Salt Lake City – Sustainability Front Runner?

The large and historical metropolises tend to get the news coverage, mostly because, well, they’re large and historical.  Coming from a Mountain state–Colorado–we were considered “fly over” territory and therefore reporters spent little time telling the stories that come out of our region. So, today I’m doing my bit to rectify that and sharing a bit about what’s going on in the Mountain States.

And sadly, it’s going to start with the rival to my home state on the Wasatch Front — Salt Lake City.  Since the 1990s, the Utah Transit Authority has spent significant funds in developing a rail-based mass-transit system that has connected the corners of the Salt Lake City metro region with regional/commuter rail and light- urban rail lines.  In the span of less than 25 years Salt Lake City has gone from 0 miles of rail transit to a network which connects corners of the metro region and also connects with regionally important cities through its regional rail line.  Significantly, UTA reports that in 2012, 27% of workers arriving to Salt Lake City’s CBD arrive by UTA transit (light rail, regional rail, bus).

In the past year, The Atlantic: Cities weblog covered the SLC Transportation Chief as part of its future of transportation series wherein they profiled Robin Hutcheson and her efforts to lead the department, definitely taking into consideration her role as a woman-leader.  Further, a video from Streetfilms covered SLC from behind the camera. Streetsblog has had some praise for UTA’s project management and leadership in developing public transit.

What I’d like to pull out from telling a bit about Salt Lake City is is that these middle sized metropolises (on the American scale) are actively and deftly navigating often treacherous political waters to position their metropolises on a track to potential greater sustainability within 20 years.  Transportation is only one part of the picture and it often is a nice shiny thing that a politician can say is an accomplishment, so be wary of the ribbon-cutters; however, it seems that the region itself has advocated and is working toward developing a transportation system which will allow it to move securely forward in the coming 20 to 30 years as a leader in transportation.

However, the other part of the picture, and actually often the more difficult part given the prizing of land in the Mountain States, is smart intensification along these high-capacity transit corridors.  These middle-sized metropolises will have to move toward this just as much, if not perhaps more intensely, as larger metropolises do.  Salt Lake City proper seems to be slow to the game on this, with the latest updates to their area plans ranging from 1992 to 2005 and no citywide general plan update seemingly in the works. As bookends, both North Salt Lake and South Salt Lake, look to have recently updated their general/master city plans to reflect the increased transit capacity passing through their areas.  Even larger cities with in the metro area, such as Ogden, Murray (2003), West Valley City (2009), and Provo (2010), have had a chance to update their general plans to reflect the changes that these regional transportation investments have brought.

The classic story for the Wasatch Front is that organizations, especially Envision Utah, have led the charge on changing the direction of the region.  Of course the federally-required MPO – the Wasatch Front Regional Council – is also involved in developing a transportation vision for the region; however, the efforts of an organization like Envision Utah are pointed to as key to changing the game in Utah.  It looks like the next task is for an organization, either Envision Utah itself or another type of organization, to bring municipalities along for the ride.

One key finding in research is that the focus has been on environmental quality in this region and that land use and transportation itself are choices that communities make which have a significant effect on the environmental quality of the region. The regional air quality is quite difficult for the region to handle.  As evidenced by the photo below.


The air quality problems do provide a very clear problem to work against.  Even in popular culture in the region, an SLC Inversion twitter handle has been created.  Local media even have stories covering “my bad air day” and the New York Times has even covered the significant air quality issues in the region.

However, according to the same study, with such clear problems to target, the durability and community leadership of the Envision Utah organization is what is key to driving the local change in transportation infrastructure.  The gains made in transportation now seem to be settling in, but the real change for the region will be in its development pattern.  As of yet, this is a story that is developing.