Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Friday, March 24, 2023

Transit as a formula for local economic success and improvements in regional quality of life: Salt Lake's Rio Grande Plan

There is an article at Building Salt Lake, "Why isn’t Utah Transit Authority supporting the Rio Grande Plan?," opining about why the Utah Transit Authority isn't all in on the concept of reviving Rio Grande Station as the "central station" for Downtown railroad and transit service.

In the late 1990s, they moved railroad service from the Rio Grande Station to a little building a few blocks behind it.  That's where the Trax light rail main station is too.  Later they built an Intermodal Center, providing at the time a bike shop and inter city bus connections too.  But it failed for a bunch of reasons, not just the homelessness issue, but mostly because it is located where people aren't.  Now the Intermodal Center just houses intercity bus services.

-- Rio Grande Plan

The plan proposes a tunnel to redirect the railroad passenger services back to the station, as well as a rerouting of the Trax Green Line, with railroad service in a tunnel  behind the station and light rail service in front of the station.

I think it's a visionary concept along the lines of "transformational projects action planning" especially in advance of Winter Olympics in Salt Lake in 2030 or 2034, would be a catalyst to further drive transit improvements across the region and state, ideally shifting the transportation paradigm more towards sustainable mobility (meanwhile the Utah DOT wants to widen the I-15 freeway through Salt Lake City).

For links on TPAS applied to transit service, just look at the discussion and links in "Florida's Brightline passenger rail as an opportunity to rearticulate and extend transit service in cities like Orlando."

In fact, light rail here in Salt Lake was spurred by the 2002 Olympics, it's a small system and doesn't go to all the places it should, but it's complemented by a developing commuter rail program, a dinky streetcar line on the south side of Salt Lake and South Salt Lake, and a decent enough bus system.  All in all, if it goes where you want to go, it works reasonably well.

I was thinking about it, that it's because transit agencies don't think much or focus on how what they do improves places, adds to economic development, reduces motor vehicle use, etc.  

Sure they talk about it, in fact all the time, but the reality is maybe if they own some land promote transit oriented development--more intensive use--around stations, which increases transit use.

I was watching Japan Railway Journal yesterday morning, and the program was about the Chōshi Electric Railway in Chiba prefecture--about 55 miles from Tokyo--and all that the railroad is doing to promote itself, pay for itself, and increase ridership, in the face of rising automobile use and population shrinkage.  It's only about 4 miles long, connecting to JR, with a few trains each day, but a lot of creative marketing.

-- "Choshi Electric Railway: Turning Creative Ideas into Profit," video

One of the things that the president of the railroad said is that "when the community economy does well, so does the railroad, and when the railroad does poorly, so does the community" [paraphrase].

Frankly, this is not a new argument.  When streetcar systems were first created, usually they were associated with real estate development, in fact they were often owned by the developers (and later by utilities, because electric streetcars were their biggest customers).

Railroads too were active in promoting economic development, especially the recruitment of manufacturing plants, the growing of crops, etc., in their region, to boost use of their freight and passenger system, but also to build up the communities they served.  They produced reports, advertisements, brochures, guides, and all kinds of materials promoting their business development functions. 


railroad postcards, distributed on passenger trains, promoted tourism and economic development too, 
printing specific messages on the back of the card

and of course, the tourism posters

I have mentioned how the VIA transit agency in San Antonio has an urban design unit ("VIA urban planner wants to build a better San Antonio," San Antonio Express-News) nd that city transportation departments should have a "chief thoroughfare architect" to focus on the design and placemaking qualities of streets.  

Admittedly, many transportation agencies are investing a lot in urban design, livable streets, sustainable mobility, etc.  But even in the best agencies, a lot of the time sustainable mobility and urban design elements are overlooked, or removed from plans because of the cost.

