Writer Wallace Stegner has criticized his native Utah for allowing what he regards to be "ugly" freeways to cut across the beautiful Salt Lake Valley and ruin the aesthetic value. If any of us could choose, based on beauty alone, we would certainly consider freeways expendable.
Unfortunately, the growth of the cities makes various forms of mass transit a necessity. The freeway in and out of Salt Lake City is heavily traveled every day, reflecting the growth of the population along the Wasatch Front.According to Tim Harpft, Salt Lake City traffic engineer, there are at least 450,000 people who work in the city every day. The city has a residential population of only 165,000 people, yet a great many additional people obviously commute. Furthermore, there are approximately one million trips within the city each day.
The Utah Department of Transportation reports that as many as 150,000 cars leave the city every day, traveling south toward Sandy, and as many as 100,000 are still on the freeway when the cars reach Sandy. Only about 77,000 cars travel north toward Bountiful, meaning that the southward commute is infinitely worse.
In the opinion of Harpft, traffic on Salt Lake area freeways ranks 8 or 9 on a scale of 10 for severity. There are plans, he says, to increase I-15 to 6 lanes to help alleviate the peak travel periods.
The obvious way to alleviate this problem would be to encourage as many people as possible to use public transportation. Unfortunately, according to the Utah Transit Authority, only 58,000 people travel in and out of Salt Lake City every day by bus.
Despite all these worrisome figures, I have found the commute to Salt Lake City to be quite pleasant. My most recent memory, of course, is of the horrendous commute in Boston, where there is sure to be a major breakdown every day, usually in a tunnel. Boston's population of 650,000 means a much greater number of cars entering and leaving the city every day.
But the comparison to me is startling. While I realize that the Salt Lake City commute is getting worse and should be addressed by experts, it still seems remarkably relaxed and refreshing to me. I have been traveling at peak periods to and from the Sandy area, and every day but one I have zipped in and out of town with little or no delay.
I say this at the risk of offending people who feel constrained to measure the progress of Salt Lake City by the amount of traffic we have, and who sincerely believe that our commute is as bad as it gets. I've noticed that this is a sensitive topic. If I say something like, "Wow, it is so much easier to negotiate the freeways here than in Boston," I either get a cold shoulder, or an energetic argument that "Salt Lake is as bad as any Eastern city!"
My reaction, of course, is why would anyone WANT it to be as bad? If the commute is relatively easy, why not tout that as part of the quality of life here?
Most noticeable to me is that if there is a delay on the freeway, it clears up remarkably fast. That means a great deal, psychologically. In Boston, you approach a slowdown and your blood starts to boil, because it almost always means there is an accident or some other problem that will add an hour or more to your drive time. In Salt Lake City, you can maintain the confidence that it simply won't last long.
There is also a surprisingly "civil" quality to the driving on Salt Lake freeways. There is little darting in and out of lanes, the speeds are reasonable, and people seem to regularly look from side to side and in back if they contemplate a change.
It is a certain "politeness" or courtesy that is noticeably absent in the East. I realize that there are exceptions to all these observations, but the overall impression is one of civility.
I've often wondered if freeways can be indicative of the personality and character of people as a whole. Psychologists have said that some people display aggressive traits on the highway that they do not ordinarily display in their personal relations. But if most people display admirable qualities of courtesy and care on the highway, it is suggestive of a similarity of character in their day-to-day relationships.
That is what I think, anyway, and Utah, judged by its freeways, is a courteous and civil state.