Can Phoenix Reinvent Itself as a Transit City?

Perhaps no other city in the country has the reputation for sprawl that Phoenix does, and it is well deserved. This is a city built around the car — until 2008, sprawling suburban housing in Maricopa County was the driving force of the regional economy.

Phoenix has light rail, now there's the matter of having the right kind of development around it. Image: ##

Phoenix got a rude awakening in 2008, when the housing crash came. That same year, however, two fateful events occurred: The city’s light rail system opened and Arizona State University started its School of Sustainability. And out of that symbiosis, Reinvent Phoenix was born.

Reinvent Phoenix is a planning process for five walkable, urban “districts” around the light rail system. Each district will have a plan oriented around form-based code and other incentives for walkable, infill development that is well served by transit.

The concept grew out of a partnership between the city of Phoenix, ASU’s School of Sustainability and St. Luke’s Medical Center Health Initiatives. In 2011, they received a $3 million grant from the federal Partnership for Sustainable Communities, via the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Curt Upton, a planner with the city of Phoenix, said the city wanted to demonstrate that urbanism was a viable option in the region. They hope these districts will help motivate additional private investment in compact development elsewhere in Phoenix.

“We already know Phoenix can provide me the big house and the swimming pool, but it can also provide me a walkable urban neighborhood,” he said.

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The planning districts are all oriented within a half mile of transit. Braden Kay, the initiative’s community outreach coordinator, said there is a tremendous amount of potential for mixed-use development. The Gateway District, for example, is home to about 15,000 people currently. But Kay says if the district’s vacant land were developed — no housing moved — the district could house about five times as many people within walking distance from transit.

Upton says that could make the cost of living significantly lower. “There’s the opportunity to reduce transportation costs down to about 9 percent of a family’s budget – where the average family spends about 25 percent in a suburban environment based on cars,” he said.

“By lowering transportation costs, that kind of is a cross-cutting benefit that can help families cope with food issues, access to healthy food, access to jobs,” Upton added.

Planners are also making special efforts to ensure the introduction of light rail doesn’t lead to the displacement of less affluent residents. All the planning processes have been multilingual. Project planners have been focused on “not only how we motivate market-rate housing, but how we motivate affordable housing by light rail,” said Kay.

The City Council is expected to approve the first two district plans in December, Kay said.

16 thoughts on Can Phoenix Reinvent Itself as a Transit City?

  1. Another obstacle is the crappiness of Phoenix’s bus system. METRO light rail is good (not great — evening headways of 20 minutes put it below the threshold for convenient travel) if you can organize your life to lie along its one axis, but unless you’re a student, your life isn’t likely to be that simple. The same recession that forced rail headways to be cut to the point of inconvenience caused headway and span of service on most bus routes to be cut to a basic level, little better than lifeline service. If everyone in this new TOD ends up having to own a car to get around off-peak or away from the train, you haven’t built TOD.

    Phoenix is awash in underutilized and brownfield land, connected by a grid of fast, wide, mostly uncongested arterials: it’s an insanely easy place to make surface transportation work well. Upzoning land on streets with stations that run perpendicular to the light rail, using TIF or a LID to pay for bus improvements, could dramatically broaden the geographic and socioeconomic cross-section of the city that could be well-served by transit. This would multiplying the utility of the rail backbone, without taking away from the money needed to extend it, and make transit a more realistic alternative to the car in Phoenix.

  2. I think Phoenix has the following issues which will keep it from being a “transit city”. 1). Its huge land area coupled with low-density SFH residential development, compounded by no natural barriers (such as water) to said development. 2). Cultural issues predisposing its residents against densification, transit, biking, or pedestrianization. 3). Very hot average climate which makes it less than amendable to travel in anything but an air-conditioned vehicle. I just don’t see people in Phoenix biking 15 miles to work and back every day.

    Phoenix, Houston, and Dallas grew up around the private car and trying to make them something they’re not is either going to be overly expensive or else doomed to failure, or perhaps both. If gas or gas substitutes stay relatively cheap and personal transportation via autos remains as affordable as today these places have a future. Otherwise… very iffy.

    In 40 years Phoenix may be the Detroit of the Southwest; shrinking with nature re-encroaching on the built environment.

  3. People need to stop blaming climate for the way we design the built environment. Delhi in India is hotter than Phoenix, but the middle class use its extensive metro system in droves because it goes everywhere and runs frequently. It’s more convenient than driving.

    The huge issue is zoning. Phoenix requires low density development with lots of space for parking, so that’s what we get.

  4. Is it realistic to expect significant amounts of people anywhere to bike 15 miles to and from work every day? It seems like 5 tops is more realistic.

