FROM ISOLATION TO INCLUSIVENESS:
BALANCING THE TRANSPORTATION SCALES IN SALT LAKE CITY
Address of Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson
The Transit Alliance Leadership Forum
Friday, April 13, 2001
Three and a half years ago, University of Utah Professor Mark De-Saint Aubin sold his car and committed to use mass transit for all of his commuting needs. Since then, Mark has saved more than $4,000 per year on car payments, gas, and maintenance, and has avoided countless hours of traffic frustration and tension by working, reading, or relaxing while someone else drives.
As he has traveled all over the city, Professor De-Saint Aubin has found that his greatest joy in using transit has been the people he meets and the friendships he has made by riding with people he would otherwise never have met. From African-Americans to Hispanics, and Finns to Somalis, Mark has made friends with people from all sorts of backgrounds, including one of his closest friends, a Kenyan whom he just happened to meet on the bus ride to work.
Professor De-Saint Aubin's story is not unique. The Salt Lake Tribune recently reported on "The Friendship Express." Describing a group of regular bus riders, writer Brandon Loomis noted, "The 48 West Jordan Express bus...isn't so much about mass transit as it is mass gossip, mass mirth and mass friendship." Loomis explained how a group of nearly a dozen strangers, ranging from their early twenties to their early eighties, who know each other only from the bus, are now planning a group vacation to New York.
These stories illustrate the power of mass transit to bring people together. They show, on a personal level, what Salt Lake City is seeing system-wide - our focus on improving mass transit options and smart growth is making Salt Lake City a safer, friendlier, more vibrant place. These anecdotes are a far cry from the stories of road rage - everything from people flipping each other off to people shooting to kill someone who may have made a reckless lane change.
Over the last few years, we have seen remarkable progress. Mass transit ridership continues to increase; the success of our new light rail TRAX line is exceeding all our expectations; transit-oriented developments are popping up all over; last November our citizens approved a transit tax increase that will help us continue to add transportation options for our citizens; and we have even seen some improvement in our air quality.
The effects of auto dependency and sprawl on community
To motivate a community to support mass transit, people must understand how the absence of transportation balance undermines a sense of community - and creates more personal isolation. As our cities have sprawled, people have been trapped in a pattern of living farther and farther from where they work, where their kids go to school, where they shop, and where they play.
For example, a primary justification for the proposed Legacy Highway between Davis and Salt Lake Counties is that half of Davis County residents drive to Salt Lake City for work every day. These commuters need to understand the truth of the German transit campaign slogan: "You're not stuck in a traffic jam, you are the jam." The solution isn't building a new highway; it is providing opportunities for more of the people who work in Salt Lake City to live in Salt Lake City, and incentives for those who choose to live elsewhere to utilize mass transit.
In pressing the case for expanded mass transit, we can get people to think about how much time they spend alone in their cars commuting. The average American driver spends 443 hours per year - the equivalent of 55 eight-hour workdays - behind the wheel. All this time could cut a full workday off of the normal 5-day, 40-hour workweek. If we are truly committed to increasing personal freedom and quality of life, as well as encouraging civic participation, we must provide options that will let people escape the confines of their cars and enjoy life more fully.
While our cars separate us from other drivers, causing us to view them as abstractions and obstructions instead of people, our highways erect nearly impenetrable physical divisions of our community. In Salt Lake City, I-15 separates our West and East sides in ways that make community interactions very difficult. Instead of neighbors conversing over the backyard fence, ten lanes of speeding cars now serve as huge barriers to personal interactions.
These divisions deprive us all of even casual social interactions with people from different ethnic, social, and religious backgrounds. Such interactions are critical to breaking down stereotypes, finding new perspectives to old problems, and building healthy, inclusive communities.
Costs of driving
Unfortunately the cycle of segregation in our communities is amplified by the astronomically high costs of auto-oriented transportation. The report, "Driven to Spend," prepared by the Surface Transportation Policy Project, details these impacts:
For most Americans, transportation is an expense second only to housing. The average American household devotes 18 cents out of every dollar it spends to getting around. In some metro areas, households are spending more on transportation than on shelter. The vast majority of that spending, 98 percent, is for the purchase, operation, and maintenance of automobiles. Most American families spend more on driving than on health care, education or food. And the poorest families spend the most - sometimes more than one-third of their income goes to transportation.
These staggering costs erect an institutional barrier to upward class mobility for those who cannot afford to drive to a good job or to school.
Our lack of affordable mass transit also impacts those who cannot drive: our elderly, our disabled, and our youth. Jane Holtz Kay notes in her book, Asphalt Nation, that with our growing elderly population, our disabled, and our children, more than 1/3 of our population faces severe limitations in mobility because they cannot drive and do not have access to adequate public transportation. A full 9% of U.S. households have no car. Describing what she calls our drive-fly-or-rot culture, Kay demonstrates that our elderly, who often must live alone, can become prisoners in their own homes with no one to talk to and nowhere to go because of our lack of transportation options. In effect, a single-minded focus on auto-oriented transportation wastes great resources in our community, forcing many skilled, energetic, and experienced residents to stay at home.
