Levi Thatcher: Utah’s urge to build more highways only makes life here worse

Highways are dangerous and don’t do anything to help civic life.

Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune A new conveyor belt bridge goes over northbound I-15 traffic near the Point of the Mountain, Tuesday October 6, 2015. The bridge transports concrete from the batch plant over the highway and directly into the work zone (in the middle of the freeway) as part of a two-year project to widen I-15 to six lanes in each direction from Lehi to Draper.

In a Sept. 24 Washington Post article about an award-winning highway expansion in Utah, journalist Ian Duncan wisely summed up the transportation debate of our time: whether highway expansion improves or impedes quality of life. As the fastest growing state in the nation, nowhere are these discussions as critical as in Utah.

As noted in Duncan’s article, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) thought the widening of Interstate 15 near Lehi was a shining example of community improvement. However, data and experience show that these kinds of projects choke the life out of nearby neighborhoods. We’ve made the same mistakes for decades, but a growing chorus of innovative designers, advocacy groups, residents and small businesses are rising to challenge these unexamined, and demonstrably false, assumptions.

While not yet at the scale of Seattle or Denver, the Salt Lake City metro has created a tech cluster 20 miles south of the capital, anchored around Adobe offices that opened in 2012. But while other tech hubs are oriented toward the cities they occupy, our local tech cluster (affectionately dubbed Silicon Slopes) straddles I-15. This is partially due to restrictive zoning in Salt Lake City proper, as well as race-to-the-bottom tax incentives offered up by its exurban sister cities to the south. The result is a string of hulking glass buildings hung like pearls along I-15, with the highway, rather than the public square, linking them together. This tech presence is a wealth generation machine, no doubt, but hardly the future we imagined.

The tragic irony of the matter is that AASHTO endorsed this I-15 project with a “quality of life” award when its actual effect reduces quality of life by virtually every metric.

First, cars are dangerous to everyone in and around them. There are more than 30,000 car crash deaths each year in the U.S. and car crashes are the leading cause of death for children 4 and over. When the Utah Department of Transportation and AASHTO prioritize car-based transportation, they tacitly accept increased deaths in the vain search for driver convenience.

Urban sprawl is related to traffic fatalities, and years of data prove that creating more space for cars only results in more — not less — car traffic, a somewhat counter-intuitive dynamic known as induced demand. Research shows that new car lanes tend to be filled by drivers who previously 1) rode transit 2) took other routes 3) intentionally commuted at off-peak times or 4) worked from home. The post-expansion hurrah of open roads is short lived, as more drivers are drawn to the same commuting patterns, pushing congestion back to or even above pre-widening levels.

The Wasatch Front already suffers from noxious air pollution. Obviously, air pollution is bad, but time and data only paint a grimmer picture as we see that air pollution increases the risk of stroke, Alzheimer’s, accelerated aging, overall mortality, and cognitive decline. Focusing local transportation projects on more cars and wider highways worsens an already deadly emissions problem. Additionally, the nation’s obesity epidemic continues and is linked to car dependence. Widening highways undermines active transportation methods that boost daily exercise.

While community is a vague term, most definitions of “quality of life” would include beneficial interactions with those in your neighborhood, through family gatherings, recreation, errands, impromptu conversation, civic participation, religious service, etc. If you’ve ever been on a highway, you know what kind of community is engendered there, and it’s not the kind you want just outside your door.

Clustering jobs around highway corridors robs employees of the very community spaces that many modern companies are trying to replicate in-house. The public square, properly maintained, is a critical component of the civic experience, exposing us to unplanned moments of interaction and inspiration. Silicon Slopes would be much better served by initiatives that get employees out of their cars and into community spaces, rather than simply driving over and through them.

When cities and state transportation departments invest in car-centric transportation solutions, they lift one type of commuter above all others, and replace creative collisions with violent, deadly ones.

Levi Thatcher

Levi Thatcher did his graduate work in atmospheric science at the University of Utah, works as a director of data science in Salt Lake City, serves on the Sugar House Community Council and is a board member of Sweet Streets SLC.