Monday, January 27, 2014

How to make the air not kill us (vehicle edition)

Reading some legislative proposals on how to fix Salt Lake's dirty air has been a bit disheartening, so I thought I'd lay out some basic principles that may be of use (recall the legislature began their 45 day session today).

First, whatever the details, any approach would require changes on two fronts. Since locals often can't use public transportation because it doesn't go where they need it to, the UTA bus network needs to be expanded. Trains are nice, but they're expensive and take years to implement. Early morning, late night, and weekend bus service can be expanded quite easily, as currently there are extra buses sitting in the garage at these times. Many drivers, I'm sure, would love the chance to pick up some extra shifts. Expanding the number of routes during the day should also be a part of any air quality plan and would require UTA to buy more buses and hire more drivers, but this can be done quickly if the funds are made available.

Now to the money. To fund such an expansion, gas taxes should be raised. Full stop. The incentives of this would work very well, as those who burn more gas (via physics) directly contribute the most to poor air quality. Those who complain about drivers of fuel efficient vehicles (or public transit users) not bearing their part of the infrastructure funding burden (mentioned in this article) should take a while and think about the incentives here. The money raised from the increased gas tax would be wisely used to expand UTA and help subsidize transit passes for Wasatch Front residents (such as was recently done by SLC). In terms of the details, say we raise the gas tax by forty cents per gallon per year until SL County goes one winter without exceeding national air quality standards. 

Not only would such a plan reduce air pollution, but it would also reduce traffic congestion, help the poor get to work more easily, increase local employment via the UTA hires, lessen our dependence on foreign oil, and save new transit users significant money on transportation costs.

If the gas tax easily covers a fully expanded UTA, legislators could lower the state income tax rate (which would also help make this whole thing more politically feasible).

This would be a great way to prepare the Wasatch Front for the substantial population growth that is to come. Thoughts?


  1. Hey just an idea from Austria - Get rid of school buses and integrate the routes into the overall system. Also give school children free "school age" public transit passes. They do that here and not only do the kids get used to using public transit all the time and become quite good at it, but it makes it so mom and dad don't have to play taxi driver all the time. Win win!

  2. That's a great idea on several fronts. Thanks, Missy! By the way, how much is a liter of fuel in your part of Austria? And can anyone ride on the children's bus routes? I can imagine that some parents would initially be skittish about adults on the buses for children, but a bus route is a bus route.

  3. A liter is about 1.40. So it's about 50 Euros to fill our midsize car. Boo ;)

    As for the buses, anyone can ride with the kids, it is just a regular bus route. But they organize it so anyone can go anywhere in the city - including every school.

    The reason for this is that after you go to your local elementary school you have to APPLY to a middle school and again to a high school. And not everyone gets in to every school. What ends up happening is at age 10/11 all the kids get mixed up and organized according to interests or capabilities and so trying to organize a school bus for one school would be impossible because the kids come from all over the valley.
    It's crazy - I knew one girl who rode the bus an hour each way because she lived in the countryside and got into a really competitive high school. Anyway, that is a whole other topic.

    Also, because the routes are so people friendly, you get a broader spectrum of people on the buses, not just the homeless/crazy people and a handful of progressives who work downtown. And the kids usually dont start needing to use them alone until after elementary school - so around age 11 or so. And they tend to travel at certain times (and they put a double bus at those times so it isn't so crowded) and travel in packs, so I would say it's pretty safe.

    Anyway, it's been interesting living here and seeing the different ways of doing things. There are pluses and minuses of course to every system. I'm always amazed to see 10 year olds manage a bus route all by themselves - it really allows them to be more independent from mom and dad and that is pretty cool.

  4. Yeah, the homeless and crazy people definitely scare others away here, which is sad. The kid independence thing is quite intriguing, as it'd be good for them and good for the parents to not have to shuttle em. As the population grows here, I don't see how we can do anything but move toward a more European style of doing things. One can only handle so much pollution AND tolerate long commutes. Density and public transit are the only sustainable models, yet few politicians understand it. Are Austrian cities all about keeping building heights low (like in US), or have they made the connection that that would only push people out from the city center? I feel like the cities are denser in Europe, but I can't remember seeing many skyscrapers in Vienna or Salzburg.