Our City + State

Transportation 101 in the 801

8/1/2014 |
Renata Stone, Jess Downer, Kerri Fukui

When Mayor Ralph Becker campaigned for office, he pounded the pavement the old fashioned way, going door-to-door on foot or by bike. One issue kept coming up, and it’s really stuck with him: almost two-thirds of SLC residents said that they’d love to ride their bicycles farther and more often, but didn’t feel safe doing so on city streets. Since his election, Mayor Becker has made transportation alternatives a cornerstone of his administration, improving the day-to-day safety and access for folks on foot and on bikes. But he’s also responding to the urgent and immediate threat of compromised air quality in the Salt Lake Valley. He, along with City officials are pushing for change at the state level to put pressure on industrial polluters. However, that’s only part of the story. Over half of the emissions that contribute to our crappy air come from tailpipes [yup, 57%], and that is something that anyone with a driver’s license can take a moment to look in the proverbial rear-view mirror and do a little self-awareness check. It’s a problem that can’t be isolated to just the city and its residents: it affects lives all along the Wasatch Front. Becker points to a recent Envision Utah survey that asked residents about their willingness to actively address air quality, noting that a solid “99% of Utahns said they would be willing to ‘change their behavior to improve our air quality and keep us healthy.’” 

So, putting aside that 1% of Utah asshats who can’t be bothered, what about our own lifestyle choices on the daily? Positive and real change is happening people, and we are thrilled to our COLLECTIVE toes—appropriately shod for long walks and bike commutes, of course— to preach it far and wide, with all the specifics [see below for a handy-dandy resource guide]. The folks in charge over at the lovely City & County building aren’t just talkin’ the talk, either. They’re taking serious steps to provide more and better options than putting one butt behind the wheel of one car for the standard commute. SLC Transportation Director Robin Hutcheson said it loud and proud, “there’s an environmental and air quality imperative” driving the need to change our modes of transportation, “and we need to take some personal responsibility for that.” And considering that the downtown population doubles, yes doubles, on weekdays during business hours, it’s not an insignificant piece of the commuter transportation puzzle. It’s her personal and professional mission to improve air quality and to change the single occupancy vehicle from being a perceived necessity to just one other option among many. But as serious as she is about making transportation options easy and accessible, she’s also realistic. They’ve gotta be clean, convenient, efficient, and affordable to attract customers and keep current users happy, and people need to have reliable access in their neighborhoods to the transportation network. Says Hutcheson, “we’ve got to make it work for everyone, from age eight to eighty” no matter where they live. Recent zoning and city planning changes are also promoting city infill, which puts more people closer to transit. Win-win.

Frankly, the assumption that SLC is and will be a “car community” is so last century.

People move to the Salt Lake Valley from all over the world, often coming from cities where driving and/or owning a car was optional or just a huge pain in the ass. Others, like the large numbers of refugees making new lives in our Salty City either don’t know how to drive or can’t afford a car. Communities with great public transportation attract and keep talented folks who want or need accessible mobility to accommodate sight impairment, wheelchairs, etc. Access to affordable public transportation isn’t just a hipster Millennialist demand; quite seriously y’all, it’s a crucial socio-economic and generational equalizer that’s important for any progressive community to thrive. Says cityhomeCOLLECTIVE founder, Cody Derrick, “it’s not just younger people looking for their first home in a walkable neighborhood who value safe biking and transportation alternatives. There are lots of empty-nesters who want to downsize from their big home outside the city and move to a smaller but no less luxurious space with all the cultural energy and convenience downtown offers.” [P.S.: we’ll totally help you make that happen, call Jenny and set up an appointment.]

We’re getting there. 

