There's a lot of elbow room in the "Valley," the nickname local residents call Metro Phoenix. The desert city is almost a textbook definition of sprawl. It's dominated by expressways, suburban-style infrastructure and surface parking lots. Finding a building taller than a story or two is not an easy task. Ranch houses on large lots with big driveways dominate the housing stock, even in the city's densest neighborhoods. It's not uncommon that these homes are on lots large enough to raise horses.
Phoenix is without a doubt one of the flattest metropolises in America. It's also one of the fastest-growing metro areas in the U.S., with millions more new residents expected to sprawl out into the desert over the next decade.
And yet despite this long tradition and foreseeable future of low population density, Phoenix is in the middle of building a $1.4-billion light rail line right through the heart of the valley.
The 20-mile long Valley Metro Rail is a key component in the area's transportation strategy, local officials say, giving residents and visitors alike valuable transportation options outside of automobiles.
"Otherwise you end up with gridlock," says Jim Mathien, the planning project manager for Valley Metro Rail. "You need more transportation choices because you don't have enough green fields to build freeways."
Many Metro Detroit leaders have yet to reach that level of thinking. As every motorist stuck in traffic or citizen unable to drive knows, local leaders have been content to leave the populace chained to the automobile for decades. One of the biggest arguments made against mass transit year after year is that Southeast Michigan isn't dense enough to support rapid transit options, such as light or commuter rail. And yet, big city after big city in America with lesser population density discard that 1950s thinking in favor of building or enhancing mass transit options while Detroit and its suburbs sit stuck in traffic.
"It's not always about density," Mathien says. "It's about the institutions and connecting them and the transportation options in that area."
At its best Phoenix has the density equivalent of Livonia. About 223 people live in a square mile in the valley on average, according to the 2000 U.S. Census. Detroit averages about 1,139 residents per square mile. Chicago has 1,634 while San Francisco averages 1,704.
Other smaller, less dense metro areas have moved forward with their own light rail projects that have proved to be runaway successes in recent years. Denver, with a population density of 560, built a light rail line in the 1990s and is now expanding it and adding commuter rail. Salt Lake City, population density of 824, built a light rail line in 1999, which has turned into a raging success. So much so there are plans to extend it and add commuter rail lines for a total of 134 miles of operating rail lines by 2015.
Salt Like City isn't a poster child for urban density either. Its metro area has been totally dependent, and infatuated, with the automobile for generations. It embraced the western American ideal of wide open spaces. Understandably there was a significant faction dead set again light rail when its initial line was proposed.
"We had public officials claiming this was going to be a huge failure," says Chad Saley, a spokesman for the Utah Transit Authority. "They didn't support it at all. Now they're some of our biggest supporters. They can't wait until they get their own extensions."
Dennis Nordfelt, mayor of West Valley City, a Salt Lake City suburb, was one of those people. He made the arguments that his hometown wasn't dense enough to support light rail and people wouldn't leave their cars to take the train. Today Nordfelt is "very proud" of the light rail line and calls its expansion an "absolutely important" issue on par with water.
He also admits that "crow tastes pretty good if you put enough salt on it."
"I was just flat out wrong," Nordfelt says. "I'm now a light rail convert and rider. I don't go uptown in my car unless I absolutely have to."He adds that he doesn't know what Salt Lake City would have done without its light rail line during the 2002 Winter Olympics. In comparison
Detroit struggled to efficiently get people to downtown on a cadre of buses during the Super Bowl. Salt Lake City's light rail line has spurred significant development along it and has even bumped up bus ridership levels since its opening in 1999.
Nordfelt is such a big proponent of mass transit options, like light rail, he encourages major metro areas such as Detroit to just take the leap and build them.
"We should have done this a long time ago," Nordfelt says. "It would have been less costly. But it's even more costly to do it later. The time to do it is now."
Mass transit equal mass investment
Mass transit doesn't necessarily need New York City-style density to thrive, but it helps create that type of cosmopolitan vibrancy. Transit, like light rail, usually attracts millions of dollar in investment in the surrounding area, increasing both commercial and residential development. This in turn raises property values and creates synergies in the local communities.
Examples of this type of phenomena abound. Metro Los Angles' San Fernando Valley, a stereotypical sprawling community if there ever was one, is seeing development move from suburban-style spawl to denser, downtown-type development because of a newly created mass transit line there. Millions more dollars are being invested, including million-dollar condos, along Minneapolis' newly constructed Hiawatha light rail line.
"Transit can make that happen," says Megan Owens, executive director of Transportation Riders United, a Metro Detroit mass transit advocacy non-profit. "We're not going to have a thriving downtown if every other building is a parking structure."
Despite Metro Detroit's dismal record regarding mass transit initiatives and number of leaders opposed to things like light rail, Owens is quite optimistic. She sees projects like the proposed commuter rail line between Ann Arbor and Detroit, Metro Airport taking off within the next year and more.
"I would bet within five years we will have some sort of mass transit line operating on Woodward," Owens says. "I don't know what it would look like because there are several proposals, but I think we will see it relatively soon. We definitely have a great deal of momentum to establish a mass transit system in this region."
Although these types of projects have a lot of opposition to overcome. Misconceptions from local leaders that Southeast Michigan isn't dense enough or wouldn't ride mass transit are either not looking at the numbers or missing the point, especially in a world where paying $4 or $5 for a gallon of gas is quickly becoming a reality.
"It's not that we're trying to drag everyone out of their cars and put them in a train," Owens says. "We want to give people choices."
And creating favorable externalities for Metro Detroit. Many other cities across the nation are enjoying the development created around mass transit corridors and reductions in pollution.
"Rapid transit is about a lot more than moving people from Point A to Point B," Owens says. "It's about creating vibrant communities. It's about making Detroit and the suburbs the types of vibrant communities people believe they can become. We need to not only think about what do we want today but want we want 20, 30, 40 years from now. Do we want to continue to sprawl out into the farmlands or do we want to change what we're doing?"
Jon Zemke is the editor of metromode's Development News and a Detroit-based freelance writer. His previous feature for 'mode was Michigan Freakonomics.
This story originally ran 6/14/2007
Light rail just outside a city's limits
Prototype of Phoenix's streetcar (courtesy of Valley Metro Rail)
Phoenix airport and skyline
Salt Lake City, Utah is a small city with big investment in light rail
Streetcar in Portland, Oregon
People mover in downtown Detroit (photo by Dave Krieger)
All photographs licensed from istock except as noted
Click here to see an animated demonstration of Phoenix's Valley Metro light rail: