No matter where you go in the world, there's one core necessity underlying successful rapid transit networks: they have to have a sufficiently dense population to serve. With that in mind, then, it should come as no surprise that Phoenix, Arizona, chugged through the majority of the twentieth century with no transit solution more sophisticated than buses. Its streetcar days ended in 1948, after most of the Phoenix Street Railway's fleet was destroyed in a fire1, and with the popularization of air conditioning shortly thereafter, Phoenix and its surrounding communities flung themselves across the desert with wild abandon. Phoenix itself experienced a 311.1% population increase between 1950 and 1960, and the vast majority of those people most probably ended up in the same sort of sprawling suburban developments that still dominate the Valley of the Sun today. It's precisely that pattern of development that made Phoenix the fifth most populous city in the United States; only New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Houston are bigger.
Despite the opportunities made possible by a population that breached half a million before 1970, it wasn't until very recently that Phoenix's anemic, purely bus-based transit situation began to change. On December 27, 2008, after nearly four years of construction, the modern Metro Light Rail opened for revenue service, and once again Phoenicians could ride the rails without leaving town. The present system forms the spine of what may develop into a significantly wider network over the next few decades, presuming that future governments don't bury expansion plans; even the current system is only a shadow of a planned 108-mile elevated light rail route, shot down in a 1989 referendum.
For me, Phoenix's metro was something of a new experience. While I'm not a stranger to light rail, my familiarity with it is in cities like Los Angeles or Toronto2, where light rail lines branch outward from a central subway network and extend into less dense areas. Phoenix's system is the first I've used where light rail itself forms the spine of the rail system, and from what I observed it's a resilient spine at that - and I hope that the future will bear that observation out. Subway construction isn't getting any cheaper, and the last fifteen years have seen a constellation of American cities from Dallas to Minneapolis invest in building up a light rail-based transit infrastructure. If light rail can prosper in Phoenix and its environs, then it can prosper anywhere.
But only if people understand it.
Two trains meet across the platform at Sycamore/Main, the system's current eastern terminus, in the city of Mesa.
First off, calling it Phoenix's Metro Light Rail is a slight misnomer, just as Vancouver's SkyTrain serves five cities in all. The system actually serves three cities, and while you'll find much of its mileage in Phoenix, the rails extend through the city of Tempe and, for now, terminate in Mesa. In all, the twenty miles (thirty-two kilometers) of rails connect thirty-two stations across the three cities, and as of last year served an more than forty-three thousand riders per day. From my observations, it's certainly well-used - when I rode a train east to the Mesa terminus at 5 PM on a Saturday, it remained essentially at capacity all the way to the end of the line.
As long as I'm on the subject of misnomers, the Metro Light Rail doesn't involve tunnels either. It's entirely surface-running, minimizing construction expenditures and allowing passengers to watch the strange, strange Phoenix cityscape go by. Outside downtown Phoenix, which itself is surprisingly small for such a large city, the pattern of construction is wide and low. Aside from a few condo complexes in Tempe, there doesn't yet seem to be much in the way of transit-oriented development. Between downtown Phoenix and Tempe, the route passes through what seems to be spread-out industrial and commercial areas.
Unlike Los Angeles, where the light rail lines run in former rail rights-of-way or, in the case of the Green Line, the median of Interstate 105, much of the Metro Light Rail's mileage takes the form of dedicated rights-of-way on city streets. Although transit priority signals are ubiquitous along the line, within downtown Phoenix trains frequently have to deal with traffic light cycles. In this respect, at least, it was more reminiscent of the Toronto streetcar system than the light rail lines of Los Angeles.
Moreover, through downtown Phoenix the eastern and western segments of the line are physically separated; westbound trains travel along Washington and Central and eastbound trains use Jefferson and 1st, one city block apart. A good chunk of these unidirectional lines follow outer rather than inner lanes, with the right-of-way separating the street from the sidewalk - something I've only ever encountered in Los Angeles, along the Flower Street segment of the Blue Line.