TRAX lines to the airport and the Sugar House Streetcar Project have made getting out of the car and into mass transit easier than ever before. The newly released HIVEpass allows city residents to buy an annual transit pass for $30 a month, covering unlimited rides on TRAX, FrontRunner, UTA buses and the S-line.  Crazy cheap, and convenient to boot. The push for alternative transportation expansion is working, and then some. Since 2012, public transit ridership has increased 103% and is steadily rising. For people preferring to move under their own power, check out the wildly popular GREENbike cycle sharing program. Program Director Ben Bolte wants to make bike riding in our city a convenient and fun option, without folks having to worry about maintaining their own bike or it getting stolen. And yes, it’s super fun. The number of GREENbike distribution kiosks downtown doubled in July, with more in the works. And Mayor Becker’s bike-friendly platform has gotten some real traction with big results: the number of designated bike lanes has doubled, trails for pedestrians and cyclists are being built all over the city, and new “protected” bike routes are in the works. Organizations like the Downtown Alliance are providing terrific electronic resources for residents and visitors alike to get more out of their city experience [this author's personal favorite: the interactive Bar & Restaurant map, complete with necessary transportation links. Cheers to that!]

There are plenty of times when it’s convenient or crucial to have someone else do the driving. The convergence of technology and consumer demand has brought Transportation Networking Companies [TNC’s] like Lyft and Uber ‘a knocking at SLC’s door, and city officials are diligently at work streamlining these freelancers safely into the vehicular community. Fer example, those ubiquitous pink mustachio-ed Lyft cars are popping up all over our fair city, and with good reason: it’s dead easy and convenient to use. Lyft driver and hilarious person, Angie Palmer, acknowledges that Lyft serves a lot of people who by pre-planning or unintentional overindulgence wisely choose to order a car rather than drive their own rig home from the bar, saying “yeah, we take care of the party people.” But, she says that being a Lyft driver has also introduced her to lots of people who use the service because they can’t drive, “I have quite a few blind clients, and elderly people out running errands or going to doctors appointments. They love the service.” Also, the existing taxi cab contracts with the city expire this fall, and according to the Mayor’s chief of staff David Everitt, this makes for the perfect opportunity to make some positive shifts in reducing both the kinds of vehicles on the road and the emissions they produce: new cab company contracts will require that city taxis be low emission vehicles. Boo-yah. All in all, things are getting easier and breezier for those days when you’re up for ditching the car, or maybe considering downsizing to one car per family. Read on for the up and coming, then peruse the photos wherein we took a cool and breezy bike ride with Mayor Becker. No big deal.

HIVEpass -- It’s the first resident transit program of it’s kind in the entire nation, y’all, and it’s happening here in the 801: city residents can purchase an annual public transit pass [yup- that includes Frontrunner, TRAX and UTA buses, and the Sugar House Streetcar] that costs less than $1 per day. Even if you only use it as few as six times per month, it pays for itself. That, friends, is the definition of a screamin’ deal. The HIVEpass works for one year from the first use “swipe,” and can be purchased for a discounted one-time $350 fee. Talk about easy peasy, you can choose to have it automatically charged to your city utility bill prorated at just $30 monthly [$360 for the year]. Doesn’t get much more convenient than that, folks. Gotta get on it soon, though: purchase before the promotion window closes at the end of August or you’ll be SOL.

GREENbike -- You’ve seen ‘em all over downtown, right? Spiffy bright green cruisers with sturdy baskets, chain guards [yup, we rode ‘em wearing a skirt and wedge heels, no problem], all fanatically maintained by a staff of bike wizards and ready to go at your convenience. It’s a bike sharing 501(c)3 non-profit organization & public/private partnership between Salt Lake City, The Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce and the Salt Lake City Downtown Alliance. This isn’t a bike rental, like you’d line up for the day while on vacation and tote it everywhere; it’s more of a bike lending library, specifically geared for quick trips downtown. Buy a one-time 24 hour pass at any bike share kiosk to get your fine ass from Point A to Point B on the fly. For the convenience factor alone just order yourself the annual pass online to get an unlimited number of 60 minute rides. Here’s the deal-i-o: pick up a bike from any station [there are dozens all over town] cruise to your next errand or venue, and then return the bike to dock at any other station in the network. Kiosks are open 24/7, and generally operate from early spring until we get serious snow. Perfect for those quick trips downhill or downtown. Or both. The free "B-cycle Now" mobile app shows how many bikes and docks are available at every station in real time, people. Niiice.

