From our bus network to the FrontRunner commuter rail to the proposed streetcar, public transportation continues to be a prominent and controversial issue in the Ogden area. Why does the Ogden Sierra Club strongly support public transportation, and how can our community move toward better transit solutions?
Wild places and human habitat
The Sierra Club’s mission is “to explore, enjoy, and protect the wild places of the earth.” Historically, our efforts have focused on protecting national parks, wilderness areas, and other public lands. So what does this have to do with cities and mass transit? The answer is simple: The biggest threat to wild places is sprawl development. James Howard Kunstler may have said it best:
We are never going to save the rural places or the agricultural places or the wild and scenic places (or the wild species that dwell there) unless we identify the human habitat and then strive to make it so good that humans will voluntarily inhabit it.
Here in Ogden, this means attracting more people and businesses back into the central city, away from the suburban fringe. So the Sierra Club’s goal is exactly the same as the stated goal of every local politician in recent memory: preserve and redevelop downtown Ogden. Mass transit is not an end in itself, but it is an essential component of any functioning city.
Cities and suburbs
The story of downtown Ogden is not unique; virtually all of America’s cities are facing similar challenges. As cars became more affordable after World War II, the middle class moved out of the cities and into the suburbs where they could have bigger houses, bigger yards, and sometimes a proximity to undeveloped lands. The cities themselves were left to the poor. Businesses followed the money outward, and government spending moved outward as well, with major investments in highway systems and traffic enforcement.
A selection of abandoned buildings from Ogden’s past.
But the middle class has gradually discovered that the suburbs have their own problems. As each ring of development has encircled the last, most of the suburbs are no longer near undeveloped lands, while life in the outer suburbs requires truly massive amounts of driving. Simple daily errands such as getting a haircut or buying a bottle of milk can no longer be accomplished on foot. Children must be driven to school, or bused at public expense. Parks and churches are too far away to walk. All of these destinations now feature enormous parking lots—ugly necessities that take up even more space. Traffic jams and tragic accidents are inevitable, while those who are too young or too old or too disabled to drive lose their autonomy.
[Insert photos of suburban blight]
Still, many people prefer the suburban lifestyle, and the suburbs are definitely here to stay. But they’re not for everyone. In recent decades, increasing numbers of middle-class Americans have realized that they can live happier and healthier lives back in the city. Unfortunately, though, many of the urban neighborhoods that were so attractive 60 years ago have since been ruined.
Many of Ogden’s public policy decisions boil down to the simple question of whether Ogden wishes to be a city or a suburb. The steps toward either goal are quite clear:
|Restore historic buildings||Tear down historic buildings|
|Promote density||Reduce density|
|Design for pedestrian access||Design for auto access|
|Reduce parking space||Increase parking space|
|Invest in transit||Invest in freeways to Salt Lake|
The distinction between urban and suburban buildings is especially critical.
In a true city the buildings come up to the sidewalk, from which pedestrians can enter directly. The buildings are typically two or more stories tall, increasing the amount of floor space within walking distance of any point. Parking spaces are in the rear, or on the street. The buildings tend to be attractive, because they are meant to be viewed up-close, from the sidewalks. Excellent examples of urban architecture can still be found throughout Ogden’s older neighborhoods, while some newer examples can be found at The Junction and on 25th Street.
Ogden’s old and new post offices exemplify the difference between urban and suburban design.
In a suburb, commercial buildings are set back behind large parking lots, making access easy for motorists (until the parking lot fills). Safe pedestrian access is not a concern, and sidewalks—if they exist at all—are an afterthought. The buildings are wide and low, because nobody tries to walk from one to another anyway. Cheap and ugly construction is the norm, because motorists are looking at the road rather than the architecture, and the setting is so unattractive to begin with. We refer to these buildings pejoratively as big boxes and strip malls. Examples are now all too common around most of Ogden and its suburbs.
Like the suburbs themselves, suburban-style buildings are not going to disappear. The question, rather, is whether we want this style of construction in central Ogden: Do we want to turn downtown Ogden into another suburb?
All of our elected officials, when asked this question, will say no. Yet too often they still make decisions that favor cars over people, insisting that big box retailers and subsidized parking garages are good for downtown, and endorsing multi-billion-dollar freeway projects that are gradually turning Weber County into a bedroom community serving employers in Salt Lake City.
