Having grown up in a town of less than 200,000 people, the need for a far reaching, efficiently run public transportation system was never much of a necessity for me. And, considering it was not a major city and everything was grouped rather close, there was really no need for it. It was, however, spread out and just big enough that unless you lived in specific areas, walking or riding a bike wasn’t an easy means of transport either. It has since changed and the city has grown more densely packed and easier to get what you need close by regardless of where you live in the city.
Since moving away, I have lived in several major cities with transportation systems that are either barely existent or too complex and intricate to navigate. Chicago, with its L-Train system and various subways, is one of the best managed and most efficient systems I have used. The free trolley downtown is also ingenious and is great because it makes the city beyond Michigan Avenue that much more accessible. The train system stretches so far outside of the heart of the city that I would have to say that it is probably the best I’ve experienced to date, given how accessible it is and how sprawling its reach extends. Phoenix, on the other hand, is terrible. At the time I lived there, I didn’t have a full dependency on public transportation, which is a good thing because I couldn’t imagine what all that would entail.
Anyone that is familiar with the geography of Phoenix knows that it is a large, sprawling mass that stretches far out into the surrounding desert and mountains. The central downtown area is not actually that large, so there are other pockets of the city in areas like Scottsdale and Tempe, where ASU is located, or Glendale, which is not as densely developed but still houses millions of residents, and areas like Sun City on the northwest side of the city with all of its retiree snowbirds, that until the last few years had very few ways of accessing it. Two semi-major roads run into it and they are nearly always slow moving because of the large number of residents in that area, and because the median age of drivers on the road is 65 years or older, which, as we all know, translates to much slower commute times.
Going back to transportation, it has been over 3 years since I’ve lived there, so I can only speak of the time in which I did live there and my personal experience with it at that time. It was around the same time that they first introduced the light rail system. What a complete and utter joke this huge investment of taxpayer dollars ended up being. It consists of one (yes, one!) rail that runs south from about 5 miles north of downtown Phoenix and then heads horizontally through the center of downtown and southeast through Tempe and finally ends on the border of Mesa. I understand that every city, when it comes to huge transportation investments, has to start somewhere and then expand from that point. But, it the light rail doesn’t even go to the airport. Sky Harbor INTERNATIONAL Airport! Somehow, they didn’t find it necessary to have the light rail run directly to and from a major international hub. It must be nice, however, for passengers trying to get to the airport to watch the planes taking off from their comfortable light rail seats as they ride smoothly parallel past the runway. How considerate that the department of transportation thought of the cities’ residents that are possibly new to the area and don’t have a friend that can drop them off or pick them up at the airport to help them avoid having to pay for an expensive cab ride.
There are great examples of efficiently run and dependable systems, however, besides Chicago. You’d have to travel northwest to cities such as Portland and Seattle to find them though. These systems, while not perfect, do serve as much better examples of what every major city should strive to accomplish. In Seattle’s case, rail systems run directly to and from the major airport, as well as to the other major parts of the city and even extends all the way to Vancouver, BC, with stops at all the towns in between. That rail system, paired with a public bus transit that reaches nearly every neighborhood in the city, combine to stretch extremely far outside of the city to some rather remote locations that without a personal vehicle would be rather difficult to reach.
I realize that this is mostly a monologue about how terrible Phoenix’s transit system is and less about shining examples to the contrary. But, keeping up with the nature of how most people share experiences, the negatives always tend to stand out more. Sue me.