Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist

Phoenix (!?) Gets On Board With Light Rail

Dateline: 8:44 am January 24, 2009 Filed under:

Dateline Phoenix….

Light rail isn’t the first thing that comes to mind in this sprawling city in the desert, with its vistas of distant mountains simmering in the heat. But when service began in late December, it seems the people of Phoenix have indeed jumped at the chance to jump on board the shiny new silver trains. In the words of Bob the Builder – “Can we ride it?” “Yes we can!”

When I found out I had a meeting at Arizona State University in Tempe, it came to my attention that light rail had just opened and that it served the University area. Perfect! Cross checking Valley Metro’s map of the line with an Orbitz hotel search with Google Earth, I picked out the Crowne Plaza near Sky Harbor Airport. I could watch planes and trains out my window – heaven!

When I emerged from my hotel in the morning to head downtown to meet with a Valley Metro official for a tour of the line, I only needed to walk around 100 feet from the door to the platform at the 44th/Washington Street station. The direct line from the front door to the platform has no crosswalk, nor an official access to the platform; you just cross two lanes of traffic, the northbound rail, and hop up on the platform. The footprints through the hotel’s rock garden indicates I’m not the only one to take that path.

The line is 20 miles long with 28 stations. From my hotel, downtown Phoenix is five stations and just over 15 minutes west. Arizona State is three stops and 10 minutes east. Right now there is a frequent bus shuttle from the 44th/Washington Street station to Sky Harbor airport, but in about five years you’ll be able to get off the train there, check your bag curbside at the light rail station, check in, and take a people mover to the terminal. How sweet is that!?

Still, it doesn’t seem as though the system begins to cover the immense geography of the Phoenix metro area. After all, it just serves three cities; Phoenix, Tempe and one station in Mesa. But, to horribly butcher the words of the Chairman, if light rail can make it here, it can make it anywhere.

Downtown Phoenix has nearly 100,000 jobs and a basketball arena and baseball stadium, and the ASU campus in Tempe is huge. I imagine those two places will generate most of the projected 26,000 daily riders. But I rode the train serveral times over the course of the day, and my own observation was moderate commuting traffic but even more people riding at off peak times or against presumed commuter flow. (I suppose with unemployment up, commuting is indeed down. Maybe nobody has jobs and they’re riding the train to pass time!)

After experiencing the first light rail line open in Minneapolis five years ago, it is fun to watch Valley of the Sun dwellers acclimate to rail. I talked to a guy who just started using mass transit a week ago after the train opened. Others seemed to be taking a ride just to check it out.

You can tell most people are getting used to it by how much attention they pay to its operation and route. A new transit line changes people’s view of the geography they think they know. Some are unsure their bike will stay in place on the vertical bike rack, and in fact I saw one bike tumble down. The crosswalk outside my hotel probably never had a pedestrian ever set foot in it, yet at 5:30PM a couple dozen people got off the train there, some heading to the airport shuttle with their rolling bags, others to their cars or perhaps home.

Development will be a challenge. A couple stations have some pretty good recent development of the four to eight story mixed-use residential kind, but there is a lot of no-man’s land around and between stations. At one station, there is a Starbuck’s across from the platform, but no logical pedestrian access to it, just an auto access and an adobe-colored retaining wall. Retrofitting this pattern will be difficult.

I was actually struck by how many cranes were swinging across the skyline, considering how decimated Phoenix is by the real estate bust and recession. I get the feeling that the Oscar’s Tire and Wheels and Bill Johnson Equipment aren’t long for this world in their present location a block from a light rail station.

Will this vast desert metro area become an oasis of transit-oriented development? Only time will tell, but this sure is a step in the right direction.

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