Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Traffic in Little Cottonwood Canyon

This is my comment on the Utah Department of Transportation's plans to "to provide an integrated transportation system that improves the reliability, mobility and safety for residents, visitors, and commuters who use S.R. 210."

This is long, but I have tried to order it in such a way that the most important points come first, so don't give up now.  At least read the first 3 paragraphs, please.

First and foremost I'd like to ask, what problem are we really trying to solve?  Roughly 355 days a year there are no reliability, mobility, or safety problems on S.R. 210.  The weather is good, the roads are clean and clear, and traffic flows at or above the speed limit of the road.  We all need to understand that the problems with reliability, mobility, and safety only happen about 10 days a year, if the skiers are lucky and we get that many big snow storms.


Congestion on roads is annoying, but we need to seek to understand it before we try to fix it.  Congestion on a road happens because it leads to a popular place.  Lot's of people want to get to that place, so they get on that road.  The road gets congested and nobody can get to the popular place as fast as they could if there was no congestion.  This is what bothers us.  We have a road that could allow travel at a given speed, but because of the over crowding on the road, we all have to go slower than that speed.

Solutions to congestion are all temporary.  When a road is congested, there are some number of people that will simply choose not to go to the popular destination.  If you widen the road or add alternative means to get to the popular destination, at first the congestion will be alleviated, but before too long the people that were avoiding the popular place because of congestion will see that there is no congestion and they will start traveling to the popular place again.  Before too long you will have congestion again.  Anyone who has seen the progression of I-15 over the years here in Utah can understand this.  There will be more people getting to the popular destination than there were before, but there will still be congestion.

Understanding all that, we can better talk about what we are really doing.  We are not alleviating congestion (increasing mobility) long-term.  We are alleviating it short-term only, and we are providing the means for more people to reach the popular destination.  Is that really what we want in Little Cottonwood Canyon?  Can the ski resorts, hiking trails, picnic areas, climbing routes, etc. handle more people?  Or will they become congested too?

Reliability and Safety

These are essentially the same concern.  When it snows, cars and busses are less reliable because they might get stuck or slide off the road.  In extreme cases they might slide into each other or off the road which is a safety issue.  This is where I would like to point out how strange it is that UDOT has recently stopped talking about these concerns in Big Cottonwood Canyon (S.R. 190) and is now only talking about Little Cottonwood Canyon (S.R. 210).  I would really like to see data on reliability and safety in both canyons because in my following of the two it appears that S.R. 190 has far more accidents and slide offs than S.R. 210.  S.R. 190 is a much longer, windier road with areas of very steep drop-offs down to the creek.  I have noticed that S.R. 190 gets closed to deal with accidents (stranding skiers on the road or at the resorts for hours on end) far, far more often than S.R. 210.  Is any of this plan really concerned with reliability and safety?  If so, it should consider both canyons.

Bus Lanes vs. Gondola

Now, all that being said, let's address this specific plan which seems to assume that yes, the canyon can and should accommodate more people and is in dire need of more reliability and safety.  Considering all the above, I believe neither solution is a good idea.  Both will be incredibly costly and have very real negative impacts on the environment.  Neither will make a difference on the 355 good traffic days a year, and in the long run, neither will solve the congestion problems on the 10 bad days a year.  The one thing the gondola plan has going for it is the increased reliability and safety on those 10 bad days, but I see no data that justifies the extreme cost for what is likely to be only very small increase in reliability in safety in the one canyon that doesn't have that big of a reliability and safety problem anyway, while we ignore the other canyon that does have real reliability and safety problems (on those 10 days a year).

My belief is we should look for more cost effective ways to address the reliability and safety issues only, in both canyons(!), and not proceed with either a road widening or gondola project.