Making Government Work

Why Salt Lake City May Become the New Leader in Public Transportation

March 27, 2014
by
Menu
Why Salt Lake City May Become the New Leader in Public Transportation
A TRAX train in downtown Salt Lake City. Garrett/County Lemonade
One woman is the driving force behind a boom in transit efficiency in Utah's capital.

Salt Lake City seems like an unlikely candidate to be a pro-public transportation city. Cars are king in the capital of Utah, where city blocks are long and streets are an unusually wide 132 feet — a measurement Brigham Young allegedly described as enough room to turn a wagon team without “resorting to profanity.” With much of the majority-Mormon city shutting down on Sundays, pedestrians struggle to transverse the Rocky Mountain-backed landscape.

Which is why Robin Hutcheson, a new executive-board member of the National Association of City Transportation Officials, is becoming something of a Salt Lake City rock star: She’s instrumental in diversifying transportation options in the metropolitan area of 1.2 million to include bike lanes and a commuter rail line. And the measures she’s taking could provide a crucial blueprint for other urban centers. 

Atlantic Cities profiled how Hutcheson is harnessing Salt Lake City’s increasing friendliness to public transportation. She’s been head of the transportation planning division of Salt Lake City since 2011, and is a biker, runner, and all-around public-transit devotee. With the help of state and city investments into public transportation, more pedestrian-friendly streets, and business and church cooperation, Salt Lake City has self-adapted to the idea of reducing reliance on cars.

The reason doesn’t just lie in ease of movement, it’s about the environment, too. Salt Lake City suffers from visible smog, and has been named one of the ten worst cities in the U.S. for short-term particulate pollution by the American Lung Association. “As the air-quality issue has risen in the public eye, people are accepting that we need to do more than just say we’re going to do better,” Mayor Ralph Becker told Atlantic Cities. “It’s about people being able to move around in their city without having to use their car. How do we get from where we are today to having a city where people easily get around, can drive if they wish, but that isn’t their only or necessarily their best option?”

Enter Hutcheson. Her initiatives include a new low-cost transit card called the Hive Pass that allows holders unlimited access to buses, light rail within the city, and commuter trains for only $360 a year. Others, like the rail line connecting Salt Lake to Provo that opened in December 2012, caused public transit ridership in Utah to rise an astonishing 103 percent. TRAX, the city’s light rail system, saw its ridership increase 6.8 percent last year and a current plan calls for two more lines to open by 2015.

Meanwhile, Hutcheson and her team have also been working hard to make Salt Lake a more welcoming city for people on bicycles and on foot. Last December, a streetcar line with a walking and biking trail alongside it opened in the rapidly-developing Sugarhouse neighborhood. The city also has a seasonal bike-share and are designating new bike lanes in town. Salt Lake has been granted a budget for bike and pedestrian capital improvements that will be about $3.5 million for 2014-2105, a marked increase from just under $500,000 in 2009.

With Hutcheson making a positive imprint all over Salt Lake City, so is her city’s chapter of the Women’s Transportation Seminar (WTS), which she founded. The organization itself was established in 1977 for the professional advancement of women throughout the transportation industry — from road engineers to airline pilots. Her perspective on public transit is partially shaped by WTS, which believes that women have an unmatched lens into what commuters need. For instance, they have an acute sense of the dangers of a long wait at a dark bus stop, or traffic patterns when driving children back and forth between activities.

With or without her WTS foundation, one thing is for certain: Hutcheson’s work in Salt Lake City is likely to have reverberations in cities across the country.

Comments