Salt Lake City: How a Remote Red-State City Became a Transit Leader

Salt Lake City's transit system is the envy of cities five times its size, and it's all because planners listened to what the public wanted. Image: ## Growth America##

It’s number one in the nation in per-capita transit spending. The only city in the country building light rail, bus rapid transit, streetcars and commuter rail at the same time. And that city — Salt Lake City — is a town of just over 180,000 in a remote setting in a red state.

It’s a remarkable story that began in the 1990s, when an organization called Envision Utah facilitated a regional visioning process and created a plan that has been recognized as one of the most promising smart growth models in the nation.

There’s a lesson here for other cities. In 1997, leaders in a 10-county region centered on Salt Lake County set out to see what people valued about where they lived. They designed a plan around those values, with a communications campaign to support it. At that time, the state was expected to grow by a million people by 2020. Rather than cede that growth to meandering sprawl, the region chose something more orderly and compact.

“At that point, to many Utahns, ‘smart growth’ was not a popular word,” said Robert Grow, Envision Utah’s president and CEO. “We made people some promises. We’d save a lot of time, money, lower emissions, improve air quality, develop more housing choices, and build a transportation system with greater efficiency.”

The organization interviewed 150 key stakeholders — elected officials, activists, heads of major institutions. And they surveyed some 20,000 Utahns about their hopes and wishes. Leaders even engaged in an effort at “value mapping,” to get a sense for local priorities and deeply held beliefs as they related to land use and transportation.

Project leaders discovered Utahns liked the idea of transit more than they expected. The Envision Utah effort began shortly after the first light rail track was laid in the city, which had been controversial. But polling showed 88 percent of residents favored expanding the system.

“There wasn’t much energy to go beyond that [first line] until this public effort about how we could build a real system,” Grow said at a session at the Congress for New Urbanism conference, held last week in Salt Lake City.

As a result of the feedback, planners added 300 miles of light rail to regional plans and began assembling the right-of-way. Now 70 percent of the region’s population lives within three miles of a light rail stop. A recent study found the Salt Lake City transit system offers better job access than that of any other city in the country. Regional leaders also point to studies that show local economic growth has been more equitable than elsewhere in the U.S., with gains across many income levels. The region even exceeded federal air quality standards. (Although stricter standards have since knocked the area back out of attainment, leaders like Grow say it will soon meet them.)

Once Salt Lake City leaders knew what people wanted, they embarked on a public relations campaign. Dee Allsop of the communications firm Heart and Mind Strategies led the effort.

“How is it that the most conservative state… how is it they’re one of the most progressive in the country on transit?” said Allsop. “It’s because the case was made in a way that fit with people’s values.”

The values they settled on were to have a city that was “beautiful, prosperous and neighborly.” This spot is an example of Envision Utah messaging.

The land use plan developed by Envision Utah was voluntary, with no way to enforce recommendations — but it seems to have done the trick. The group was able to show that density had a $15 billion public infrastructure benefit over sprawling growth. That spoke loudly to state and local leaders, Grow and Allsop say. Smart growth principles were also the most fiscally responsible.

“To be sustainable,” Allsop said, “a region must satisfy the values, hope and dreams of present and future residents.”

29 thoughts on Salt Lake City: How a Remote Red-State City Became a Transit Leader

  1. It’s slightly misleading to say that Salt Lake is a city of 180,000. The metropolitan area has 1.1 million people, and the larger conglomeration of the three metropolitan areas of which Salt Lake City is the center contains around 2.3 million inhabitants.

  2. I just looked up the borders of the city, and they are quite strange. It ends somewhere between 2100 S and 3000 S depending how far east you go, and the light rail goes far south of there. That said, having been there most of the week I can say that it definitely feels like a small city most of the time–after 6pm more than half the businesses downtown are closed and there’s almost no one on the streets. It’s very odd in a downtown that’s been built up so much.

  3. I lived in Salt Lake City for nearly 20 years, and I can tell you first hand that the public transit system is a spectacular model of success and urban planning. Even when I lived nearly 19 miles outside of downtown, I could drive to the end of the light rail line (3 miles) and commute inexpensively and very conveniently. In the winter, my travel time was often shorter than if I’d driven myself on I-15.

