Commentary: Salt Lake City should expand definition of public safety to include street design

Reducing the speed of cars is the most effective way to keep city streets safe.

Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune Bicyclist rides along Salt Lake City's separated bikeway along 300 East and 700 South.

It’s spring. The pandemic’s lifting. People of all ages and abilities are out strolling, biking, running, rolling, while enjoying the fragrant, warming mountain air.

And they’re more likely than ever to get hit by a car.

Traffic fatalities are up state- and nationwide. They’ve been rising steadily since 2009 — and 2009 was the deadliest year for cars killing people in the U.S. since 1990. In the decade between 2010 and 2019, the number of pedestrians killed by drivers increased 45%.

It’s one of countless reasons why the city’s budgeting for public safety must include safe street design and implementation of effective solutions. City leaders are currently preparing their 2021-22 budget, and city residents need and want safer streets.

Utah is not unique in its pedestrian death data — both the Salt Lake City metro area and the state as a whole rank right in the middle of the nation, according to a recent report Dangerous by Design by Smart Growth America and Nelson\Nygaard engineering consultants.

We represent a group, Sweet Streets SLC, that wants to turn this around. We advocate for streets and public spaces that are people-first, not car-first. Not just complete streets, but sweet streets.

We’re not alone. There’s a growing wave of Salt Lake City neighborhoods organizing for traffic calming infrastructure on their streets. And the city’s Transportation Division has created a new program, called Livable Streets, which will bring a new approach to slowing down vehicle traffic in neighborhoods.

Traffic calming is also politically popular. More than 80% of people want safer streets, according to national surveys, even if that means driving slower.

At Sweet Streets, we’re motivated by a fundamental fact of urbanism. While many factors affect people’s safety on streets, the speed of cars is supreme. Injury data show that slower is much safer. Risk of serious injury rises exponentially with speed.

Intuitively, people know this. It’s why many kids aren’t allowed to walk to school, or ride their bikes outside of controlled environments. It causes many people who don’t drive — young, old and in-between — to become shut-ins. It’s the reason 50% of the adult population say they don’t ride their bikes more.

But what many people don’t understand is that the risk of injury or death plummets when cars are moving at speeds below 30 mph. By implementing relatively simple street designs that naturally calm the speed of traffic, the rate of serious, fatal collisions can be dramatically lessened and the environment around our city streets can be transformed.

Not only do speeding cars threaten direct violence on everyone outside of them, streets dominated by cars also drive away the city life that makes streets safer from other threats (the “eyes on the street” principle).

This situation is not inevitable, and that is why we’re here to rally support for making people, not cars, the center of street design.

This spring, the Salt Lake City Council will examine and debate the mayor’s proposed budget, which will include something near $30 million in new, discretionary spending from a voter-approved sales tax under the Funding Our Future program. The program is divided into four categories: Improved Street Conditions, Greater Housing Opportunities, Better Transit Service, and Increased Neighborhood Safety.

2021 is only the second year of the program, and since it’s early, we’d like to suggest an addition to the definition of one of the city’s categories.

“Increased neighborhood safety” has focused almost exclusively on police: adding officers and updating equipment and strategies (it also can be spent on Fire and 911). Last year, police got the largest Funding Our Future appropriation: $9.2 million.

City leaders are right to rank safety as No. 1 priority.

But let’s put traffic safety into that bucket. Safety in our neighborhoods is more complex than improving the functions of police. Street design impacts the behavior of drivers when police aren’t there. We have traffic engineers in city government who know this science, and they need the resources and political support to implement real solutions.

We ask city leaders to allocate $3 million each year to the Livable Streets program in the Funding Our Future budget. This will allow the Transportation Division to offer effective traffic calming solutions to two Salt Lake City neighborhoods each year.

City transportation leaders say they have strategies for engaging residents that will yield holistic solutions for the neighborhood, instead of pitting neighbors from different streets against one another. We have hope for this approach, and have noticed the mayor’s impressive commitment to community engagement on other street projects.

Please take a look at sweetstreets.org. The cherry atop the Sweet Streets sundae is that rebuilding our streets to be people-first correlates with all sorts of beneficial changes for individuals, society and the planet. A clean-air, carbon-reduced future where quality public spaces — welcoming and accessible to all — contribute to community health and wealth. A future where all individuals, regardless of age or ability, are safe and free to travel on our streets.

Luke Garrot

Benjamin Wood

Taylor Anderson is a co-founder of the street advocacy group Sweet Streets, and writes for the real estate news site BuildingSaltLake.com.

Luke Garrot, Taylor W. Anderson and Benjamin Wood are board members of Sweet Streets SLC, a local nonprofit that works for people-first streets and public spaces in Salt Lake City.