Monthly Archives: June 2013

A Critique of UTA’s Map

UTA's TRAX and FrontRunner Map as of April 2013.

UTA’s TRAX and FrontRunner Map as of April 2013.

While browsing through past blog posts by BusNinja, I remembered that I’ve been meaning to discuss the quality (or lack thereof) of UTA‘s maps.  I find it comforting that I’m not the only one who has noticed how bad UTA’s maps are.

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Peak Car and The Ultimate Absurdity in Transportation

Any way you cut it, Americans have fewer cars than they used to. Image: Michael Sivak, UMTRI

Any way you cut it, Americans have fewer cars than they used to. Image: Michael Sivak, UMTRI

Last week Tanya Snyder at Streetsblog Capitol Hill posed the question “Has America Already Hit ‘Peak Car’?”  She cites evidence from a report from Michael Sivak titled “Has Motorization in the U.S. Peaked?”  While the question of whether “peak car” has been reached in America can still be debated — I tend to believe that it has — there is plenty of evidence to support the fact that Americans are driving less.  More importantly is the why.

Well, I have an idea of why.  I believe that many Americans have come to realize “The Ultimate Absurdity in Transportation” as explained back in January by Angie Schmitt also of Streetsblog Capitol Hill.  In Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time, author Jeff Speck points out the absurdity by quoting from Ivan Illich‘s 1978 book Toward a History of Needs:

The model American male devotes more than 1,600 hours a year to his car.  He sits in it while it goes and while it stands idling.  He parks it and searches for it.  He earns the money to put down to meeting the monthly installments.  He works to pay for gasoline, tolls, insurance, taxes, and tickets.  He spends four of his waking 16 hours on the road or gathering resources for it … The model American puts in 1,600 hours to get 7,500 miles: less than five miles per hour.  In countries deprived of transportation industry, people manage to do the same, walking wherever they want to go, and they allocate only only 3 to 8 percent of their society’s budget to traffic instead of 28 percent.

When a Park is a Detriment!

I wrote the following this week as an assignment for my Introduction to New Urbanism class. The park that I refer to is Redwood Meadows Park located at 1768 W 400 N.

Balancing safety and security with accessibility and openness is critical to the revitalization of urban places.  The key to that balance is human presence.  Nothing deters crime like having pairs of eyes present to surveil the space.  Creating a space, which is easily surveilled by neighbors, patrons, or passersby, is also much cheaper than hiring security guards, putting up fences and gates, and installing security cameras.

A great example is a park, which abuts the townhomes where I live.  The park is owned by Salt Lake City and has a very odd shape—70 feet by 1,170 feet—due to the buried storm conduit that lies beneath it.  The park’s history is just as odd.  Over a third of it has been leased to my townhomes, so that the developer could add open space to the project and increase the number of townhomes.  Another third is leased to the HOA to the north for the same purpose.  The remaining third to the south is an actual public park maintained by the city.

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Dunkin’ Donuts Opens in Salt Lake City

The day many people have been waiting on finally arrived today.  Utah now has a Dunkin’ Donuts.  I shot the video above from the Library TRAX Station.  As shown in the video, cars were backed up to the end of the block, which made things difficult for cars trying to access driveways to the east.  For those not familiar with the location, it’s just north of the Salt Lake City Main Library and is a remodel of the building that formerly housed a Burger King.

Given that the parcel is zoned D-1 “Central Business District” and lies on a block corner, I’m disappointed that it will continue to be a single level building with a drive-through and surface parking lot.  It could have been a five-story (or higher) mixed-use building.  Dunkin’ Donuts could still be one of the retailers on the first floor with office space and/or apartments above.  This would have been the highest and best use given the immediate proximity of the TRAX station.

Do We Really Understand the Concept of Alternative Transportation?

A little over a year ago, I wrote the following post titled “Do We Really Understand the Concept of Alternative Transportation?” for SaltCycle:

One of Tom [Millar]’s comments from his post on yesterday’s streetcar groundbreaking has prompted me to let thoughts that have been bouncing around in my head for a while spill onto the page.  Tom observed:

“Interestingly, only a mechanic from Bicycle Center, Jonathan Springmeyer from Salt Lake Transportation Advisory Board, and me rode bicycles to the event.  Perhaps a handful more took the train or the bus down to the site.  But more than 90% of the attendees drove, filling the dusty parking lot.”