  5. Phoenix is a perfect name for a city that is the definition of unsustainable. In the US, perhaps only Las Vegas is a more perfect example of wishful thinking run amok.

  6. Delhi is hotter than Phoenix but it is far denser (more than 10x the population density of Phoenix!) thus making transit that much more workable, and India has a rail/transit culture that central AZ lacks. Also, many Delhiites do not own or cannot afford cars. This is not that case in Phoenix.

    It’s a chicken-and-egg problem that a lot of US cities have; Phoenix has low-density development, thus making transit expensive to implement and inconvenient to use, thus predisposing people to cars, thus fomenting low-density development, etc, etc.

    I’m not trying to be obstinate here, but in my opinion the idea that auto-age sunbelt cities can be retrofitted to “transit cities” is a bit facile. It may be possible to re-imagine them, but this would require massive capital input, adjusting zoning laws and neighborhood covenants, adjusting developer culture away from suburban-type development, changing employer culture (most employer assume car ownership), encouraging banks to lend for non-traditional development (read, mixed use instead of SFHs or strip malls), and subordinating the almighty auto just a tad. That’s a tall order.

  7. The issue with Phoenix is that it’s so diffuse and low-density that, on the average, people are more likely to live a long distance from work than in a pre-auto, East Coast city like Boston, Baltimore, or Philadelphia.

    People may eventually start limiting where they live or work based on proximity, but this would be limited by available housing stock, and in the case of home owners as opposed to renters, this shift would take a good long while.

  8. We have perfect biking weather at least 9 months out of the year and many people ride all year round. Other cities have to deal with rain, freezing temperatures and hills but no one seems to mention this. Instead, people focus on the heat, which only affects us a small portion of the year; and even then there are many days that are pleasant to bike in the morning and evening. For many of us, biking is how we get to work, the grocery store, restaurants and the movies – even in the heat.

    We look forward to our bike share program at the end of the year and the bike infrastructure that is to come now that more money has been allotted in the City of Phoenix budget. This is going to get more people to the light rail that otherwise couldn’t walk because it was too far. Phoenix just keeps getting better and we look forward to what Reinvent Phoenix will bring.

  9. Very true, but the difference is the housing crisis was much easier on the Texas cities. DFW and Houston are still building like crazy. Atlanta less so though.

  10. I hardly see people biking around to commute, except in Mesa. And those people bike because they can’t afford cars.

    My family bikes, but only for fitness. Now, they’ll easily go on a 60-100 mile bike ride, but offices don’t really accommodate for bike commuters. If you live further from your job, you’re going to get a bit sweaty and smelly, and offices don’t have the facilities for bikers to freshen up. I studied abroad in Copenhagen, where over 30% of people commute by bike, and they have an absolutely fantastic cycling infrastructure, with WIDE bike lanes and traffic signals that give cyclists a head start. And many businesses have showers, so people biking to work can clean up. I don’t see Phoenix or any other city/town in the East Valley being so accommodating. We just don’t have the biking culture, as much as I wish we did. It was hard coming back here after experiencing the wonders of excellent public transportation (even in the rural areas!) and a cycling culture.

  11. I totally agree here. I’m wondering if implementing a high-quality bus system could be some sort of solution (like in Bogota, Colombia). Buses are a lot cheaper than building infrastructure and can change routes, thus offering more flexibility. Part of the problem, besides low density, is the stigma against public transportation and biking, and our love of private vehicles.

  12. Just curious: How do you know that the people in Mesa are bicycling because they can’t afford cars? Is this an assumption or did you speak to every person on a bike?

    In Mesa, there are bike lanes on major streets so there is more of a presence of people on bikes. Mesa makes it easier to get around this way. Remember, people on bikes don’t necessarily take the same route as people in cars so there may be many more bicyclists in Phoenix than you think. For example, commuters tend to travel on the less-traveled neighborhood streets such as the 3rd and 5th Avenue to commute from Midtown to Downtown. We just don’t have enough bike lanes in the Central Corridor. Thankfully, this is about to change very soon. Also, The Bicycle Cellar is looking to locate downtown, which will mean shower facilities for commuters!

    If you’d like to get involved with the bicycling community and create change in Phoenix, we invite you to join us!

  13. But Dallas has an excellent light-rail system with four lines that go just about everywhere, including out to the airport. The real difference between Dallas and Phoenix is that Dallas had the intelligence and foresight to start building its light rail system in the 1980s. Phoenicians preferred to keep their heads in the sand and consistently voted down a train system until 2000. It’s not true that all sprawling cities are doomed to pathetically underdeveloped transit systems–just the ones full of ignorant, short-sighted, “don’t spend any of my tax dollars on anything that might benefit others besides me” voters.

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