Ellen Birrell: Affordable living in Salt Lake Valley depends on public transportation

Transit oriented development and access to transit the key to a livable valley.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Carlton Christensen speaks as UTA celebrates its 50th birthday with a news conference at the state Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, March 3, 2020.

Electrification of automobiles will not solve our mobility challenges. Mobility (transportation) based on private vehicle travel is tied directly to unaffordable living (housing and mobility) and rising vehicle-related injuries and fatalities (public safety) and pollution to our air shed, soil and water (public health) and is fiscally irresponsible.

Continuing in the direction of building out wider freeways, arterials, collectors and streets throughout the Salt Lake Valley runs counter to public health and safety, encouraging motorists to speed and drive everywhere, all the time. More asphalt reduces the greenery that helps to filter harmful particulates from our air, raises summer temperatures and adds more storm water into our already failing storm drainage systems. Big roads are expensive to build and maintain.

Affordable living throughout the Salt Lake Valley is possible with unified planning and pointing funding toward transit-oriented development instead of sprawl.

Throughout the Salt Lake Valley we need connected, frequent and non-stop/few stop transit during peak periods that enables all citizens to build transportation alternatives into their daily lives. Prioritizing this for lower income areas as suggested in the Salt Lake Tribune article, “Deal could transform transportation, make Utah a leader in alternative fuels,” is a start, but it cannot stop there.

Though important to give lower-income citizens an option to live without owning a car, all Salt Lake residents need a comprehensive, regional transit system. It needs to emphasize TOD — or Transit Oriented Development, as the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce calls it — that incentivizes needed higher density, affordable housing at or near transit stops. Development that builds up instead of out (sprawl) also allows for more shared green spaces.

Specific Utah Transit Authority improvement can include routes connecting TODs to places where people work (Research Park/University of Utah, etc.), play/recreate/entertain (canyons, entertainment venues, etc.) educate (University of Utah, Salt Lake Community College) and shop (major malls, etc.).

The current awkward and inefficient UTA system does not offer this. Considering a fleet that includes smaller vans or shuttles makes transit scalable for better frequency in peak periods and agile for drop off/pick up to hiking trail heads and other dispersed usage within Millcreek, Little and Big Cottonwood canyons during key peak periods. Let people leave their cars closer to where they live.

UTA and the Utah Department of Transportation need to unite and build public/private technology app that acknowledges a traveler’s current location then offers “walk,” “bike,” “private vehicle,” “transit” and possibly “ride-share” suggestions to one’s destination. Giving suggested nearest bus pick-up time and location, availability of parking and/or “Transit & Car Pool” lots (we currently call them “Park & Ride”) location suggestions could be included.

Phase-able. Scale-able. As Salt Lake valley neighborhoods gentrify, as real estate markets change and phase neighborhoods financially out of reach for young families, as we deal with climate change challenges, drought, water and energy changes, a mobility system that can morph to meet our needs is imperative and the fiscally wise and conservative choice.

Leadership that pushes back indicating “this idea will be costly” miss the point. Compared to a $600,000+ gondola system to reduce 30-days of wintertime traffic on eight miles of Little Cottonwood Canyon road that the state legislature is considering, spending some serious dollars on a sustainable, non-carbon emitting transit system serving all of Salt Lake valley, employing people (bus drivers) and getting cars and their poisonous pollution off hundreds of miles of roadway year-round is sound. “Quality is economy in the long run.”

This will take political will at the federal, state, county and local levels to plan and fund a viable, comprehensive, regional transit system for Salt Lake Valley. It will require elected city, county and state representatives to work closely together and pull in UTA, UDOT, Utah Transportation Commission and Wasatch Front Regional Council. Affordable living, like public health and safety, can be a focus for our elected representatives. They need to see and hear from their constituents.

Your voice to appointed commissioners and your elected representatives matters. An immediate opportunity is the Utah Transportation Commission’s meeting at 8:30 a.m. Friday. Submit audio or video file comments via email to transportationcommission@utah.gov 24 hours prior.

Ellen Birrell

Ellen Birrell is city councilwoman-elect in Cottonwood Heights District 4.