In the late 1990s, an organization called Envision Utah brought together a broad spectrum of people to figure out how to plan for major population growth. They started by asking participants to mark out areas that shouldn’t be developed — wilderness, national parks, agricultural land. Then, they had to figure out how to fit future residents in the developable areas that were left. They concluded that the way to do that without massive congestion, soaring public costs, and environmental ruin was to build walkable development with good transit access.
Ever since, Utah has been a national leader in transit-oriented growth, putting into practice the values Utahns articulated during a long and painstaking public process.
I recently caught up with Robert Grow, chair of Envision Utah, to hear how they did it. We published the first part of our conversation yesterday. Here is part two, lightly edited for length and clarity.
I wanted to ask about the building of transit, especially the TRAX light rail. The impression I had was that the Utah Transit Authority was already on that track and doing that separately and that your contribution was more in bringing the public along.
They had a vote in 1992 to fund the first line, and the vote failed. UTA are magicians at finding the ability to get things done; they then were able to scrape together the resources to start that first line. So at the time we did the vision there was a first line underway, but before the vision, a lot of people in Utah were skeptical about rail.
When we came out of the vision, over 80 percent of Utahns — it was the high 80 percent range — were in favor of expanding the system rapidly. Then the public voted twice to fund the system.
So were there plans? Were there lines on maps? Absolutely. In fact, we did a bunch of those lines on maps as part of the scenarios. And then the public saw that if we build a rail system, along with expanding the other transportation modes, their lives would be better off. They’d spend less time in traffic. They’d have choices of how to get around. As the region grew — if you model out 25 years — it becomes more and more obvious you need a multi-modal system.
The result was an attitudinal shift when people saw their values would be served better if we had this multimodal approach. And so, yes, UTA was underway. They were smart, entrepreneurial; they’re great friends. Call up Mike Allegra, who runs UTA, and ask him what got him the money — and he’ll say Envision Utah.
So the last vote, we actually voted to take the entire 2030 system of rail and build it all by 2015. Nowhere else in the country has done anything like that.
It’s one thing to convince people that transit is important, but then how do you get them to actually ride it themselves? A lot of people say, “Transit is great; it makes the roads less congested for me to drive on.” How do you get them to ride it?
How do you get them to ride it? You make it convenient, make it serve their needs, make them realize they can live with one car — or no cars. The fact is 80 percent of the people who ride our rail system have a car in the garage. We’re not a place where people ride it because they have no choice. We’re a place where people ride it by choice.