Probably the best expression of this idea is this piece, "Planning for place/urban design/neighborhoods versus planning for transportation modes: new 17th Street NW bike lanes | Walkable community planning versus "pedestrian" planning," where I make the point that in planning by mode, we often miss the point when it comes to place qualities, that instead of doing pedestrian planning, we should be planning for walkable communities.  From the entry:

A walkable community plan would incorporate other treatments or elements besides sidewalks such as intersections, plazas, pedestrian "malls," parklets, laneways and alleys, walking as an element of commercial districts, "safe routes to school," night time lighting issues,  wayfinding signage, the walking element of trails/shared use paths and transit, bus shelters and stops, street furniture, events and programming ("Events and programming in a systematic manner," 2017, "The layering effect: how the building blocks of an integrated public realm set the stage for community building and Silver Spring, Maryland as an example," 2012), etc.

Some communities like San Francisco and now Salt Lake City are moving to integrate urban design and multi-modal planning (like my Signature Streets concept) into their pedestrian-focused programs, sometimes called Livable Streets.  Parklet and other initiatives are related.

-- "Salt Lake wants its streets to evolve," Building Salt Lake

This presentation has been superseded, but when I first saw it eleven years ago, I was impressed.

-- Sustainable Mobility & Climate Action Strategy, San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency
Walk (and Bike) to School initiatives can be a good way to bring walking focused improvements to neighborhoods in ways that improve the walk to school experience for children and the neighborhood more generally, and simultaneously.   

Advocacy groups like Feet First of Seattle and Starkville in Motion (Mississippi) have utilized walk to school initiatives as a way to drive pedestrian improvements more broadly across their respective  

Safety is a key element.  It's important that the plans also acknowledge the issue of safety, loitering, homelessness, camping in public spaces, noxious uses, etc. ("Los Angeles Goes to War With Itself Over Homelessness," New York Times).

And that's the issue with transit agencies.  They need to be thinking about and planning for how transit strengthens and improves communities, rather than just thinking about transit in terms of modes or engineering or budgets.

There is an article on how the Dean of Engineering at the University of Michigan is becoming the Provost of Duke University and I like what he said about encouraging change and innovation:

Gallimore said as dean, he is most proud of the culture he was able to be a part of, which focused on being highly collaborative and collegial while maintaining a focus on education and research.

“We also have a, ‘how do we get to yes?’ attitude and a can do attitude,” Gallimore said. “We don’t have to make a huge amount of fanfare with what we do, we just get the work done, and do it with excellence and with grace. I saw that in my 10 or 12 years as academic leader here at the College of Engineering.”

To me, government is more about denying, saying no.  I joked that under the Trump Administration, Brand America became: Can't Do. Won't Do. You Do.  F*** You.

And I've written about what I call a "bias for inaction."  From "Revisiting Vision Zero in DC and NYC":

Government has a bias for inaction*.  A big issue is that transportation agencies (and government agencies more generally), even very good ones like NYCDOT, aren't always that proactive, and tend to not have "a sense of urgency" when it comes to action.  

It varies depending on the mayor.  It's fair to say that in NYC Mayor De Blasio cares a lot less about this than former Mayor Bloomberg ("A Playbook on the Politics of Better Streets," Bloomberg), and in DC, most elected officials are from "the outer city" where the automobile remains dominant ("DC as a suburban agenda dominated city," 2013).

That's why too often, improvements are implemented after someone dies rather than systematically addressing problems beforehand ("Salt Lake City paints crosswalk where children were struck on way to school," Salt Lake Tribune).

A key point in the iterative improvement of my writings on Vision Zero is focusing initiatives in terms of the "6 E's" of sustainable mobility planning ("Updating Vision Zero approaches," 2016). 

 One of the reasons for failures in improvement resulting from Vision Zero "initiatives" is the lack of a systematic approach.

* A bias for inaction is a riff on the "bias for action" element of forward-looking corporations as discussed in the book The Search For Excellence.("Putting a Bias for Action into Planning Agency Management: A Practitioner's Perspective," Public Administration Review, 1986).

