Andrew Gruber: After the pandemic, Utah still needs mass transit

In March, everything changed. As a result of the global coronavirus pandemic, students came home. Businesses closed. Masks became a fashion statement. Streets emptied. Our very way of life shifted, and we began to rethink everything.

In those initial days we came to some conclusions. Some still hold true: social distancing is key to reducing spread; telework can work for many employers and employees; and we are stronger when we find solutions together.

Other conclusions, however, may have been hasty. We’ve learned a lot, and the rethinking continues.

One perhaps hasty conclusion from our initial thinking was that our public transit systems are not safe in a COVID-19 era. However, a noteworthy article from The Atlantic, “Fear of Transit is Bad for Cities,” refutes overstated connections between riding transit and the transmission of COVID. In short, it argues that hygiene habits are critical determinants of virus spread, and that transit can continue to be used safely. It also makes the following argument:

“Far from scaling back on public transit, cities across the country need a massive transit expansion that will enable them to avert the mobility meltdown that threatens to swallow them if even a fraction of former transit commuters take to cars. The nation won’t recover if it adds a traffic crisis to the ongoing health and economic crises.”

This point resonates with me. As the Wasatch Front Regional Council and our partners have acknowledged for years through collaborative planning processes such as Utah’s Unified Transportation Plan and the Wasatch Choice Regional Vision, Utahns need viable transportation choices, including transit and active transportation. If travel in Utah — the fastest growing state in the nation — returns to pre-COVID levels, but transit ridership remains significantly lower, we have a risk of exacerbated traffic congestion and travel times, and the associated negative impacts to air quality, economy and quality of life.

Consider the relationship of several recent data points. UDOT reports that daily traffic volume on I-15 on the Wasatch Front, after dropping to approximately 60% of normal, returned to approximately 85% by late May. But on June 3 the Downtown Alliance noted that only approximately 15% of downtown Salt Lake City office workers were physically working from their offices. Of course only a portion of I-15 trips are commutes to downtown, but it’s reasonable to assume that many of the workers who are now going downtown, and who might previously have been regular transit users, are now driving, as UTA’s ridership has been down to approximately 30% of pre-pandemic levels.

If freeway traffic is already nearly back to normal but we are seeing relatively few workers back in their offices, while transit use remains well below capacity, what will the freeway look like if the majority of workers return to their office in a car instead of on a train or bus? While we’ve learned teleworking can be part of the solution, public transit must be as well.

Of course, appropriate precautions must be taken on our transit system to ensure safety. Thankfully UTA has made significant efforts in this regard. Riders will also need to exercise appropriate precautions, such as wearing a mask and being socially distant where possible.

But transit can still be safe and must remain a part of our transportation mix.

The fundamental strategy for transportation in Utah — that we have to provide choices for how people travel, including a robust transit system and viable active transportation options in addition to an excellent state and local road system — is just as true now as it was before the COVID pandemic.

Andrew Gruber

Andrew Gruber is executive director of the Wasatch Front Regional Council, which brings government, private sector, and community stakeholders together to plan for the future of our region.