Is the ‘reverse commute’ happening in Utah?

The new commuter rail station in downtown Provo, which currently is home to few people.

The new commuter rail station in downtown Provo, which currently is home to few people.

NPR ran an interesting story Tuesday about the “reverse commute,” or people who live in the city and commute out to the suburbs.

This trend is not particularly surprising and has been documented elsewhere, but the NPR piece is interested because it points out how the trend is impacting rail transit. Indeed, the piece reveals that in Chicago at least, population is “surging” along transit lines:

LeVeque is one of a growing number of Chicagoans making the reverse commute by train. In fact, train ridership on the reverse commute is up 64 percent over the past decade. To both ease her commute and still enjoy city life, LeVeque made a critical choice: “I actually decided to move to this neighborhood because I wanted to be off the Metra train to get to work, and then I wanted to be off the Blue Line so that I could get downtown easily.”

The article includes some interesting information on “last mile” connections that help people get from work to train stations.

To some extent this is already probably playing out in Utah; suburban cities like Murray, Sandy, Draper and Orem all have jobs centers, and people certainly commute to them from the larger cities. My wife even does a reverse commute from downtown Salt Lake City to a suburb.

But Utah’s urban cores are also fairly vacant. There’s comparatively little housing in downtown Salt Lake City, for example, and Provo’s central business district has almost no housing (yet). In other words, most people in Utah are not doing a reverse commute.

So will that change?

Maybe. Utah is currently trying to use the transit “surge” to get what other cities already have: dense urban cores. UTA would agree I think — officials often mention transit oriented development — but what will be really interesting to see is if it works in Utah. I hope it does and think it stands a good chance, but there’s no question Utah’s development patterns are different — more dispersed, less dense — than major cities like Chicago.

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