There is a dissonance between actual distance traveled on any particular trip and the distance we feel we travel. I experience this phenomenon actuly when driving between St. George and Las Vegas, for example, or between Provo and Nephi. In both cases the distance isn’t great, but the surrounding environment seems to amplify the duration of the trip.
The point is that sometimes distances feel longer or short than they actually are. And though I mention driving above, landscape, geography and the built environment create this sort of perceptual warping when we’re on foot too. Again, to illustrate from my own experience, I live roughly equidistant from two grocery stores: Smith’s and Allen’s. I always walk to Smith’s, however, because it feels closer.
Though I haven’t read it yet — I’ve been limited to reading material influenced by it — this topic was tackled somewhat in Kevin Lynch‘s The Image of the City. (It’s near the top of my ever growing urban book list.) For the purpose of this post however, suffice it to say that the perception of urban landscapes plays a major role in how we navigate them. This slate article also touches on the way perception — in this case as dictated by signs — influences the way we move and the way chose what kind of transit to use.
This interaction between perception and distance plays a major role in how we think of Provo, and how we design a system that encourages convenient, healthy and sustainable intra-city travel. But what does it have to do specifically with public transit and the (already-constructed-but-still-awaiting-service) Frontrunner station (aka, the intermodal hub)?
To be blunt, it means the Frontrunner station is already plagued by some significant problems. For starters, the station is located in about as rough an area as the city has, around 600 South and Freedom. It’s surrounded by what seems to be a derelict industrial zone, which is then buffered by a sleezy, pawnshop-ridden commercial sector. I don’t imagine that travelers from northern Utah County or Salt Lake County will find the setting particularly inviting.
More importantly, however, the station feels far from everything. According to Google Maps, it’s 0.7 miles from the Towne Center Mall, and half a mile from Center Street. That’s easily within walking distance.
But will anyone walk? The truth is that those distances feel much longer. I’ve walked them and in my experience the environment a pedestrian passes through ranges from ugly to boring to downright sketchy. At night, some of those areas definitely don’t feel safe. (On a side note, the last time Laura and I walked down to the current train “station” in that same area, we were the only people around until we were approached by a guy who looked like a meth addict and who we think was probably trying to sell us drugs.)
Still more significantly, a pedestrian hoping to walk from the Frontrunner station to anywhere else in the city will have to pass through what Kevin Lynch described as “districts” — in this case commercial, industrial, and residential districts — before reaching Center Street to the north or the Mall to the south. A traveler also would have to pass through Lynchian “edges,” such as the arterial 300 South, which will greatly expand the perceived distance.
None of this is to say that I’m opposed to commuter rail in Provo. I’m overwhelming in favor of it, actually. I’m also well aware that there are serious plans afoot to revitalize the area surrounding the station, and that the station itself is expected to help facilitate that very process (I’ll tackle these topics in subsequent posts). But that doesn’t change the fact that right now, the location of the Frontrunner station/intermodal hub is terrible. The first step to changing that fact, of course, is acknowledging it.