Unlike the 1989 elevated rail proposal, there's no direct link between the Metro Light Rail and Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. Right now, free shuttle buses run by the airport authority link the terminals with a small loop adjacent to 44th Street/Washington station, and the future PHX Sky Train is set to connect the rail once the first stage is completed in 2013. This is a key innovation, as it will enable people travelling between Phoenix and Vancouver to take the SkyTrain to the airport and from the airport no matter what city they're in.
A typical Metro Light Rail ticket vending machine. This one is at Van Buren/1st Avenue, an eastbound-only station in downtown Phoenix.
Fares on the Metro Light Rail are extremely reasonable compared to some other systems I've ridden. As of January 2011, individual rides on the light rail cost $1.75 - though such tickets are no good on buses operated by Valley Metro, the transit agency that operates the light rail and bus transit in the Phoenix metropolitan area. An all-day pass valid on rail and bus can be got for $3.50, and a three-day pass like the one that got me around during my long-weekend stay was a mere $10.50 - and there are no fare zones to deal with. I can't speak with authority on the one-ride or all-day passes, but my three-day pass came on a paper card with a magnetic strip and a stylized saguaro cactus on the front. According to the rules they're non-transferable, but since there's no room or requirement for any kind of photo identification, it's hard to tell how this particular rule is enforced.
Service schedules are fair, considering the newness of the system - in fact, frequencies are substantially better than I would have expected, with a breadth of service hours typical of a system with deeper foundations - hell, when the SkyTrain first started running in 1985, there were only six hours of service on Sundays. On weekdays Phoenix's trains start running before 5 AM and don't stop until shortly before 1 AM, and on Fridays and Saturdays this night owl service is extended until nearly 4 AM; there aren't many hours of the week in which a light rail train isn't rolling somewhere in Phoenix. The counterbalance for this long service comes in the form of fairly long headways - even during rush hour trains generally aren't any less than twelve minutes apart, with fifteen- and twenty-minute headways common outside of the heavy-use periods.
Thinking back on it a month later, one of the things that still strikes me as unusual about the Metro Light Rail is how it seems to be vaguely disconnected from its surroundings, that there only seem to be a few significant trip generators - US Airways Center and Chase Field, Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, and Mill Avenue and the Arizona State University campus in downtown Tempe - along its route. It feels more like a vastly scaled-down commuter railway than a transit system that can enable a transit-oriented lifestyle - a direct result of the planning decisions that have shaped modern Phoenix. I can't recall seeing a single supermarket from any point of my travels along the line. Nevertheless, I'll admit I may be misreading the nature of its surroundings; I'll have to leave it to interested Phoenicians to weigh in on that aspect.
Priest Drive/Washington Street station in Tempe - appropriately also known as Papago Park Center, as it is the main transit gateway to Papago Park, the Phoenix Zoo, and the Desert Botanical Garden.
No matter where you go in Phoenix or its environs, it's impossible to forget that you are in a desert. The average high temperature in Phoenix in June is 41 degrees Celsius, and the all-time record stands at fifty degrees C. The stations of the Metro Light Rail are built with the simple truths of this climate in mind. They're completely open to the elements with only simple roofshades over the platforms, all the better to let the wind stream through freely and bring some relief to waiting travellers on those scorching summer days, though I don't think they would provide much relief from the beating-down sun except when it's almost directly overhead.
As a result, so far as I can tell, each and every Metro Light Rail station comes equipped with water fountains on the platform - after all, you don't need to spend much time in a desert to understand that water is life. While the water I tried did have a rather strong iron taste to me, it was at least cold.
To my knowledge, public art is likewise universal across the system. It varies from naturalistic clinging vines to more abstract light sculptures between stations, but on the whole it helps provide a sense of individuality and, if nothing else, gives people something to look at while they wait for the train. Nor are the art installations overshadowed by vandalism - I didn't notice any graffiti or intentional damage at the stations I visited, possibly due to the combination of CCTV monitoring and the Adopt-A-Station Program, through which sponsor organizations or individuals maintain their adopted stations to a good standard of cleanliness.