    There are a couple details that need to be clarified in this story however. First, as mentioned by other posters, the metro Salt Lake area is roughly 1.2 million people, with a staggering 16% growth rate. This casts a much different picture than “a remote setting in a red state” with 180,000 people.

    Second, much of the unrelenting effort to bring in light rail, expanded bus service and the other public transportation upgrades came from the mayors of Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County. Salt Lake City has had a Democrat for mayor since 1976. Their mayor from 2000-2008 (Ross “Rocky” Anderson) went on to mount a third-party presidential run and is recognized as a global authority on both environmental issues and human rights. Salt Lake County has been slightly more balanced, having had a Democrat as mayor for the last 9 years, and a Republican for the first 4 years after they converted from a county council model to a mayoral model.

    Without doing an exhaustive deconstruction of the region’s history with regard to public transportation, I can agree that it is a national leader, and a role model, for many other communities to follow, both small and large, in part due to Envision Utah. Beyond that, though, the premises of the article are far off base.

  4. I would note, however, that their hours of service are not particularly good. The light rail and buses stop running at 7 pm sunday– even the light rail to the airport!

  5. It’s interesting. Usually you have to go to Germany or elsewhere in Europe to find demonstrations of the fact that rail is a very economical mode even for medium-small cities.

  6. Utah has 300 miles of light rail? Where did you get that figure from? The Utah TRAX light rail system is only 45 miles in length not 300. I don’t see what’s so special about that. Living within 3 miles of a light rail stop is nothing to brag about either. Even if you’re just one mile from a stop still makes it too far away to be of any practical use for you.

  7. “added 300 miles of light rail to the plan” It’s from a presentation by Grow and Allsop.

  8. I suspect the success of Envision Utah has much to do with the unusual (for the U.S.) homogeneity of the population in the Salt Lake City region, not to mention the influence of a shared religion. This probably made it a lot easier for everyone to get behind a common vision than in the more socially fragmented cities and states in which most of us live.

  9. Well most people out on the streets downtown aren’t drinking, and even if all of them were, I’d expect half as many people. There is basically NO ONE out after 6, and clearly there’s not much demand for it at this point since many businesses are closed. I suspect a big part of the explanation is the lack of housing in downtown.

  10. Topography, lighter development and the city’s unusually(mistakenly) large city blocks facilitate new transportation infrastructures more easily & cheaply than other traditional cities.

  11. “The Envision Utah effort began shortly after the first light rail track was laid in the city, which had been controversial. But polling showed 88 percent of residents favored expanding the system.”

    My crystal ball says that people will soon be writing this exact same sort of thing about bike share in New York.

  12. Equally important are the nasty smog-trapping inversions that hit in the winter months. Air quality is routinely horrid throughout the metropolitan area. It’s easier to get people (even conservatives) on board with transit when you can point to the thick, brown air, increased incidents of respiratory illness, and <.5 mile visibility and say, "that's what happens when driving is everyone's only option"

  13. I’m not sure how you think Salt Lake City is “the only city” building light rail, commuter rail, bus rapid transit and street car systems. Did you check Seattle? The RapidRide buses are expanding, the Sounder commuter rail is adding more trains after a new extension to the south line, The third street car line is under construction, and the light rail north subway is under construction. Check it out!

  14. I live in sandy,

    And I can say the light rail is ok, but the bus system sucks. No buses on the weekends, Last bus is at 7.30pm and they have an 1 hour frequency.

    Keep in mind at 2.50 its also expensive.

    They keep claiming its so great. I don’t see it. It car centric hell

  15. add to all this the fact that SLC is experiencing smog and temp inversions as does any large metro in a basin and you have another major incentive for the populace to embrace mass transit.

  16. It’s interesting how it doesn’t mention how the Utah Transit Authority CEO makes 3 times what the Utah governor makes, and nearly as much as the President of the United States.

    That money is coming straight from taxpayers into his pocket. UTA spends more, and not in a responsible way. They also don’t mention that their bus fares are constantly going up. It used to cost .25 to ride the bus, and that was only 15 years ago. Sure it was on an older bus, but it went everywhere I needed it to go, and I was never stranded, so I could care less about whether or not the bus was new or not. Now the fare is $2.50! That’s right, the rate has gone up by 10 times!

    The article also doesn’t mention that their new Frontrunner commuter train does NOT run on Sundays. Their buses and light rail still do, so this makes NO sense.

