Valley Metro light rail
Phoenix Light Rail, by stevevance

In the second of the series about the Phoenix light rail opening (you can read the first here), I’m going to look at how Phoenix promoted its light rail opening, and what Seattle can learn from their experience in time to make our Light Rail line’s July openning a big deal.

Phoenix’s light rail opened to extremely positive news stories about the construction, stations and that trains that were packed with people getting on the line for the first time (see the video) and even news stories from other cities jealous of the new line. Can this happen here? And why did it happen there?

A first thing to note, is that Phoenix has been enjoying a fair bit of civic pride anyway. The Arizona Cardinals were in the Super Bowl and the NBA All-Star game was held in Phoenix, and there were light trains wrapped in NBA All-Star game advertisements. Phoenix also has been in need of  some positive news, with home prices in Phoenix down 40% in a year, and super-suburb Mesa the poster child for foreclosure.

A major component for the positive news coverage is that Phoenix came close enough to finishing on time and on budget as to not garner massive criticism. Sound Transit and Link have a different story, since Sound Transit had serious troubles at the beginning of the decade, and faced calls for a re-vote and even arguments for dismantling the agency. Seattle also has a unique tendency for complaining and navel-gazing, and I’m certain the Seattle Times will write another less-than-enthusiastic op-ed piece for the lines opening (no one has told them that it’s easier to read the newspaper on a train than in a car). Outside of some positive television news stories – the line opening is going to make for great television – I don’t expect a lot of positive news coverage.

So what can be done here to build excitement? Gimmicky things like station name t-shirts or route-map t-shirts might work. With a link stop a block from Safeco field, trains wrapped in Mariners colors might help. Other gimmicks that Phoenix tried were a pre-opening ride for contest winners, and an appreciation dinner for those who helped get the line built. Fireworks can’t hurt, especially if the line opens at the beginning of July closer to the 4th of July, and a party at each station might be hard to pull off, but will definitely bring the people down. But for Sound Transit, the most important thing is hitting the July date, and having no hiccups in the first few days.

Sound Transit is going to hold some open festivities,  and certainly transit advocates can get involved in that. This blog will be holding a station-area photo scavenger hunt and a possibly a pub crawl. TCC is going to be there,  and I’m sure other environmental and transportation groups are going to be there too. Hopefully, the beautiful summer weather will get the people out. And that’s where it matters here, I think. Seattleites won’t be impressed with the new line unless it gets riders. Now we’re more than a month out from Phoenix LRT opening, and the first ridership numbers were significantly more than expected. The best way we can build excitement around the opening is to ride the train, and the best way we can ensure positive news in the longer run is to do the same.

So it turns out to be pretty simple, but not that easy. For the next post in the series, I’ll look at the inevitable problems that the Phoenix rail line has faced since it opened, and try to see what we can learn from their experience on that front.

31 Replies to “How Phoenix Made Light Rail A Big Deal”

  1. I expect a relatively positive opening for Link – despite the Seattle Times.

    I know Sound Transit sent staff down to Phoenix to observe their opening and hopefully come away with some lessons learned, and ST will certainly have plenty of festivities and opening day trinkets to bring the public down and produce plenty of good TV news feeds. ST has already committed to running 4-car trains the first weekend as they expect the crowds to be huge.

    Yes, the Seattle Times will run another whiny article about the cost and they will probably interview some grouchy anti-transit gadfly somewhere who is against everything, but the Times will largely be out of step with the rest of the coverage.

    July 3rd is not that far away. It’s going to be a game changer.

  2. So what is Sound Transit doing exactly to make Link opening as exciting and memorable to be a success?

    1. We’ll see. I imagine some of the same things, though I don’t reckon fireworks will be going off in the rainier valley.

  3. This is depressing. After looking at the east side routing, it’s beginning to look like another glorified bus on rails, zig-zagging here and there, just like a local bus route would do.

    1. Sam, you need to keep comments relevant to the blog entry. East Link routing is not relevant to this post. We have plenty of other threads for that comment to go in, though.

  4. I hope you really mean “Bacon Bomb”, because with a Beacon Hill station on the line your comment could be construed as representing something a lot more sinister (and probably something worthy of investigation by the TSA).

    Suggesting such things is not funny.

  5. I wouldn’t worry to much about what the Seattle Time says as Seattle might be a no-newspaper town by July 3rd.

    1. The Seattle Times has nothing good to say about anything. They are going out of business, how could they be positive when that is happening?

