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Salt Lake City’s wide streets are a pedestrian problem, but also an opportunity

Sunnyside Avenue in Salt Lake City, seen here on July 3, 2023, is wide enough for four lanes of traffic, a middle turn lane and a dedicated bike lane. Residential houses also line the south side of the road.
Sean Higgins
Sunnyside Avenue in Salt Lake City, seen here on July 3, 2023, is wide enough for four lanes of traffic, a middle turn lane and a dedicated bike lane. Residential houses also line the south side of the road.

Salt Lake City’s streets are famously wide enough to turn around a horse-drawn wagon. But what might have made sense in the 1800s has caused problems for pedestrians and bikers alike today.

“When you have a wider street with fewer obstacles to bump into, the speed of people driving down that street increases,” said Taylor Anderson, co-founder of Sweet Streets, a nonprofit that advocates for people-first designs for streets and public spaces. “There's fewer perceived dangers and more perceived safety to drive your car faster. It's just a psychological switch that happens when there's nothing on either side of you or in front of you.”

In 2022, a string of pedestrian deaths in Utah prompted Salt Lake City to lower the speed limit to 20 miles per hour on over 400 miles of city streets. Advocates said that was a meaningful change.

“For each mile an hour over 20 miles an hour, people drive, they're increasing the likelihood that somebody dies or is permanently injured when they're hit by a car,” said Anderson. “Even if it leads to one person being saved from being hit by a car, I think [lowering the speed limit] is a big win.”

City planning experts say Salt Lake City is a peculiar case. Take State Street, which runs from the State Capitol all the way to Draper, 17 miles to the south. For much of that length, the road fits six lanes of traffic and is upward of 130 feet wide.

Other thoroughfares in the city can accommodate four or more lanes of traffic.

“Maybe some subdivisions in remote suburbia would be built with such wide streets, but not on a residential street where you have a bunch of single family homes,” said Alessandro Rigolon, an associate professor of urban and metropolitan planning at the University of Utah. “[Salt Lake City is] really unique.”

The city’s distinctive layout of wide streets and large blocks laid out in a grid pattern can be traced back to Utah’s Latter-day Saint pioneers. In particular, Joseph Smith and his vision for the “Plat of Zion.”

Smith’s vision included massive city blocks of 660 by 660 feet. For comparison, over nine of Portland, Oregon’s city blocks fit inside one Salt Lake City block.

Now, the city has an opportunity to reinvent the way its streets are used.

“Having a dedicated path for cyclists and other sidewalks for pedestrians is one clear way to deal with the transportation part of that issue,” added Rigolon.

Salt Lake City has begun construction on protected bike lanes and wider sidewalks on 300 West and 900 South, two major corridors connecting the city. Those projects could be completed as early as the end of 2023.

There are still challenges to making Salt Lake City’s streets safer, Anderson said. In particular, changing people’s minds from a car-centric society to one built around public transit and pedestrian safety.

“It's like a blessing-curse sandwich,” said Anderson. “But having such wide rights of way gives the city an opportunity to kind of rebuild itself yet again around people rather than the car.”

Recently, the city has explored various projects, including proposals to close parts of the city to cars entirely, and it has already implemented other, less-invasive strategies like repainting streets to provide more buffer between sidewalks and traffic.

“I am relatively optimistic,” Rigolon said of the future. “I've seen the pace of change accelerated in the last couple of years. I do think the city sometimes is a little timid in what they do, I also think that change is hard for people… You're not going to make everybody happy.”

Sean is KUER’s politics reporter.
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