By Atticus Agustin
Additional reporting by Charlotte Fife-Jepperson
Commuting on 900 West has changed ever since Salt Lake City’s lane reconfiguration project was completed in November of 2017. Some community members disapprove of the changes, while others approve of the project, but see the need for tweaks.
The 900 West project involved reducing the lanes to one vehicle and one bicycle lane in each direction as well as adding a center turning lane and street parking on both sides of the street from North Temple to 1700 South.
But that was not all. The street was resurfaced, pedestrian crossing improvements were made on 700 South, 800 South, and Genessee Avenue, and new crosswalks, bus stop improvements, flashing beacons, and bulb-outs were installed. The point was to make the street a safer place for different modes of transportation, including motorists, pedestrians and bicyclists.
The 900 West project runs from North Temple all the way to 1700 South. Similar projects, or “road diets” as they are called, have been completed in other U.S. cities like San Francisco, Tampa, San Jose, and Palo Alto.
According to the Federal Highway Administration, road diets have possible advantages and disadvantages. They can improve access for bicyclists, improve pedestrian safety, encourage lower speeds (and thus less severe accidents,) and the center turning lane can keep through-traffic moving. Some unintended impacts may include reduced road capacity (for cars), increased traffic congestion during peak commuter hours, and drivers on cross streets or driveways may have difficulty finding a gap in traffic to enter the main roadway.
Michael Clára, a Glendale resident and community organizer employed by Crossroads Urban Center, is a vocal critic of the road diet. Through the Poplar Grove Neighborhood Alliance, a group that he organized, Clára represents residents who feel left out of the decision-making process.
Margaret Harmon, one of the residents he spoke to who lives on 900 West, said that the lane reduction has caused a lot of traffic congestion. “Traffic really piles up during rush hour...It is usually backed up for at least a block or more, going north and south,” she said.
Julia Torres, who has lived between 300 and 400 South on 900 West for about 50 years, said that the changes to 900 West are “good and bad.” “It’s good, because now we can park in front of our houses, but in the evening it’s ridiculous. If there is a train stopped at South Temple, then cars traveling north get backed up for several blocks.” Torres has noticed a large increase in accidents as well, especially between 200 and 300 South. She attributes the accidents to drivers who are in a hurry to get home from work and who are not paying attention.
Salt Lake City Transportation Division released data on car crashes on 900 West in August that showed a considerable increase in rear-end accidents, and similar numbers or slight decreases in other types of accidents. The data compared the number of crashes that occurred between North Temple and 1700 South during the first six months of 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018. The Transportation Division states on their website, https://www.slc.gov/transportation/900-west-crash-data-north-temple-to-1700-south/, “The city will continue to add additional crash data to this page every six months.”
According to Jonathan Larsen, Director of Salt Lake City’s Division of Transportation, it’s still unclear if the rise in rear-end accidents are a direct cause of the road diet, adding that the cause could be a combination of more people following too closely or distracted driving. The division says that two to three years of data collection are needed for the data to be representative of new roadway safety conditions.
“My philosophy is that we want zero crashes. But if a crash does occur, we want it to ruin your day, not your life,” said Larsen.
Clára said his job as a community organizer consists of asking people and agencies if they’re going to work with the neighborhood, and this includes the city. “I don’t have a problem at all with the concept [of the road diet], it’s just that the city didn’t notify us and they’re not talking to [the Poplar Grove Neighborhood Alliance]…My end goal is to just facilitate civic engagement – even if it means undoing the road,” said Clára.
Glendale resident, Billy Palmer, who has long been involved in his community and serves as an officer in the Glendale Community Council, feels differently. “The notion that there was not community outreach and that the community did not have input in making 900 West safer, could not be farther from the truth. I understand that some don’t like [the changes], but it makes it safer for us and our kids to cross 900 West. Some people are newer to this conversation, but many of us who are involved in our community have been talking about this for over a decade,” said Palmer.
Palmer said that years ago when he served on a Westside Master Plan committee, he heard over and over how dangerous 900 West was. People asked the city to do something to slow traffic and to increase walkability. According to Palmer, the current road diet was actually scaled back; they had asked for additional traffic calming measures such as a median and bulbouts at the intersection of 800 S. and 900 W.
“We don’t need a freeway running down the middle of Glendale and Poplar Grove,” he said.
Larsen believes that the road diet was a way for the city to help build a better sense of community in the area. “Before, there was no street parking, and this has worked in favor of local businesses,” said Larsen.
Eric, another resident who lives on 900 West near Chapman Library, said that immediately after the project was completed, he noticed an increase in pedestrian and bicycle traffic.
“It was the city’s desire to make the west side a better place to live. We realize that we can always do better, whether it be in outreach or modifications in the road,” said Larsen.