The parking problem
Parking lots (yellow) and multi-level parking structures (red) in downtown Ogden. On-street parking is not highlighted.
Over the last several decades, in a short-sighted effort to attract more motorists into downtown, Ogden’s businesses and government officials have chosen to devote more and more downtown real estate to parking. You can see this in the aerial photo at right, which covers the core of downtown: from 20th Street to 27th Street, from the railroad tracks to a little east of Washington Blvd. Parking lots are highlighted in yellow, while multi-story parking structures are highlighted in red. On-street parking is not highlighted, but is permitted along almost every block of every street.
Of course there needs to be a certain amount of parking downtown. But the trend toward larger parking lots wastes a great deal of space, inhibiting further growth. Large lots also give much of downtown a suburban feel, separating buildings so that walking from one to another is inconvenient and often unsafe. Multi-story parking garages use space more efficiently, but they are tremendously expensive and usually funded with our tax dollars.
In any case, downtown Ogden has very little room for new businesses or new jobs under the suburban parking-lot model of development. Massive investments in more parking structures are also unlikely. The way for downtown Ogden to keep growing is instead to bring more people into downtown without their cars—and that means transit.
Transit systems are essential to functioning urban neighborhoods. Most obviously, they bring workers and customers into the urban core from less dense residential areas. But the indirect benefits are even greater. Transit systems make parking lots less necessary, enabling higher-density development that in turn makes it easy for visitors to walk from one destination to another within downtown. Transit systems also make it viable for people to choose to live downtown, in apartments or condominiums, either without a car or with fewer cars per family.
Our current transit system
Ogden’s major transit corridors.
Fortunately, Ogden already has a good—though not great—transit system that connects downtown to the rest of the city and points beyond.
Two major bus routes, shown in red on the map at right, offer weekday service at approximately 15-minute intervals, plus less frequent service on evenings, Saturdays, and Sundays. The 603 route connects the Intermodal Hub to Weber State University and McKay-Dee Hospital, by way of 26th Street, 25th Street, and Harrison Blvd. The 612 Route follows Washington Blvd. all the way from North Ogden to Washington Terrace, serving the Applied Technology College, Ogden Regional Medical Center, and many other destinations.
Numerous other bus routes offer less frequent service within and beyond Ogden. Corridors with weekday service at approximately half-hour intervals are shown in yellow on the map.
And of course there’s the FrontRunner commuter rail, which connects Ogden to most of the rest of the Wasatch Front with luxury vehicles that everyone loves riding. Service to/from Roy, Davis County, Salt Lake City, and south as far as Provo runs every half hour during peak commute times, with less frequent service during mid-day, evenings, and Saturdays. A few trains each weekday run between Ogden and Pleasant View to the north. Express buses offer another convenient way for weekday commuters to get to Salt Lake City.
But it’s easy to find reasons why most Weber County residents never use the transit system:
- The local buses can be slow, stopping at virtually every block.
- Bus schedules are often irregular, forcing users to constantly consult timetables—or risk waiting longer to get on the bus than the trip itself will take.
- Traffic delays throw the buses off schedule, making the timetables unreliable.
- Most bus stops are unpleasant places to wait, often lacking benches to sit on and sometimes even lacking sidewalks.
- Connections and transfers can cause further delays, especially when a bus is running late.
- The Intermodal Hub is too far from most downtown destinations and is inadequately connected to the bus system; the 612 bus doesn’t even go to the Intermodal Hub, so transferring between it an the FrontRunner requires either a second bus or a half-mile walk.
- Buses are noisy and polluting.
- Buses are heavily used by the poor and the handicapped, but some middle-class citizens find it unpleasant to sit near these people.
- Evening and weekend service is far too infrequent to be usable by most patrons of downtown restaurants and entertainment venues.
- Many of the neighborhoods served by transit were designed only for automobiles and are hostile to pedestrians—or are filled with single-family homes, where there is insufficient density to support good transit service.
Yet despite all these shortcomings, our current transit system works remarkably well for thousands of riders a day. If you haven’t ridden it recently, we encourage you to give it a try!