It's a good deal for both the sponsors, who get their names out there as supporters of the community, and Valley Metro, which doesn't have to handle the logistics of basic station maintenance. This, I think, is a concept that could do well to be exported to other cities. Toronto in particular has long been grappling with dirty subway stations because of age and insufficient cleaning staff - station adoption programs could conceivably turn that sort of thing around.
The architecture of the stations themselves are greatly dependent on the nature of the rails they serve. For most stations, they're open center platforms accessible either directly from an intersection crosswalk or their own dedicated crosswalks. This can make quick access a bit dicey on occasions - as a car-centric city, it shouldn't come as much surprise that traffic signals favor automotive traffic to a far greater degree than pedestrians.
When it comes to naming stations, Phoenix tends to follow the example of other American systems with which I'm familiar. All stations are named after the closest major intersection - generally city streets, but towards the eastern end of the line Interstate 105 is used for orientation - with the slash pronounced as "and" by the automated stop announcements.
Aside from sub-platform signs visible from the sidewalk that command "DO NOT CROSS TRACKS," there's nothing separating waiting straphangers from the street save for the tracks themselves. Granted, this isn't much of a safety hazard since the Metro Light Rail is powered by overhead catenary, but in principle there's nothing to keep an intrepid fare-dodger from dashing across the street to the platform - aside, that is, from the risk of being flattened by traffic or an oncoming train. There aren't any barriers like there are along the unidirectional segments where the rails and sidewalks are adjacent - because really, if you're out there to begin with, you've already taken your life into your own hands anyway.
One prime drawback I found at the stations is that there doesn't seem to be much integration with the Valley Metro bus system. A few stations - Veterans Way/College Avenue in Tempe and the paired Van Buren/1st Avenue and Van Buren/Central in downtown Phoenix spring to mind - are adjacent to transit exchanges and Sycamore/Main is across the street from one, but for the most part the system seems to stand apart. There's not much indication on the platforms about what buses can be picked up in the immediate area, or where you'd have to go to get them. Moreover, aside from the alternate station names, which tend to use a major nearby point of interest - 44th Street/Washington, for example, is also signed as PHX Sky Harbor Airport - there's not much clear indication of local points of interest. I couldn't find any station-area maps or general route maps, either.
A three-car train passes Phoenix's Portland Avenue on a westbound run under a warm and sunny January sky.
As a new system, it makes sense that the Metro Light Rail hasn't had much need to diversity its rolling stock. Right now it operates fifty Kinki Sharyo LF LRVs, the same models as were recently brought into service on the Central Link light rail system in Seattle. Over the course of my time there I saw trains operating in one-, two-, and three-car configurations, though the two-car arrangement was most common. They're low-floor vehicles, easy to board and easy to move around in so long as you're not reckoning with a standing-room-only crowd.
Going by the specifications, they're actually somewhat comparable to the ALRVs in service on the Toronto streetcar system - they're sixteen feet longer, with capacity for sixty-six seated passengers as opposed to sixty-one on the ALRV, but the low floor and the twelve-foot ceiling makes them feel considerably roomier. To me it felt like there was much more breathing room in a Phoenix light rail car than on a loaded Mark I SkyTrain - the nature of the space was far more reminiscent of a Canada Line train or a Toronto subway car. What I really appreciated is that, unlike on Mark I SkyTrains, only a few of those sixty-six seats are arranged in side-by-side rows. Generally, the seating arrangement is rather reminiscent of modern Orion buses with a low forward area, an elevated rear space and seats arranged in pairs.
Two unoccupied bike racks in a light rail car. Another two empty racks are reflected in the window, along with the photographer himself in a rare appearance.
The central portions of the cars serve another important function, one that I'd only encountered previously on GO Transit commuter rail cars. Adjacent to the bench-row seats in the center, each light rail car makes provision for four bicycles to be stored, and I hardly ever boarded a car that didn't have at least one bike hanging up on the pegs. It's a good way to make efficient use of interior space while integrating the system with the local cyclist community. Even if the pegs are all full, there's plenty of space right by the doors for bicyclists to keep their rides. Hell, at one point I saw a guy ride a scooter on board and just chill on it like it ain't no thang.