I arrived at yesterday’s groundbreaking by taking TRAX to the Central Pointe station and walking the couple blocks there.  I’m pretty sure I was the only one from that particular Blue Line train that went to the groundbreaking.  I could have also taken the 21 or the 200 and gotten even closer to the event.

Now let’s rewind six weeks, when I attended the excellent 2012 North Temple Development Conference, which was held in the Grand Hall of the Utah Fairpark.  Since the Fairpark is just a relatively straight shot down the Jordan River Parkway Trail from my home, I walked there.  But as is typical of events held at the Fairpark, the only gate that was unlocked and open was on the east side off of 1000 West.  (This is the same entrance that you use to get to the State’s Driver License office.)  I was approaching from the west side and had the option of walking all the way around to 1000 West or just jumping the fence.  I jumped the fence.  At the conference, the speakers spoke about concepts like transit oriented development, walkability, complete streets, and livable neighborhoods.  It was inspiring to hear about the great potential that my neighborhood has.  But then after the conference, I watched everyone get in their cars and drive away!

This is a disturbing trend from my point of view.  It begs the question, “do we really understand the concept of alternative transportation?”  I feel like I get it, I know Tom [Millar] gets it, and I’m sure the majority of SaltCycle readers get it, but I’m worried that many of those who are involved in transportation planning (and planning in general) just don’t get it.  I’m worried that they may be spending too much time driving around in their cars rather than walking, biking, and/or riding transit and keeping themselves exposed to the reality of alternative transportation.  I’m worried that our ability to effectively plan for transportation alternatives may be suffering, because too many of the planners haven’t made transportation alternatives a part of their own lifestyles!

I have resolved that, if I am ever placed in a position of authority over planners charged with guiding the future of transportation, I will confiscate their driver licenses for a month (or maybe longer) in order to thrust them into the reality of alternative transportation!

Fortunately there is hope, and some leaders do know how to practice what they preach.  Mayor Ralph Becker is a great example.  I’ve seen him riding his bike and also riding TRAX and FrontRunner.  But we need to make sure our planners literally “walk the walk,” if we are ever going to arrive at the future described by State Representative and Chairman of the UTA Board of Directors Greg Hughes:

“If I took away my son’s cell phone and computer and just gave him a pencil to use all day at school and at home to do homework, it just wouldn’t work.  The technology is engrained in his life and in everything he does.  In just a few years, sitting in traffic with both hands on the steering wheel will be to riding trains and using active transportation as the pencil is to the computer and cell phones.  The car just won’t be a viable option anymore.”

I had an experience this morning that caused me to reflect on what I had written a year ago.  This morning I attended a press conference by the Utah Transportation Coalition, which is a new initiative of the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce, announcing the completion of a new study showing the benefits of increasing taxes in order to pay for an $11 billion shortfall in funding Utah’s transportation needs over the next 30 years.  The basic thesis of the study is that, for every $1.00 spent on transportation infrastructure, there is a return on investment of $1.94 into Utah’s economy.

I arrived by bus on route 21.  I think I could safely assume that I was the only one to arrive by bus.  One gentleman arrived by bike.  Everyone else came in cars.  Fortunately many carpooled.  I worry that many people will continue to drive until they have no other choice.

UTA in the News

The Utah Transit Authority has been in the news a lot in the last few weeks.  Some of the news has been negative, but most of it has been positive.

The first article that I’d like to highlight is “Salt Lake City: How a Remote Red-State City Became a Transit Leader” from Angie Schmitt at Streetsblog Capitol Hill.  She did a good job highlighting the positive side of UTA’s rail expansion, and I really like how she brought up the good things that have come out of Envision Utah.

City Weekly published a critique of UTA that was barely worth the paper that it was printed on.  Katharine Biele wrote an article entitled “Money Train,” which was a huge disappointment considering the recent increase in the quality of City Weekly‘s articles.  I wrote “City Weekly’s Attack on UTA” in response.  The sad thing is that the article did highlight some of the questionable things that UTA has done lately, for example, the land deals involving the Draper FrontRunner Station.  However, the sources cited by the author in her critique of UTA causes the article to loose any credibility that it might have had.

Just this week, there was some reporting on UTA’s ridership.  Lee Davidson at the Salt Lake Tribune wrote “Despite UTA’s big expansion, ridership drops.”  (He also got my name wrong in an article last summer.) The Tribune, like many other news outlets, has a habit of publishing sensational headlines to attract readers when the news is on the slow side.  Unfortunately UTA is often a target when the news is slow.  It’s sad that the Tribune chooses to do that, since it causes Utah’s best newspaper to loose a lot of credibility.  UTA countered the Tribune article by publishing “Ridership on UTA is healthy, but changing as new rail lines open” on their blog.

