In January at an event celebrating the completion of the Utah Valley Express, Brigham Young University President Kevin Worthen made a statement that if implemented would dramatically improve Provo’s quality of life. “With UVX,” Worthen declared, “we can tell parents (their children) don’t need a car at BYU. They can get anywhere on the Wasatch Front.”
BYU, as Utah County’s primary commuting destination with its 33,000 students and thousands of employees, has a tremendous impact on the surrounding community. Automobiles produce 52 percent of the particulate pollutants that make the county’s air among the worst in the nation. Provo Mayor Kaufusi, likewise, has touted UVX as one of city’s signature accomplishments of 2018. The bus rapid transit system, she said during her recent State of the City address, “shows that Provo is pressing forward into the future.” Indeed, thanks to UVX (and Frontrunner and TRAX), students and many other residents now have a viable transit option to move around Provo and Orem, to Salt Lake and Ogden, and for that matter to places around the world via the SLC International Airport. Furthermore, if students and other residents combine transit with walking and bicycling, they can get to most places they go on an everyday basis. Kaufusi’s and Worthen’s statements are encouraging but Provo and BYU now need to “walk the walk.”
Provo has the potential to become a great walking and biking community if the city and BYU leverage its natural strengths. Provo is a college town with a huge population of BYU (and Utah Valley University) students. It is animated by a vibrant downtown surrounded by neighborhoods that attract people who desire a more urban, active lifestyle. It is relatively flat, the climate dry and temperate, and built on a grid. Another advantage is that BYU requires most students to live within a two-mile radius of campus, easily within walking and bicycling distance for most people. Not surprisingly, the neighborhoods around BYU have the highest walking and biking rates in the state — 33 percent — which is twice as high as any other area in the state. Yet, these rates have been achieved with little concerted effort on the part of the city or the university and despite their policies that have long enabled an auto-centric culture.
Fortunately, both BYU and the city have begun to adjust their priorities and policies. In 2013, then-President Samuelson announced the Campus Unification Plan to make campus more “pedestrian and bicycle-friendly.” The University closed a fast-moving thoroughfare that cut through campus, supported a shuttle system that services nearby housing complexes, and entered a 10-year, $1 million-a-year agreement with UTA that allows students, employees, and their dependents to use its entire transit system. For its part, the city supported UVX, is reconstructing bikeways on Bulldog Boulevard and 200 East that lead to campus and recently chose to rebuild city hall at its current central location, which will bolster the economic vibrancy of downtown and the livability of adjacent neighborhoods.
Yet, the city and BYU need to do more. Most importantly, the Provo-BYU town-gown relationship must enter a new collaborative era. The university and city need to disincentivize single-occupant auto trips to campus and encourage trips by transit, foot and bike. This is what has happened at Fort Collins and Colorado State University, which are similar in size, climate and other ways to Provo and BYU. There, municipal and university officials have worked hand-in-glove to achieve remarkable results. As of 2016, over 50 percent of all trips to campus, including for athletic events, were completed by transit, foot or bike. (And CSU does not require most of its students to live near campus as BYU does.) Think what a difference that would make in air quality and quality of life if Provo and BYU did that.
To do so, Provo and BYU must work together as never before: The city will soon be the recipient of monies from a county-approved quarter-cent sales tax for transportation funding. Given that approximately 15 percent of all trips to work and school citywide are completed on foot or bike, shouldn’t the city at least apportion 3-5 percent of its transportation budget to active transportation? The city needs to involve planners in the design and redesign of Provo’s streets, which the mayor seemed to suggest in her speech she might do through departmental reorganization. It should integrate complete street principles into an updated Transportation Master Plan. It must resist the temptation to widen streets, including 800 North next to campus, and aim to reduce driving even as the population grows as other cities are doing. And like BYU’s Campus Unification Plan, the City should direct traffic around downtown Center Street so that it becomes a shopping and cultural destination rather than an auto thoroughfare to the freeway. Finally, making our streets safer for everyone, especially school-bound children, should be a top priority.
For its part, if BYU wants get the most out of its $1 million yearly investment in UTA, it needs to effectively communicate to incoming students (and their parents) that there is no need to bring a car to Provo. BYU should charge all members of the university community — not just students — for parking and do so on a wider expanse of lots. Students living on and off campus should pay for parking (after all, the space their cars occupy is larger than their apartment living space). Currently tenants without cars are subsidizing those with cars, and that’s not fair. BYU should also lower the speed limit on campus. Finally, BYU needs to ensure the smooth, safe transition onto campus of bikeways such as Bulldog.2 comments on this story
As Provo and BYU as well as other commuting destinations like UVU and Utah Valley Hospital make such changes, all residents — including students — will benefit from reduced congestion and air pollution, increased financial and environmental sustainability and improved safety and health. When transit, walking and bicycling are safe and convenient options, students and other residents can spend less on transportation and have more money to spend on other things. Studies show that viable transit, pedestrian and bicycle-friendly choices increase home values, drive spending at local business and spur economic development.
Provo is a great place to live, work and go to school. Together let’s make it even better.