Phoenix's cars are in line with the modern light rail paradigm, in that they're double-ended and thus require no loops at the end of the line. The operator's areas at each end of the car enclose a wide but somewhat narrow control area, and each train seems to be staffed by a single operator only. You'll only hear the operator if something unusual happens, such as a delay along the line - and in that circumstance the speakers within the cars are crisp and clear, a far cry from the unfathomable crackling that characterizes announcements from Transit Control in the Toronto subway.
One thing I hadn't encountered before was the ability for passengers to open closed doors themselves, presumably only when the train's at rest. I encountered this at Sycamore/Main, when I went to board a westbound train only to find every single door along its length shut... which, in my experience, usually means that the train is in the process of pulling away from the platform. In Phoenix, not so much. The doors all have small yellow buttons on them, and pressing them will cause them to open for you.
There's a valid reason to this, though - I'd imagine it's so the heat doesn't get in. All Metro Light Rail cars are equipped with air conditioning. Again, given the climate of Phoenix, this isn't so much a gesture towards the comfort of riders and more a necessity to ensure their survival. If you don't think so, just try cramming yourself into a rolling metal car with lots of windows and a hundred other people when it's 47 degrees C outside.
Ease of Access and Ease of Use
In my experience, it's supremely easy to access the light rail. The streetlight cycles were the only problematic issues I encountered, and generally speaking if you can access a sidewalk you can access the light rail. I don't recall encountering so much as an incline in the system, let alone stairs. The Metro Light Rail is the most accessible system I've been on in my lifetime, and it should be held up as an example to other cities for making sure as many people as possible can get as many places as possible, easily.
This extends to the stations themselves. There are no barriers or fare gates of any sort, as the Metro Light Rail runs on the honor system and all passengers must retain proof of payment. I didn't encounter any fare inspections during my time in Phoenix, and I've been unable to find any indication as to whose responsibility it is - but, just the same, I was always sure to keep my wallet with my three-day pass right next to my passport. Recall that Phoenix is in Maricopa County, and I was no more interested in gaining personal experience with Sheriff Joe Arpaio's brand of justice as I was with even possibly having to reckon with SB 1070.
Wayfinding is likewise simple. Signs in stations indicate which platform is which, though rather than "westbound and "eastbound" the directions are marked as toward 19th/Montebello and Sycamore/Main, and in places this is clarified with control points - Phoenix, PHX Sky Harbor Airport, Tempe, and Mesa - in the same way as highway signs tell you what direction you're headed. The digital rollsigns on the vehicles work the same way; an eastbound train will display "MESA EASTBOUND SYCAMORE / MAIN ST." As there's presently only one line, there's not much reason to go beyond that.
An eastbound light rail train passes smoothly by a closed section of East Jefferson Street in downtown Phoenix.
Automated announcements are ubiquitous throughout the system, and they depart from the pattern I noticed in Chicago and Los Angeles in that the stop announcer is female, albeit synthetic, and speaks English only. She will announce the name of the next station and state which side of the car the doors will be opening on. An equally synthetic male voice, which is also used in Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, gives instructions and updates in English and Spanish. There was a nagging familiarity to the voice when I first heard it - after thinking about it for a couple of weeks, I'm pretty sure it's one of the same voices you can get through the Xtranormal video-making service.3 There are also long, narrow ceiling-mounted display screens which scroll the name of the next station when the train's approaching - otherwise, it gives the time and date, and thanks you for riding.
The announcements are just the most obvious aspect of what almost seems to be a half-hearted bilingualism on the Metro Light Rail. Bear in mind that as of 2006-2008, nearly 34% of Phoenix's population was Spanish-speaking. It was the light rail route map that really drove this through to me. Sure, it's headed as "Route Map | Mapa De Ruta," but everything else on that map is given in English. Not even the Park-and-Ride or Transit Center markers are given Spanish translations. I mean, it's not as if that would have been a particularly complicated project. Sure, there is bilingual signage elsewhere in the system, but the way it's done on the route map almost makes it feel like they gave up halfway.