The Rio Grande Plan should be seized upon by UTA and state officials, alongside local officials, as a way to strengthen, extend, expand, and improve transit, in a generationally transformational manner.

(I have been preparing on what Utah should do from a transformational projects action planning perspective vis a vis the Olympics, with this being one of the projects, and unfortunately Blogger "ate" the draft, so I have to re-create it.)

Mayors as systems integrators.  Years ago I had a conversation with Jeff Tumlin, a transportation planner, author of Sustainable Transportation Planning: Tools for Creating Vibrant, Healthy, and Resilient Communities, then a principal of Nelson Nygard, an innovative planning consulting firm, and now director of transportation for the City of San Francisco, and we were talking about cities as platforms for innovation.  

(This when I was trying to do bike sharing systems, and integrating other services into it, like parking management and electric vehicle charging.)

He thought that mayors are the would be systems integrators, the agent that has the ability to bring agencies together, to force them to do things, etc.

And while it is a more collaborative process, the Metropolitan Area Projects infrastructure development process in Oklahoma City, as discussed in the book The Next American City: The Big Promise of our Midsize Metros, has some of those elements.

But I wonder if the problems of the here and now, and the unplanned things that come up like earthquakes, pandemics, etc., make it almost impossible for mayors to play that role. 

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At 9:52 AM, Anonymous Alex B. said...

Is this really surprising? The plan is a nice idea, but would amount to spending billions of dollars for a transit connection that is functionally the same as the one they have today.

Given that, is it really a surprise that the transit authority is not excited about that concept?

It's telling that the proponents cite Denver's union station as an example; since that station development took a very different approach - they specifically did not invest huge sums of money into the transit infrastructure; it was mostly a case of developing around what was already there. They didn't move the mainline rail tracks, they didn't move the light rail station - instead they connected them together over a rather long distance (about the same as in SLC) and developed that.

Anyway, my first glance at the plan seems to be an example of trying to re-use the old station as a station, rather than a holistic effort to improve transit itself.

There are some weird technical aspects of the plan that I'd disagree with. Putting the freight rail into the trench makes little sense, eats up capacity, would be a worse user experience, and adds another stakeholder that would likely veto such plans. Keeping the light rail on the street rather than with a direct connection in the trench also seems like a bad choice, one borne of nostalgia rather than transit benefits.

Just as a hypothetical: what if you left all the transit infrastructure as-is, but proposed to move the historic station building one block to the west to meet the tracks? Wouldn't that accomplish many of the same goals?

The simple fact might be that the time to preserve train use of this station was when the tracks were still there. Same is true in Denver - they will forever regret losing the ability to run trains through to the south, but once that decision was made, it's extremely expensive (to the point of impossible) to un-do.

At 11:22 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

1. Yes they haven't been thinking about transforming transit. That's what my Olympics piece was/is about, although blogger ate it and I have to recreate it.

I talked with them about this but haven't followed up.

2. Their focus on Denver is a bit misguided because it's a focus on redevelopment. And SLC is a much smaller market.

3. But that being said, it would rearticulate space in positive ways. Comparable how the abandonment of the railyard in Portland led to the Pearl District and the revival of Central Portland. (Although SLC has that pesky issue of way more build out capacity than demand.)

4. At the same time the Union Pacific freight operations here are still quite massive. Can't get rid of yard functions.

5. Tunneling freight is more about dealing with how freight trains frequently block roads on the west side. These trains are long and frequent. Lots of animus.

But the problem extends southward beyond their tunnel zone. I'm no engineer but it's probably better to separate the issues or look beyond the station zone which is their focus. A Reno Retrac approach is in order. I know at 1300 South, I can't remember wrt 1700 and 2100. Nor do I know much about the issue as it relates to the City of South Salt Lake.

At 11:42 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

And yes the number of railroad and light rail users at Salt Lake Central station is minimal, not worthy of doing this project (eg cf SEPTA not getting federal $ to move forward with King of Prussia). It's only worth it if it's part if extending the transit network and ridership in significant ways.


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