Michael Ronkin is a national bicycle and pedestrian expert who advocates for the Complete Streets transportation policy. Ronkin visited Salt Lake City for a transportation-planning conference and spoke with City Weekly about building a better Salt Lake City.
What is Complete Streets?
Complete Streets essentially means that any time you do a road project, you make sure that all users’ needs are met—bicyclists, pedestrians, drivers, transit users, truckers. Not every street has to provide everything. On some streets, people will be walking, on some you’ll have truckers, some streets will have transit, but essentially, everyone who can use that street will be able to use it.
What were your impressions of Salt Lake City?
Very positive. My first impression was how generous and hospitable everyone has been. I was given a little tour of the downtown area by bicycle, and I spent more time looking at the buildings. You still have pretty good buildings, though I’m sure you destroyed a lot of them, like every city did. The only thing I would caution is don’t overdo the parking. Besides freeways, the other thing that has destroyed many towns is parking. That’s a really poor use of space, to park a hunk of steel for 10 hours a day. Two other downtown-killers are convention centers, sports arenas and casinos. It’s just not a good use of the space.
Don’t the people coming into Salt Lake City need parking?
That is an absolute myth. The most successful cities have very little parking. There is an inverse correlation between the success of a city and the amount of parking it provides. A parking spot is just a place to store a hunk of steel. It’s people who make money and spend money. If you create a place where people want to be, whether to shop or work or live, they find another way. You have to provide another way. It has to be walking, biking or transit. In successful cities, the roads are split. Automobile traffic is less than 50 percent of the trips made to the downtown.
cities that are successful weren’t always that way. I always think of
Portland, Ore. Forty years ago, before it turned around, Portland was a dying
city. The first thing that it did was put on a parking lid. Most cities
have policies that require minimum amounts of parking. That’s what
turned Portland around—more space for retail, more space for
residential, more space for entertainment.
What about businesses on Main Street and other under-construction areas that are struggling to survive?
Construction itself can be very difficult for businesses that are “fragile”—their profit margin isn’t enough that they can survive two years. That’s regardless of the kind of construction, whether it’s light rail or widening the streets. It’s critical that during construction, you really try to maintain access. One half of the street of the time or something. The contractors would love it if you just shut down the street, go in there, do it all at once, they could do a major project in six months instead of a year and a half. That’s kind of the bargain that people make—if you want to maintain access, you have to stage it in little chunks, there’s more construction signs, it’s a lot more access.
You need to bring people [to downtown] first. Retail comes second. Until you have more people living downtown, you won’t have a downtown grocery store. The other critical thing is retailers being willing to shrink the size of their footprint to fit downtown. You may not have 18 choices of cornflakes, you may have three choices. There could be businesses that are hurt during the transition, but more will come later.
Does Complete Streets force a city to start completely over?
It’s not a big capital-improvement project, where you have a big one-time project. So much work happens on the road with operations and maintenance work, or utility work, or a developer comes in, and those are opportunities that need to be seized. For example, repavement or a utility project are usually good opportunities to restripe roads for bike lanes.
Are Salt Lake City’s wide streets good or bad for transportation?
It’s an opportunity and a challenge. What works against active transportation is wide streets. They’re intimidating, they’re very difficult to cross, they’re more dangerous for cars. I think some of your roads are so wide that it wouldn’t even be a matter of restriping, but of bringing the curbs in. Shrinking the streets, putting them on a road diet, is essential, though it goes counter to the common wisdom.
As a country is going broke, departments of transportation and public works are going broke, and we have a huge backlog. So shrinking the streets saves you an amazing amount down the road. Any time there’s a road expansion project, it means that somewhere down the line, 20-25 years from how, someone is going to be stuck with a huge bill when it needs to be repaved. But who thinks 25 years in the future?
What else can Salt Lake City do to improve?
Here’s the other thing that Salt Lake City has that’s a double-edged sword: You’re really too big. But you have good connectivity. Keeping that grid intact is so critical. But your blocks are too long. I have had heard that they are thinking of chopping those blocks in two, maybe. A lot of cities are looking at maximum-block perimeter. Most successful downtowns have a block length of 320 feet. Portland is the exception with 340 feet. In Portland, the most successful businesses are at corners. The shorter blocks, the more corners you have. Intersections here, unfortunately, have just become places you’re trying to get traffic through, instead of places you want to stop. Cutting your blocks back is a critical step for Salt Lake City.
You have that connectivity (with the grid system). But as you migrate further out in the suburbs, that connectivity really disappears. It’s important to re-establish connectivity, because that supports transit and cities that walk and bike, and it reduces the amount of driving people have to do. And I’ll come back to the wide streets. To me, it’s absolute folly to continue widening [Salt Lake County] streets. We already have really wide streets. It’s such a waste of limited resources—space, money, human resources. We should do no more road widening until every street is complete, until community has decent transit, until the streets are connected. Then, when that is completed, we see if you still need wider streets.
With wider streets, you get a phenomenon called induced traffic. Widening roads doesn’t decrease the traffic; you actually get more traffic. Traffic fills out the available space—the more space you provide for traffic, the more traffic you get.