I’m always amazed at how much Phoenix changes every time I go back. I lived in Phoenix for seven years in the ’90’s, when essentially there were three highways dissecting the Valley of the Sun. I’ve gone back maybe about once every two years or so, and each of those trips back revealed another thirty miles of highways and another fifty square miles of development. I became numb to the endless suburban sprawl and how it consumed the beautiful desert landscape.
Last week I was visiting family in Phoenix when I noticed a glimpse of urbanity – a light rail. When I attended Arizona State I remembered a guest speaker in my urban design class that profusely denied that Phoenix had the ability to support a mass transit system based on a light rail train. He argued that the city was too sparsely populated and that there was an inefficient number of destinations that would warrant people taking the train.
He was definitely right about the population. If you think of the population like peanut butter, most established metropolitan areas are like crunchy peanut butter – the nuts represent high density nodes where a large population either live or congregate, and the rest of the peanut butter is the sparse population consisting strip malls and single-family homes. The peanut butter that is Phoenix would be nearly as smooth as smooth can be. Actually there might be a couple of smaller nuts representing downtown, Sky Harbor Airport, and Arizona State University. Outside of that there are no peanuts.
But the point that guest speaker missed entirely was that a funny thing happens when you build a light rail station – people (i.e. developers) build more dense properties. Most people want to live somewhere with some kind of amenities, and living a few hundred feet from a light rail station allows those residents access to many more of the things they want access to in life.
Of course what good is a light rail unless it goes somewhere, and Phoenix has for the most part succeeded with connecting the dots with most of their peanuts. The one line of the Valley Metro connects to downtown (a new and improved pedestrianized downtown) and the stadiums and museums, Sky Harbor (something I really wished Denver had done in providing a light rail to DIA), and Arizona State University (with the main campus having around 50k+ students).
What the light rail does provide is the potential of creating more urbanized communities within the metropolitan, and with it comes a more humane pedestrian environment that essentially becomes less dependent on the necessities of an automobile oriented society – such as the costs associated with owning a car and the necessary parking needed; the pollution created by a car in a stop-and-go urban environment; the thinning of civic services such as police and fire protection, and water and sanitation utilities, and the construction and maintenance of roads; and the wasted time and road rage involved with driving with morons (people who drive slower than you) and maniacs (people who drive faster than you).
It was a pleasant surprise to see a sense of urbanism taking hold within the Valley of the Sun. Something as simple as a light rail station has the ability to spawn an urban environment from an otherwise typical shopping center parking lot.
Of course building a light rail within your community is not the end all fix to everything that’s wrong with the American suburban environment , but I have witnessed that an urban environment is possible in your community, no matter how many peanuts your city has.