high density housing and mixed land use such that work, school, shopping, services and recreation where all within walking and biking distance? What if it were based on mass transit and central locations for businesses, health care and government so that no one ever had to travel very far for the vast majority of the goods and services they needed?

Planners term this good accessibility rather than mobility. Mobility is about going far fast. Accessibility is about getting what you need nearby. What if we built up to conserve space instead of out to sprawl over more space? What if most neighborhoods had stores and restaurants and basic services just an easy walk away? Well, what we’d have then is exactly the landscape we had before cars.

Imagine what could be done with the endless acres of parking lots, oversized streets, freeway lanes, driveways, drive-through windows, garages, carports and parking structures. Redevelopers are eager to get at that space right now, but we waste it on cars.

Cleaning up the air with a people-centered landscape is just the beginning. Imagine not having to pay the more than $10,000 per year AAA estimates inexpensive car ownership costs. Imagine not having to buy a house with a three-car garage. Imagine what you could do by not spending an average of 134 hours commuting per year.

Planning for people saves water, open space, utilities, time, resources, tax money and on and on. Studies show that people who spend more time out of their cars are healthier physically and psychologically. Their communities are healthier, too, because they’re connected at a people level and not a vehicle level.

Imagine just how much better things could be. Now imagine the predicted doubling of our state population by 2065. Want to know a lot more about clearing the air and planning for people? Read the book.

Eric C. Ewert

Eric C. Ewert, Ph.D., is a professor and chair of the Department of Geography at Weber State University.