The biggest problem I experienced in accessing the light rail was accessing it for the first time, from the airport. Until the completion of the PHX Sky Train, the connection is currently handled by free shuttle buses that link the terminals with a bus loop adjacent to 44th Street/Washington station. It took me fifteen minutes of wandering around the baggage claim area before I could find someone that could point me to where I was supposed to wait for it. The signage in the terminals isn't particularly clear once you get to the baggage claim area - though, of course, this isn't Valley Metro's responsibility.
Also, if you're riding the Metro Light Rail, there are a few things to keep in mind as to what you can and can't do. It goes without saying that smoking is out; beyond that you can't eat on board, drinks have to be in a spillproof container, and you can't put your feet on the seats. Signage in the Valley Metro bus system additionally specifies that firearms aren't allowed on board. As the state of Arizona does not require permits for the concealed carrying of firearms, this is actually more necessary than you might think. Presumably the same is true on the light rail - I'd imagine it wouldn't be difficult for guns to be included under "flammable, explosive or hazardous materials" if it really came down to it.
Restored at the Phoenix Trolley Museum, car #116 helps to bridge the historical gap between the old Phoenix Street Railway system and the modern Metro Light Rail.
While I was in Phoenix, I saw the past colliding with the future - I couldn't not. It's something that a desert metropolis may try not to think about too much, but no matter what we want it's where we're all going to spend the rest of our lives. The future, that is, not Phoenix. I don't think I could survive the summer there unless I could live underground, like some mole person with a mole subway to get around.
As far as the future's concerned, I don't expect it to bring me anything like a new subway system anywhere in the United States or Canada. Those cities that could justify the expense have already built them, and so has Cleveland; light rail is what's carrying the banner of sustainable transit forward now, and light rail is what's catching on in city after city. The example of Phoenix and other cities that build new light rail systems after decades of neglecting higher-order transit may be key in the years ahead to build support for larger, newer, and better systems. It's even happening now; just yesterday, the latest United States federal budget included a recommendation for $38 million in FY2012 to fund an extension of the Metro Light Rail into downtown Mesa.
Today in Phoenix, you'll find the car-centric, low-density sprawl that's so loved by Toronto mayor Rob Ford and other leaders of his ilk, side-by-side with an unquestionably modern transit system that paints a tantalizing picture of what Toronto's planned Transit City light rail network could resemble come 2020, so long as regressive calls to cancel the project in favor of a stubway don't come out on top. Streetcars aren't light rail, no matter how opponents may try to frame the debate in that manner - the only things they really have in common with streetcars is that they tend to run along streets, and that they sound like streetcars when they go rumbling by. It's comforting - one foot in the past, and one in the future.
There's still a long way to go. A city shouldn't have to wait until it has more than a million people before it can make real strides toward getting a decent rapid transit system installed - light rail projects like these are the sort of things cities should have been building back in the '80s, regardless of whether or not the Third World War would come and go before they could be finished. But we've got to move on with what we got - and the example of Phoenix demonstrates to me that light rail is a good way to go.
1 Thus giving the PSR a superb justification to do what it almost certainly would have done a few more years down the road in any event.
2 In Toronto's case I count the Scarborough RT this way, though it's more of a medium metro. The dedicated streetcar rights-of-way along St. Clair Avenue West and along Harbourfront likewise approach the light rail paradigm, but realistically Toronto won't have any significant light rail infrastructure in place until Transit City lines start opening for revenue service... presuming, of course, that they're not cancelled in the interim.
3 Thinking back, it's almost definitely the same voice. It's the male voice used in this YouTube video; overhearing someone else watching this was what clicked it for me... and now that I think about it, the female voice kind of sounds like the stop announcer, too.
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