Exploring Ways to Make Wide Streets Less Hazardous to Pedestrians

July 5, 2023
One of Salt Lake City’s defining characteristics causes problems.

Salt Lake City’s notoriously wide streets have produced a list of problems for pedestrians and bikers, and some are calling for their reinvention.

“When you have a wider street with fewer obstacles to bump into, the speed of people driving down that street increases,” Taylor Anderson, co-founder of Sweet Streets, a nonprofit that advocates for people-first designs for streets and public spaces, said to KUER 90.1. “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, Salt Lake City lowered the speed limit on more than 400 miles of city streets to 20 mph following a string of pedestrian deaths. Advocates saw it as 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 has a peculiar case when it comes to enacting a people-first change to the city’s streets. State Street, for example, can accommodate six lanes of traffic and is upwards of 130 feet wide.

Many other throughfares 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 unique layout of wide streets and large blocks can be traced back to Utah’s Latter-day Saint pioneers.

Pioneer Joseph Smith and his vision for the “Plat of Zion” included huge city blocks of 660 by 660 feet. To compare, over nine city blocks from Portland, Ore. can fit inside of one Salt Lake City block.

Now there is opportunity for the city to reinvent how its streets are being 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,” said Rigolon.

So far, the 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.

Still, the city faces significant challenges to making Salt Lake City’s streets safer and in changing residents’ 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.”

The city has recently explored projects that include proposals to close parts of the city to cars entirely and has already repainted some 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.”

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Source: KUER 90.1