Editorial: Now is the time for more complete streets

Building Salt Lake has covered intensively the vibrancy gaps in Salt Lake City.  Vibrancy is important because it encourages people to get out of their cars and engage with their urban environment.  Vibrant cities are human-focused, not car-focused, with human-scale design and complete streets that accommodate people, bikes, cars and transit.  Fewer cars on the street means better air quality.  More feet and bicycles on the street means healthier communities.

But for the past two years, Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski has made people-focused infrastructure planning a low priority and has even taken regressive steps that prioritize cars instead of making our city friendlier to cyclists and pedestrians.

While the recent adoption of the Transit Master Plan is a step forward, it only addresses one of many solutions to reducing car dependency. The previous administration and past city councils have embraced walkability and vibrancy through adopting form-based codes, Transit Station Area zoning and the Pedestrian and Bicycle Master Plan.

On Wednesday the Mayor gave her 2018 State of the City Address, focusing on job creation, affordable housing, air quality, needed infrastructure repairs and expanding transit.

These are important issues to any healthy city, but the Mayor only mentioned cyclists and pedestrians just once when she promised that infrastructure repairs will “make our streets better for drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians.”  But this reference is to “repairs” not enhancements.  In previous years, Salt Lake received national attention for its bold steps toward converting traditional car-centered streets into complete streets that are safe for everyone.

The Mayor has spent the past two years touting a strong environmental record, but Salt Lake City can’t be a leader in sustainability while ignoring it’s Pedestrian and Bicycle Master Plan, that if better implemented would encourage the alternative modes of transportation that have real impacts on air quality.

The only bike lanes created or announced in the past two years were lanes that were already in the planning stages under previous leadership.  Even then, many of the lanes were altered before construction to utilize a more traditional bike lane design, where the lane separates parked and moving vehicles, that has been deemed by experts and the city’s own master plan as the least safe for cyclists.

The 300 South extension goes from a protected bike lane, or cycle track, to a traditional bike lane and new bike lanes on 900 West provide limited visual distinction between bike and car lanes, with most of the corridor using the conventional bike lane design.  Additionally, over the summer the Mayor pulled the plug on a complete streets study for 2100 South before the public comment period had ended after some residents pushed back at the idea of installing a bike lane on the busy corridor.

The Mayor and City Council are exploring renewing $87 million in bonds and enacting a previously-approved sales tax increase that would raise the sales tax by five cents for every $10.  The funds would go toward expanding transit access and making needed infrastructure upgrades.  But with 64 percent of the city’s roads in need of critical repairs, now is the best time to be exploring the redesign of these streets.  Increasing the city’s number of protected and buffered bike lanes, while simultaneously making the needed street repairs is the most cost-effective way to ensure the city meets its goal of 220 miles of bikeways by 2035.

“For the first time, Salt Lake City has a robust transit master plan, a housing plan and an in-depth understanding of our infrastructure needs,” said Mayor Biskupski in a statement. “With all of this in place, now is the time for us to fully invest in the future of Salt Lake City.”

The Mayor is right, now is the time to fully invest in our city’s future and more complete streets and an expanded bikeway network are just as central to a healthy and vibrant city as a reliable transit system and affordable housing.

In selecting Jon Larsen as her Transportation Director, the Mayor has someone on her team that understands complete streets and their impact on vibrancy and air quality.

“My hope for the coming months and years is to see the growing “great streets” revolution take off, where we work together to create streets that are beautiful and safe, designed around the needs of humans first,” tweeted Larsen in January.

But even with his expertise, it is the Mayor who gives final approval on any future infrastructure upgrades and if she is sincere in her vision of making Salt Lake a truly sustainable city, the city’s priority must be on people-focused streets that are designed for everyone, not just cars.

Posted by Isaac Riddle

Isaac Riddle grew up just outside of Salt Lake City, Utah. He has a BA in English literature from the University of Utah and a Masters of Journalism from Temple University. Isaac has written for Next City, The Philadelphia Public School Notebook and Salt Lake City Weekly. Before embarking on a career in journalism, Isaac taught High School English in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia. Isaac is the founder of Building Salt Lake and can be reached at isaac@buildingsaltlake.com.