I’ve been following the Phoenix Light Rail opening to try to predict what sort of reaction our own light rail system is going to have when it opens this summer. Arizona’s light rail is a bit different to Link – it’s entirely at-grade, for starters – but I think many of the lessons that Phoenix is learning we’re going to have to learn as well, for better or for worse. Over the next few weeks, I’m going to write a series of posts on Phoenix’s Metro Light Rail, and what we can expect from the first few months of Link, and the period after that. In this first post, I’m just going to talk about Phoenix and the Metro Light Rail.
Over the past few decades, the Phoenix Metropolitan Area has been one of the fastest growing in the country. Between 1990 to 2007, the area’s population grew by more than 80%, from about 2.2 million people to almost 4.2 million people. Despite the massive population growth, Phoenix remains the lowest-density big city in the country. The Metro area has a population density of about only 250 per square mile, and the city has a bit less than 3,000 per square mile. The Seattle, surrounded by low-density sprawl, has over 7,000 per square mile, and about 550 for our Metro Area, which has only three-quarters the population. Canonically sprawling Los Angeles maintains over 8,000 in the city and 2,600 in the greater Metro area. So in terms of sprawl, no one has Phoenix beat.
This image shows employment densities (top) and population densities (bottom) around Phoenix light rail stations. Sorry for the poor image quality, I took it from this blog, and apparently the author had to scan it from the print newspaper.
If you look, employment density is pretty large in downtown Phoenix, but it still comes no where close to what we have in Downtown Seattle, and even the most dense residential neighborhood on the line, in downtown Tempe, only approaches that of the Rainier Valley. I think this illustrates better than anything how low density Phoenix really is. Seattle is not an especially dense city, and the Rainier Valley is not an especially dense neighborhood in this city. But somehow that area is as dense as even the most dense parts of the area along the Phoenix LRT line.
A sprawling car-based city seems an unlikely place to build a successful rail line, but creating an option against sprawl was part of the motivation. In a lot of ways cities like Phoenix are the ones that need the most rail the soonest, since they are the least prepared for a reduction in driving caused by either congestion pricing or a shift away from fossil fuels. So after two decades of deliberation, in 2000 Phoenix residents passed a .4% sales tax increase, and the 20 mile line was built between Phoenix and Mesa by way of Tempe. The line has 27 at-grade stations, eight of which have park-and-rides. The $1.4 billion project opened in December, and enthusiasm has been huge.
The system uses cars made by Kinki Sharyo that are nearly identical to the cars Link will use. The main difference is the seat configuration: Link will have 74 seats per car, Metro Light Rail will have just 66. It’s odd that we have so many seats, with the trip so much shorter, while they have so few, since their route takes nearly an hour from end-to-end. That’s a lot of standing. There’s also room for eight bikes per car, compared to four for Link. Metro Valley Light Rail is also limited to three car trains, compared to Link’s four, so the system capacity is lower overall.
Transit oriented development is not something we are going to learn from Phoenix in the short, though it’s desperately need there. The line only just opened, and that in the middle of a massive housing slump. Over time Phoenix could be a place like Tyson’s Corner in Virginia or even Bellevue here where auto-centric low-density sprawl begins to give way to dense urbanization. It’s too early to tell, though Phoenix seems earnest about densifying along the line.
Since all Phoenix’s stations are at grade, we also won’t learn much about station design, though I am curious to see ridership reports for stations with and without park-and-rides. Phoenix has an average of 67 degrees in January, the coldest month of the year, so I don’t think we have a lot to learn about dealing with adverse weather or a summer rush. Low-density sprawl means lots of space for track, so we also won’t learn anything about how to build cheap transit either. So what can we learn?
In the next post in this series, I’ll write about what Phoenix did right in promoting their opening, and how Sound Transit and the transit community can help make Link’s July opening a Really Big Deal™ and a source of civic pride. After that I’ll look at how Phoenix has dealt with the hiccups that every new – and old – transit system has to deal with. Lastly, I’ll look to other cities that have built light rail in the last quarter century, including Pittsburgh, San Jose/Silicon Valley, and Portland, and see where they have been successful and where they have failed weaving their systems into their region’s mental fabric, and what Seattle needs to do with the rail system after it opens.