No silver-bullet solutions
Since 2004, discussions of Ogden’s transit system have focused on proposals to upgrade the corridor currently served by the 603 bus, between downtown and WSU/McKay-Dee. A 2005 study recommended an electric streetcar for this corridor, projecting that it would attract more than a thousand new transit riders per day. A second study, completed in 2011, also recommended a streetcar but highlighted two major challenges:
- the difficulty of fitting a dedicated right-of-way into some parts of Harrison Blvd.; and
- an estimated cost of $156 million for construction, plus $3.5 million annually for operations and maintenance.
The Sierra Club has been generally supportive of the streetcar proposal, while recognizing both of these challenges. Whether such a project can be cost-effective will depend on how the challenges are addressed.
The easy solution to the challenge of Harrison Blvd. is to reroute the transit corridor farther to the south, onto either 30th Street or 36th Street instead of 25th. Many public officials have argued for one of these realignments, but these arguments are rooted in the false premise that most riders will be WSU students or others who are traveling more or less end-to-end. In fact, approximately 60% of the current 603 bus riders either board or exit the bus somewhere in the middle, east of Washington but north of 36th Street. This is because the east-central neighborhood, around 25th Street, is much more densely developed (and pedestrian-friendly) than the newer residential neighborhoods to the south. Replacing the 603 bus with a transit line that bypasses the east-central neighborhood would be a major step backward from our current transit system. If there is truly no space for exclusive transit lanes on Harrison (and this has not yet been proven), then the better solution is for the vehicles to operate in a shared right-of-way.
The cost of a streetcar is probably the greater challenge, and presents an equally great danger. The Utah Transit Authority has a past history of over-committing its revenues to large capital projects, leaving inadequate funds to operate the system it has built. In recent years, transit users have had to endure significant cutbacks in the frequency of service on many UTA routes including the FrontRunner. It seems all too likely that a barely-affordable streetcar would end up running less frequently than the existing 603 bus, or that it would force cutbacks to other parts of Ogden’s bus system. It would be ironic for the community to spend $150 million on a transit system that is less usable than the one we already have.
More generally, the danger with a big, expensive project like the streetcar is that decision makers will focus on it with tunnel vision, losing perspective on the rest of our transit system and our community’s broader redevelopment goals. We therefore urge everyone to remember these broader goals and to recognize that no single project will automatically achieve them.
A way forward
If Ogden’s goal is to get more people riding transit in and out of downtown, and thus to promote growth both downtown and elsewhere along our transit corridors, then we need a multi-faceted approach. Fortunately, most of the steps we can take toward this goal are far less expensive than a streetcar.
New urban-style buildings on 25th Street.
Ogden city officials can rewrite the city’s zoning ordinances to encourage urban (rather than suburban) development throughout downtown and along the 603 and 612 transit corridors. The new zoning ordinances can:
- Require that new buildings be designed for pedestrian access, built out to the sidewalk with entrances facing the sidewalk.
- Encourage multi-story apartments and commercial buildings.
- Encourage re-purposing of the better single-family homes (e.g., along 25th Street) as professional offices.
- Discourage auto-oriented businesses such as used car lots and drive-throughs.
- Decrease or eliminate parking requirements. Encourage public shared parking rather than dedicated spaces that are often empty.
UTA can modify its bus system in many small ways to attract new riders:
- Reduce the number of stops so that stops are spaced at least two blocks apart, to improve travel times and reliability.
- Work with local officials and UDOT to give signal priority to the 603 and 612 buses.
- Install more benches and shelters at stop locations, eventually including automated displays showing when the next bus will arrive.
- Reroute the 612 bus to the Intermodal Hub and coordinate its schedule with the FrontRunner.
- Phase out diesel buses, replacing them with buses powered by compressed natural gas.
- Increase the frequency of evening and weekend service, with special promotions for major downtown events.
- If necessary, cut back on service in outlying areas in order to focus improvements where they can benefit downtown Ogden.
Meanwhile, as stakeholders plan for a major transit investment between downtown and WSU, we hope they will explicitly evaluate, at every stage of the process, the impact that the new upgrade will have on the rest of Ogden’s transit system and on the broader goal of promoting downtown growth. A tremendous opportunity lies before us, if we make the right choices.