Cycling the SLC -- Packs of lycra-clad toe-clipped cyclists swarm all over the city and up the canyons looking for a great workout, physical challenge, and insane views that make the Wasatch justly famous. But cyclists of all ages, abilities, and speeds ride the streets and trails of our fair city on the daily. For commuters and recreationalists alike, the BikeSLC site has maps of the city’s designated bike lanes and paved trails. Projects like the Jordan River Boardwalk and Legacy Trail Connection are linking up established routes with improved access. New trails are in the works, like the Parley’s Corridor and Sugar House Greenway. Also, downtown cyclists will start seeing protected bike lanes soon: in this bit of design genius, bike lanes are created next to the sidewalk/strip on the roadway, and vehicle parking is moved out several feet from the curb, usually at a 45 degree angle. The parking spaces create a buffer between moving traffic and bicyclists, and at the same time keep cyclists safe from being backed into or broadsided by random car door openings. Hallelujah. Learn more here, and look for these wicked convenient and beautifully landscaped lanes opening soon on 300 South from Pioneer Park [300 W] to 600 East, and under construction on 200 West from North Temple to 900 South later this year.

Utah Transit Authority --Did y’all know that the American Public Transportation Association voted UTA “Outstanding Public Transportation System of the Year” in 2014? Nice work, folks [although we’d personally like to see more routes running on weekends and at night...just sayin’]. The network includes TRAX light rail, buses linking six Utah counties, ParaTransit, the Park City-SLC Connect, and the ever popular Ski Buses rumbling up and down Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons all season long. Need help figuring out how to get from where you are to where you need to be? Check this out.

Transportation Networking Companies — The two major TNC’s, Lyft and Uber, are currently on the streets of SLC, although the city is still negotiating with them about registration, credentials, and safety. Uber Black car drivers already have chauffeur licenses, so can operate in the city under current laws. The individual companies have their own apps, client credit card procedures, and driver registration processes. It’s a fun and easy option for car trips around town, any time of the day or night. Just click the app on your computer or smartphone, and you can see which drivers are available near you. Tap the car icons and see who the driver is and what kind of car they’re toolin’ around in, then tap again to confirm you need a ride. Anecdotally, most Salt Lakers have a car arrive in less than five minutes. Fist bump your driver [that’d be a Lyft thing], and keep on keepin’ on. In addition to a safe ride and zippy conversation, most drivers also provide treats—my fave: Starbursts—and puke bags. Fair warning: it’s an automatic $100 clean-up fee if you miss the bag. Need to take Fido or Fluffy with you? Ask your driver in advance if they will take your four-legged friend(s) along, too [most will, but it’s nice to ask first]. For both Lyft and Uber drivers, your fee is calculated in advance using GPS positioning, and at the end of the ride you just click on your phone to complete the charge [including tips at your discretion] using your pre-registered credit card. It’s a completely cash-free system, which is really fantastic, as we see it.

These boots were made for walkin-- When was the last time you saw a wagon team needing to make a U-turn downtown? Yeah, me neither. But the legacy of those wide streets decreed by Brigham Young to facilitate just that event can make it feel like a real live Frogger game crossing our downtown streets on foot. City planners are all over this navigation challenge like honey on scones, designing new and better mid-block crosswalks and improved signage to give car drivers the heads-up on pedestrian right-of-ways. In addition to providing safe passage for cyclists, protected bike/pedestrian lanes [info, above] and trails currently under construction prioritize pedestrian access and safety downtown and throughout the city. Projects like the Jordan River Boardwalk, Sugar House Greenway and Parley’s Trail are making already popular areas both more beautiful and more navigable to boot.

When only your car will doBreatheUTAH and their bevy of scientists are nailing it on the regular for our benefit and enlightenment. Check ‘em out if you want to know more about Utah Air quality issues and what you can do on the road and at home to make a difference. Simple and easy stuff, really. Combine all your errands into one trip. Share rides with a friend. Pick up hitch-hikers in Big Cottonwood Canyon [okay, they don’t say to do that. But really, give the smiling gal with the tele skis a lift, eh?] Remember that just the first start of the day with a cold engine creates the most emissions; if you’re driving a vehicle made in this century there’s no legit reason to idle. I’m looking at you, my fellow parents at school pick up. And on red air days, leave the bitchin’ vintage Camaro in the garage and drive your newest car. Wanna know more about what communities all along the Wasatch Front are doing to figure this shit out? Check out The Mountain Accord for links about air quality, transportation, economic impacts, recreation use and infrastructure, and long-range planning for our mountain communities.

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