To put the societal cost of our auto-dependency in perspective, federal, state, and municipal governments spent a staggering $93 billion on highways during the mid-1990s. Proponents of highway building argue that drivers pay for these costs through gasoline taxes. This could not be further from the truth. For example, gas taxes and vehicle registration fees only cover 19% of the money allocated to Utah's Centennial Highway fund. The rest of highway funding comes from other sources, such as sales taxes and bonding, meaning that we all subsidize 81% of the highway system, whether we use it or not. What's worse, because highway users don't pay their way, highways are competing with other worthy state programs, such as education and mass transit, for general fund revenues.
Health and Safety
The Surface Transportation Policy Project found that drivers in metro areas with low transit use were 61 percent more likely to die in an aggressive driving crash than people who live in areas with high transit use.
The STP project also found a high correlation between spread out, sprawling cities with low transit use and higher rates of pedestrian fatalities.
The improvement of transit options and pedestrian safety are initiatives that must go hand in hand. Since March of 2000, we have taken an aggressive approach to pedestrian safety in Salt Lake City. We've put brightly colored flags on street corners and mid-block crosswalks for people to carry across the street to increase visibility and driver awareness. We've stepped up enforcement of pedestrian safety laws, and are strengthening our city code to require a higher duty of drivers to yield to pedestrians trying to cross city streets. We are adding pedestrian-actuated signal lights to our crosswalks, some of which hang over the crosswalk and some of which are mounted in the pavement like runway lights, to make drivers more aware of pedestrians who are trying to cross. And we are aggressively pursuing ordinance changes to require walkable shopping areas and gathering places so that people will want to proceed on foot after they get off the bus or light rail. Since the commencement of our pedestrian safety initiative, we have not had one pedestrian fatality, and in the downtown area, where we have focused our efforts, we have seen a 26% decrease in accidents involving pedestrians.
Are highways a real solution to traffic congestion? In Utah we have been expanding I-15 to 5 lanes in each direction to relieve congestion in the Downtown Salt Lake City area. However, the Wasatch Front Regional Council estimates that, at current growth rates, the highway will again be filled to capacity in a brief 2 or 3 years. What will we do then? If we follow the current path, we'll build more roads, create more sprawl, pollute our air more, and have more deadly accidents.
Highway proponents argue that we must build new roads to keep up with population growth. What they do not realize is that building more roads just spreads us out more, making it more difficult for us to interact with each other and driving up the monetary and societal costs of driving.
What can we do to end the cycle of sprawl and make our cities more livable and safe for the future? The answer lies in a comprehensive set of smart growth policies. We're illustrating in Salt Lake City that making our streets safer and more exciting for pedestrians, encouraging infill and transit-oriented development, and shifting our resources away from a disproportionate emphasis on roads can make our cities more livable and safe. However, this comprehensive approach will fall flat without vast increases in the transit options available to our communities. We need a balanced transportation plan that provides more options across the board, not just more options for drivers. We will never reach balance if we continue to build highways at our current rate, while slowly, almost imperceptibly, working on mass transit. When you build a new highway, most people do not have a sufficient incentive to use mass transit until that highway is congested once again. Sometime, somewhere, mass transit must come first, or we will never break the cycle. Now is the time for a commitment to a transit-first policy.
The Salt Lake City area's public transportation system has had many successes in recent years. Although the Utah Transit Authority has existed since the early 1970s, providing bus service in six counties with a ¼-cent sales tax, public transportation has gained tremendous popularity since the opening of our first light rail line. That 15-mile north-south line, from downtown Salt Lake City to Sandy, opened in December 1999, and is now carrying some 20,000 trips per weekday, and more on Saturdays, removing 18,000 vehicle trips a day from our roads. Parked end to end, that's enough cars to stretch 51 miles.
The success of this line has made believers out of many cynics. Critics who said no one would ride light rail now must confront the fact that ridership exceeds the most optimistic projections by over 50%. Downtown business owners who bemoaned the removal of traffic lanes on Main Street and suffered through construction are now seeing increased patronage in their stores. One of the downtown malls has reported a 16 percent increase in foot traffic and a significant increase in sales since the trains began running. Roughly 15 percent of mall shoppers now arrive by train.
The success of the north-south line, and its ultimate endorsement by business owners, has helped pave the way for a 2.5-mile extension from downtown Salt Lake City to the University of Utah campus. This new extension, along with the completion of the north-south light rail line, however, would have exhausted much of UTA's operational budget, leaving no remaining funds to construct or operate the expansions envisioned by the Long Range Transit Plan. The current plan calls for light rail extensions to the Airport and several other Salt Lake County cities, expansion of bus service, and a high-speed, 100-mile regional rail line along the Wasatch Front from Brigham City to Payson.
In 1992, Salt Lake County placed on the ballot a measure to increase the tax levy to ½-cent. In the face of intense anti-transit lobbying, the measure failed at the polls by 57% to 43%. In spite of the 1992 loss, however, the recent success of TRAX, the growing frustration of drivers faced with construction delays on I-15, and the critical groundwork laid by Envision Utah seemed to suggest that the time was right to try again.