Finally, I was pleasantly surprised yesterday to wake up to an article on the New York Timestransit blog about Salt Lake City.  In “New Ways to Get Around Salt Lake City” not only was the new TRAX line linking the airport highlighted but also our bike share, GreenBikeSLC!  They also made mention of our new streetcar line opening later this year.

Ecological Subsidies: Why do we shit in our clean water?


Today was the last day of class in my Green Communities class. A fellow student mentioned that the average American household uses nearly 200 gallons of water per day, while the average African household uses a mere 5 gallons of water per day. Our professor followed that up by showing us the meme shown above.

In the developed world, it’s pretty much a given that culinary water is used to flush toilets, and we’ve been doing it for so long that few dare question why. The reality is that there’s really no reason to use culinary water to flush toilets. Rainwater collected from roofs would do just fine as would graywater–the wastewater from our showers and from our washing machines.

So, why do we shit in our clean water???

Subsidies — typically economic subsidies — are a concept familiar to most. Society decides that something worthwhile–something typically not economically viable on its own–needs some encouragement, which usually comes in the form of economic support from the general tax fund. Prior to taking the Green Communities class, I had never considered applying the concept of subsidies to an ecological system. Hence, an ecological subsidy occurs when a resource is imported in order to support human civilization, where it wouldn’t otherwise be viable. Ecological subsidies aren’t anything new. The human race has been engaging in them for millennia. However, it becomes a crisis, when the ecological subsidies become extreme, such as can be observed with water and energy in the developed world. Los Angeles’ thirst for water is the perfect example. Years ago this thirst drove them to rape the Owens Valley in their quest of obtaining new sources of water. The irony is that much of the thirst could have been quenched using conservation techniques, such as reusing graywater.

Another downside of extreme ecological subsidies is that the price we typically pay for consuming them rarely includes the overall cost borne by the whole. Since the consumer is unaware of the true cost, there is no incentive for conservation. If the consumer were paying the true cost, far fewer people would be using culinary water to flush their toilets. Strong Towns, which is run by Charles Marohn (whom I met at CNU 21), makes a compelling argument that one source of our national debt is from borrowing money in order to support our addiction to ecological subsidies.

Unfortunately, I have no clue how much water my household consumes. I own a townhome in a 92-unit development, where it was cheaper for the developer to install one commercial water meter than 92 residential meters. Water, along with sewer and trash collection, is paid for as part of the homeowners association dues, which doesn’t give much of an incentive for water conservation. In fact, it’s been a decade, since the last time I lived in a single-family home, where the household’s water was metered. Ensuring that future construction includes individual water meters for each household would be a great step towards encouraging water conservation.

My Daily Commute

With the recent addition of GreenBikeSLC and the opening of the Airport TRAX line, I have an interesting and enjoyable way of making my commute.  From my home to the University of Utah is about six miles:

Walk: I start off walking from home to the Power TRAX Station.  I allow myself 15 minutes, but I can make it in a bit less.

TRAX Green Line:  I ride the Green Line from Power Station to Arena Station.  The ride takes 11 minutes.

Walk:  It is about a half block walk from the Arena TRAX Station to the GreenBikeSLC Fidelity Station @ The Gateway.  The walk takes about 3 minutes.

GreenBikeSLC:  I ride the GreenBike from the Fidelity Station @ The Gateway to the Tour of Utah Station.  The ride takes about 11 minutes.

Walk:  It is about a half block walk from the GreenBikeSLC Tour of Utah Station to the Library TRAX Station.  The walk takes about 3 minutes.

TRAX Red Line:  I ride the Red Line from Library Station to Stadium Station.  The ride takes 8 minutes.

Walk:  I finish up by walking from the Stadium TRAX Station to campus.  It usually takes about 8 minutes to reach the Marriott Library.

It’s usually a hour from the time I walk out my door at home until I walk through the doors of the library.  Of course I could drive, which only takes about 20 minutes (when there’s no traffic), but that doesn’t include the time I would spend trying to locate a parking spot once I got to the U.  It also doesn’t include the exercise I get from walking and biking and doesn’t include the time spent “people watching” on TRAX.

Also, it’s worth noting that due to the 10-minute wait transferring from the Green Line to the Red Line at the Courthouse Station, my ride on the GreenBike doesn’t add any additional time to my commute as opposed to riding TRAX the entire way!