  6. Station names here aren’t good for t-shirts. Who would want to wear a “beacon hill” t-shirt? or a “Westlake Center” t-shirt? A system map t-shirt could work, but this is one case where Phoenix has us beat already.

    1. From the station icons they’ve come up with it looks like ST has quite an imaginative team. I could imagine these icons working well as t-shirts, if done well.

    2. Maybe a t-shirt with the Link LRV on in and say “Opening the Link” or some catchy phrase w/ the word Link in it.

  7. If one looks at most major infrastructure projects that have been built, most of them had to cut back on the initial size of the project due to cost or increase the budget and finish the project beyond original timeframe. But hardly anyone now remembers or cares about the costs and they are all glad to use it or have it at their disposal.

    Despite the early set back in the cost of Link, the important thing is Sound Transit was able to learn from the mistakes and come up with a new plan. I think one can safely say that now Sound Transit is in a better position and will be able to deliver the project on time and on budget. If we keep comparing to the original plan, then all those transit projects around could also be considered a failure.

  8. One of the things done right here in Phoenix was that the transit agency and city governments worked with community groups and institutions in neighborhoods along the line to host parties at almost every station on opening day. These parties accomplished quite a few goals:

    -Reminded riders from the suburbs of interesting places to visit along the line.
    -Built pride and a sense of ownership in neighborhoods near stations.
    -Create a general sense of excitement about the light rail.
    -Made long waits for rides on opening day seem worth the effort.
    -Made it easy to recruit volunteers to help passengers find their way on opening day.
    -Provided most attendees with some sort of souvenir to take home and remind them of light rail.

    It’s amazing how these parties attracted enthusiasm even from organizations far removed from the light rail line. I attended a party at the Heard Museum in Midtown and was astonished to see that the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art had set up a table there. Keep in mind that Scottsdale is the most egregious omission from the light rail system in Phoenix. It’s a major employment center and tourist destination, but it has chosen to sit out light rail due to the usual suburban fears and naysaying about transit. A Scottsdale institution’s decision to align with a light rail party says something about the success of Phoenix’s grand opening.

    1. Small world. The transit manager of Scottdale got her start as a planner for the RTA, in the early 90’s.

  9. One of the things I set up for the opening of Sounder, was to have several volunteers at each station to help folks with TVM’s, transfering to/from buses, general info, and just being a smiling face.
    Link will have lots of staff out too, and maybe some dignitaries sprinkled around (just look for the camera lights).
    Anyway, it was a good experience for our organization, good for ST, and we all got a Sounder long sleeve shirt out of the deal.
    That seemed like a fair trade.
    The training ST did was very breif, and took place at one of our meet-ups in the ID district.

    1. How did you get to work at Sounder opening? I’m interested in volunteering in this sort of capacity for Link opening.

      1. I headed up the Commuter Rail Section of the Washington Assoc. of Rail Passengers at the time. We met with ST and asked if we could help out around opening day. It turned out to be for 3 days, but I suspect the STB folks have the inside track (no pun intended) on Link Rail.

  10. The celebrations at the light rail stops in Phoenix were just a coincidence. In fact, everyone was celebrating the fact that Central Avenue is now driveable after three years of constant construction. ;) LOL

    I rode the Phoenix light rail on opening weekend because it was free and I wanted to try it out. I will not be using it regularly because it is too far south from my neighborhood and does not go anywhere that I would want to go. I imagine other people are happy to have it though.

    1. The celebrations were deliberately planned by the transit agency in conjunction with city governments and community groups. That’s hardly a coincidence.

  11. How about a free Orca cards with 4 free rides sent to everyone that pays tax for the project?

    Also I would make it 1.00 or free for rides on Sundays for life.

  12. David makes some excellent points (as usual) about the planning of the grand opening celebrations in Arizona.
    The curiosity factor continues to bring out and introduce tens of thousands of people to the new system. People continue to use the light rail line to explore some of the great attractions / destinations along the line. Restaurants are extending hours, shuttle services to the line are being implemented and others are being examined. The sprawl mentality is alive and well but is now sharing space with people excited to use the new system for work and for play.
    Our arts community has seen a benefit, baseball fans are excited to use light rail instead of fighting traffic / parking problems and employers are on board in promoting convenience and cost savings to their employees.
    The first week of light rail was free to ride for everyone and the crowds were insane. Introducing people to the system and allowing them to see some of the areas served looks to have been a good decision by Metro. Some of the mistakes in the works are the doubling of the current day pass already. The $5.00 proposed fee isn’t really the worst thing in the world, it just has “poor timing” written all over it.

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