Davis and Weber Counties, both north of Salt Lake City, organized early, securing resolutions from most of their city councils and mayors to place the tax increase measure on the November ballot. Salt Lake County activists built on this momentum, and in August 2000, I obtained the signatures of 11 of the 15 Salt Lake County mayors on a letter to the Salt Lake County Commission requesting that the issue be placed on the ballot. Ultimately, the County Commission, by a 2-1 vote, agreed.
To coordinate the efforts of all three counties, representatives from each county formed a campaign committee called People for Sensible Transportation (PST). Polling commissioned by UTA before the vote showed that people in all three counties supported better public transportation, but that support for a tax increase was weakest in Salt Lake County. To ensure victory in all three counties on November 7, PST developed a campaign strategy that called for a high-profile public campaign presence, going against the advice and experience of other public transportation tax referenda proponents across the U.S. This campaign called for strong grassroots organization, high earned media exposure through press conferences and other media events, radio advertising targeted at drive-time commuters facing traffic congestion, and targeted direct mail to areas that would likely have convenient access to the proposed new light rail lines.
While PST organized volunteers and covered the valley with thousands of lawn signs, we took every opportunity to make the case for County Measure #1. Throughout the fall, we publicly emphasized the need for more balanced transportation planning, and the fact that we would be ineligible for significant federal dollars if we did not show a local commitment of revenues.
An important factor in the success of County Measure #1 was the positive support it received from a broad coalition of community, business, political, environmental, and labor organizations, and community leaders. The Salt Lake Area Chamber of Commerce, the Downtown Alliance, the Utah AFL-CIO, the Utah NAACP, the League of Women Voters, the Sierra Club, the ARC of Salt Lake, and Catholic Community Services all publicly endorsed the measure. County Measure #1 also received the support of the three major newspapers along the Wasatch Front as well as television and radio personalities.
Of course, opposition emerged to try to stop the ballot initiative from passing. Groups like the Utah Taxpayers Association attempted to scuttle support by making claims that the transit tax would disproportionately hurt low income Utahns. They argued that low income Utahns would be hit the hardest by the tax. However, our arguments that low income Utahns would benefit the most from transit improvements seem to have carried the day, thanks to important data about the high costs of auto-related transportation and its impact on low-income residents.
County Measure #1 passed in all three counties, creating a mechanism to generate $42 million per year for transit operations and local matching money. We were one of only four cities nationally that passed such a transit tax.
Besides the success of the ballot initiative, Salt Lake City's emphasis on transit development has contributed to some very positive trends for the City. In addition to the success of the TRAX system and the positive impact it has had on downtown businesses, infill and redevelopment are rapidly rejuvenating the City. Small and large transit-oriented developments are appearing throughout the City, and many are planned along the north-south light rail line. We will also be bringing 550 new housing units on line in the next year, all of which will be within two blocks of an existing light rail station, and within two blocks of what we plan to be our future Intermodal Hub, which will accommodate commuter rail, light rail, Greyhound, Amtrak, taxis, and bicycle rental. These new housing units are a reflection of the commitment of our Redevelopment Agency and Division of Housing and Neighborhood Development to transit-oriented development.
Our efforts have borne other fruit as well. Last summer, through an extensive educational campaign, we were able to convince many of the residents of Salt Lake City to oppose a massive, 1.3 million-square-foot mall, in the undeveloped outskirts of our city. The "sprawl mall," surrounded by 11,000 parking stalls, would have consumed $9 million in state highway subsidy and $14 million in local tax increment financing. At full build-out, it would have generated some 54,000 vehicle trips, and an estimated one million vehicle miles traveled per day. Under pressure from my administration and many of the residents and businesses of Salt Lake City, the City Council finally declined to act on the developers' zoning request, effectively ending the mall's prospects in Salt Lake City.
We are working hard to improve bicycle lanes throughout the City, and the reconstruction of I-15 will also bring Utah's first HOV lanes into existence.
We learned of a related success last month when the new census data became available. For the first time since the 1950s, Salt Lake City saw a "back to the city surge," growing by more than 14%. The higher density associated with this surge bodes well for increased transit use and shows that at least some city workers are realizing the quality of life benefits of living close to work. Quoted in The Salt Lake Tribune, D.J. Williams, a downtown attorney, explained why he traded his 45-mile commute from Provo for central city living last year, "It puts me close to work. Young lawyers tend to work hard, but I wanted to spend more time with my family," he said.
Spending more time with our families, having more money in our pockets to do the things we like to do, saving our citizens from the dangers of traffic and pollution, and making our communities more friendly, interactive, and inclusive is what transit is all about. The passage of our transit tax initiative shows just how many people on the Wasatch Front are realizing the power of mass transit to rejuvenate our area and provide an alternative to hours trapped in a car. We can and will break the cycle of sprawl and congestion. Given time, effort, persistence, and foresight, we can provide better options - and a better quality of life for all in our communities.