The Tribune’s Lee Davidson reported yesterday that planners are encouraging cities to build denser, more concentrated developments around public transportation. That’s positive news and should result in significantly better cities along the Wasatch Front.
But reading the article, I couldn’t help wondering if we’re still slightly missing the point. While commuter rail and transit hubs are wonderful, they tend to focus on reducing car use for longer trips — going from city to city, for example — while ignoring more common short trips people make while driving around town.
Take Daybreak, for example, the sparkling new suburb in south Salt Lake County that I’ve criticized several times in recent posts. Daybreak gets a lot of things right. There’s rail linking it to Salt Lake City, much higher density than most suburbs, and a stated interest in sustainability. In many ways it’s a great place.
The problem, however, is that planners in Daybreak — as well as nearly everywhere else in Utah — have seemingly ignored shorter trips. With sprawling neighborhoods, few mixed use buildings housing necessities like grocery stores, and a few big arterial (st)roads, users still have to get around by car. Sure, those car trips may be shorter than in traditional suburbs, but they’re still happening and current rail doesn’t change that fact. In fact in most Utah cities, people have to drive to get to public transit in the first place.
And unfortunately, people tend to drive around town a lot more than they drive to neighboring cities. Figures vary depending on who collects them, but according to GOOD, “nearly 70 percent of American’s car trips are less than two miles long.” Smart Growth America and the Sierra Club are both a bit more conservative, saying that nearly 50 percent of car trips are three miles long or less.
No matter how we slice it though, we tend to make a lot of really short trips around town in our cars. We drive to the store, to drop kids off at school, or to restaurants. And unfortunately, new rail systems — in Daybreak, Provo or elsewhere — are unlikely to change that.
The oddest thing about this whole situation is that building commuter rail systems is really expensive. It requires leveling land, building bridges, and laying hundreds of miles of track.
By contrast, allowing developers to build infill in existing neighborhoods, then adding a bus line here or there to serve the resulting density, barely costs the public anything at all. In other words, we’re chasing more expensive, government funded options while ignoring the cheaper, more effective, and privately funded options that have been available all along.
The point is that much of the attention on transit in Utah right now focuses exclusively on replacing long car trips with long train trips. That’s great, but we also need to look at replacing short car trips with short walks, bike rides, or bus trips. Ultimately, without a decent intra-city public transit system, as well as the density and walkability to support it, building commuter rail is like trying to bake bread without yeast: it just won’t rise.