Phoenix Light Rail Opens

This weekend, Phoenix, the fifth largest city in the United States with 1.5 million people, opened its first rail line in sixty years. This light rail line, a part of the region-wide Valley Metro system, will also serve the cities of Tempe and Mesa, with populations of 174,000 and 453,000, respectively, and the airport in the middle, called Phoenix Sky Harbor International. This passes the honor of “largest U.S. city without a rail transit system” to San Antonio, Texas, with a population of 1.3 million (#7), which, as far as we know, has no plans to build one (other than a potential commuter line to Austin).

Phoenix Light Rail MapPhoenix’s light rail opening attracted a lot of crowds this weekend. People were attracted to th $1.4 billion project, whose 20-mile line crisscrosses the region and will allow easier access to downtown Phoenix, Arizona State University, and the airport (which is currently in the process of constructing a people mover that will connect directly to the light rail station). The equivalent bus that currently serves the route took around 80 minutes to complete it; this light rail line will reduce travel time to a respectable 50 minutes.  Vehicles were constructed by a Japanese constructor named Kinkisharyo, which has also built the light rail cars for San Jose, Dallas, Northern New Jersey, and Boston, and is currently providing the vehicles for Seattle’s upcoming line.

Valley Metro predicts 25,000-30,000 trips a day, which seems like a low prediction, especially considering that the light rail system of an equivalent city – Houston – is now attracting 40,000 trips a day, even though that system is only 7.5 miles long. But, on the other hand, Phoenix’s whole system seems designed for these low-ball estimates; trains will arrive only every ten minutes between 6 am and 7 pm and every 20 minutes at other times. If this system becomes popular, these frequencies will have to be increased at rush hour, where heavily used systems provide trainsets every 2-5 minutes. Let’s hope that Valley Metro has budgeted further train purchases.

This is an exciting event for Arizona and demonstrates that even some of the most car-dependent areas of the country are beginning to recognize the value of providing serious alternatives. But at the same time, this intervention comes mind-blowingly late. We referenced the population facts about this region because we wanted to emphasize the shear size of this area – this line will serve three cities whose combined population reaches over two million. And we’re expecting 25,000 daily riders? For some perspective, consider that Portland, Oregon‘s entire metro area – which has basically the equivalent population – provides 120,000 daily trips on light rail, and the vast majority of those trips occur within the city, which has a population of 575,000.

Phoenix is planning a number of extensions to be completed by 2025, but all of them would rely on the central segment of the line that has just opened. In other words, that section will be completely overcrowded by the time the rest of these lines have begun service. By then Phoenix may well be considering a secondary downtown light rail line, as Portland is currently constructing and as Dallas is planning.

We’re not convinced that Phoenix deserves an expensive heavy rail system with a much higher capacity, but one wonders whether this line’s planners are serious about changing land use development in this massive trio of cities. A city of this size – it’s now bigger than Philadelphia – merits a large downtown where people are entirely transit-dependent, and a singular light rail line with 10-minute headways won’t provide that. For the most part, the biggest city in Arizona will remain a principally suburban city.

That said, we’re sure that Valley Metro will produce a number of transit-oriented developments, at least once the current economic crisis subsides. And the result will be a more sustainable, livable metropolis.

Image from Valley Metro.

2 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • sean horan

    It’s ridiculous to think the Phoenix line serves a population of 2,000,000.

    Mesa has a population of 460,000 over 133 square miles, and has ONE mile of LRT that doesn’t even go to its moribund downtown. Portland actually approaches metro-wide LRT service with the Blue Line crossing the whole area.

    Other differences include system track miles, how long the system has been open, how well the local bus system is, how well downtown does TODAY, shopping and living opportunities along the line, mentalities, city form and scale…Phoenix loses automatically in all those categories.

    But even after you take all the Phoenix system’s inherent misgivings holistically, we’re still doing fine: 1,600 a track mile beats Dallas, St Louis, Baltimore, and is twice the perennial loser San Jose. I could easily see extensions over time along with anticipated development pushing Phoenix’s system into the top 10.

  • Andrew Woodhouse

    I live near one end of 20-mile line in Phoenix and I have concerns about it being the backbone for the future rail system for the city. My concern is not with capacity (because they can always run more cars at greater frequencies.) The problem with the line is that the speed of travel is too slow for the massive scale of the city.

    The actual time it takes to travel the 20-mile line is exactly 67 minutes, which you can verify on their current website. This is equal to an average speed of 17.9 miles per hours. This is fine when I need to go somewhere within a few miles. However, this speed is inadequate for the distances people commonly travel. I have taken the train the full 20 miles and it was exhausting.

    The future light rails lines (with the exception of the one on I-10) will also run on the surface streets so they will be just as slow. At this rate, it could easily take commuters two hours to get to work on the light rail (if they are lucky enough to live and work on a line).

    The sprawling city of Phoenix is building a sprawling network of light rail lines that will not be used by the majority of the population. They need to be investigating more light rail lines that will be separated from traffic so that they can move at freeway speeds.

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