Last December my family joined thousands of others who stood in long snaked lines to ride the Phoenix Metro Light Rail on its opening day. A New Yorker since 1984 who regularly rides buses, subways and trains, I wasn’t sure what a “light rail” was, and imagined it to be a miniature train like you’d find in a theme park. When a full-sized, sleek dual-car train pulled up to the platform, I laughed out loud at my puny imaginings.
That free ride was not only fun, it was a family first. No one in my family, which moved to Phoenix from Ohio in the 1950s, had ever taken public transportation in the city before. Phoenix has always been a car town. Like most Phoenicians we found the words “public transit” foreign; translated, the term meant “slow, infrequent bus to nowhere.” Our town was practically cabless and busless and had no trolleys ot commuter trains. Every family needed a car, and every business needed a parking lot—a recipe that led to sprawl (500 square miles of it), congestion and pollution. None of that has changed.
But the city itself is changing. With over four million people in its metropolitan area, Phoenix is consciously constructing an urban core. Phoenix has recognized the potential of its downtown to attract tourists and residents who find appealing the rich cultural offerings—the museums, library, civic center, sports arenas, galleries, theaters and cafés. A decade ago, the city designated particular downtown neighborhoods as “historical districts” and offered owners tax incentives to restore their homes. That success spawned new apartment construction nearby, well-attended Friday night “art walks” and street fairs. Then Arizona State University built a spanking new campus downtown, diverting some of its 67,000 students there, with student housing and commercial attractions to follow. The light rail could pull the tourists, students and residents together into one vibrant city center.
Constructing the light rail entailed risk and controversy. Laying track down the city’s main boulevard required uprooting the tall, picturesque palms that lined both sides of Central Ave. But the train promises more benefits than the palms gave. While the initial rail route covers just 20 miles, the train links with a number of buses and park-and-ride lots and moves people seven days a week from a shopping mall on the city’s west side down Central Ave., across the Salt River to Tempe (where the main A.S.U. campus is located), ending in Mesa, Arizona’s third largest city. If the public uses it, the light rail could invigorate Phoenix. It could also empower a workforce of low-income residents who have been all but trapped until now inside this city ringed by highways.
Just as the financial crisis hit, Phoenix launched its light rail. A shrinking tax base could adversely affect its progress. Then again, the rail might become a transportation lifeline. Once Phoenix was a set of suburbs without a center. Today, with a real public transportation system in place and a plan to develop its core, Phoenix is finally coming of age as a city.
During a visit last month I took a free shuttle bus from the Phoenix International Airport to the closest light rail stop, where a handful of others and I bought $1.25 tickets from a vending machine. We waited 10 minutes for a train at midday. As diverse passengers boarded, I noticed that several hung their bicycles onto the overhead racks in a bicycle car. I disembarked at stop No. 9 and pulled my rolling suitcase two blocks to my sister’s house. It was a breeze.
This jaded New Yorker and longtime public transit advocate even felt a twinge of envy that any trip from the airport could be so quick, so cheap and so easy.