    UTA needs a complete overhaul of their administration, and lowering of salaries and compensation across the board!

    I don’t even bother with them anymore, because they are so corrupt. I wish I could stop feeding the beast by not paying them with tax money. What a crock they are.

  17. UTA should really be called UCTA – Utah Commuter Transit Authority. They’re only interested in carrying people to work between 7 and 9 a.m., and home again between 4 and 6 p.m. I live 4 miles from the University of Utah, but my closest bus, half a mile away, only runs once an hour and the round-trip fare is $5. It’s much cheaper to buy a parking pass and drive to my class twice a week. The zoo doesn’t have bus service. Airport service only runs during daytime hours, so don’t plan on using it for a red-eye flight. Until UTA stops building and starts concentrating on service, it’s pretty much unusable unless you’re going a long distance and staying for 8 hours or so.

  18. This is a third-World logic: build a system as cheap as possible, no matter how much safety, comfort or else is damaged. It is a logic that appeals to the lowest income groups of a city, but if transit is to be transportation more than a social program for the extreme poor, it shouldn’t abide by that logic.

  19. I like the new TOD planned community of Daybreak (, which sits at the end of one of the new light rail extensions. It is an example of how you can plan, promote the benefits and market TOD without resorting to the usual heavily partisan discourse that accompanies such projects.

  20. If you are a student at the University of Utah, the fees you pay every semester entitle you to a free transit pass you can use to ride any UTA service, including buses, TRAX (light rail), and commuter rail (FrontRunner). All these modes will carry bicycles, too. A bicycle will eat up that half mile in about 2 minutes!

    All in all, the buses work incredibly well in SLC, especially to get to the U.

  21. While it’s great to hear about SLC’s progress, but the claim that it’s the only city building light rail, brt, commuter rail, and streetcars is not true. Los Angeles has been (and is continuing) to do so as well, and has built a larger system. plus heavy rail / subway.

    True, it’s a larger metro area but the claims about SLC being the only and/or building the most are false. That said, other cities should still emulate their great behavior!

  22. Salt lake city metro area has 2.5 million people, it is not a “town of just over 180 thousand people.”

  23. Might be in a red state but SLC is a Blue with a Democratic mayor. SLC also voted Obama in 2008 &2012,,,

  24. Bwahahaha…I Live here and ride UTA as my only mode of transportation so excuse me when I laugh at the praise that this piece of garbage transit system gets. I’ll begin with this: transportation schedules are created for a reason and when your pride and joy train can’t even make it on time to its first stop, then that’s a problem. It’s so much of a problem that a driver once told me that UTA stands for “undetermined time of arrival.” Next, I’ll talk about schedules again. When you decide to make a rail system the main, and basically only practical choice for north-south travel, then you should have the sense to schedule your east-west bound connector buses to arrive at the transfer point sooner rather than arrive as the connector train pulls out of the station. This leads me to my next point, if you can believe it, using UTA it takes approximately 1.5 hours to travel just under 15 miles. That equates to traveling 10 mph and that is mainly on the beloved rail system. Round trip is 3 hours of transit time and for the privilege of traveling at such blazing speeds you will pay $5 round trip, $20 a week just for the weekdays. Oh by the way, a monthly pass will run you $83.75 so don’t expect any real savings there. Now, with all of that being said, entertainment in SLC is so spread out (the good stuff isn’t really downtown – downtown pretty much sucks) and it is a college town but if you want to enjoy any of the entertainment you will need to live downtown or expect to pay $40 or more in cab fare to do because it seems like once the street lights come on in SLC the transportation system stops running – its even worse on Sundays when it seems like the only reason the UTA even runs is to shuttle around the church crowd so it stops around 7-7:30 pm. I realize that I might be spoiled coming from CA where I road the BART system, the COASTER system, and a number of other systems that provided their services, shall we say…more liberally, but this article is about how great UTA is so I feel it is necessary to focus on the varied and numerous flaws in the UTA system. I’ve gone on for too long already but I’ll end with this….I haven’t even scratched the surface here.

  25. Just to add one more thing for those who think they have it so good getting up to the college…the transportation system that I road to get to my college campus only stopped for about an hour and a half each day (between 3:30 and 5 am, and they were all union drivers).

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