The city of Phoenix and the Valley Metro Rail system offers an interesting case study of preemptive measures aimed at urban revitalization. Urban revitalization programs stretch far beyond simple residential or organizational ideas and in cities with large populations, also involve measures of insuring transportation infrastructure that sustains the community and makes it a better to reside. In order to provide more efficient public transportation, the City of Phoenix and the Valley Metro Rail organization are undertaking a massive construction venture to bring light rail to the area. “Since 1960 the population of the greater Phoenix area has grown, according to recent statistics, from 664,000 to 3.6m, an average of 47% in each decade”(Marsh 35) and such dramatic growth has encouraged city leaders to broaden their horizons and look to other cities such as Seattle for ideas.
In terms of urban revitalization, the planned monorail, the Valley Metro Rail system, which is still in the first stages of construction, will allow for cleaner air, a more efficient mode of public transport, and the addition of new jobs in the area. Furthermore, the city plans on making certain that the stations fit in with the local culture and artwork and other adornments will make these stops appealing both to visitors and residents. Although growth is usually a positive sign for any urban community, on occasion, urban revitalization must occur even before a region has reach a dilapidated state. If Phoenix were to allow the constant plague of traffic congestion, eventually this would take a toll on the environment, surroundings, and even health of the citizens. Through this light rail system, large numbers of passengers will be whisked to different areas of the city for relatively low costs and in a timely manner. The trick to this preemptiveurban revitalization effort is making the light rail system appealing to the average citizen whom according to statistics regarding transportation in Arizona’s largest city, would much rather own and use his or her own car as opposed to public transport options.
In terms of urban revitalization, one of the most important issues for a city with the exponential growth rate of Phoenix is making the streets and local highways less crowded. Instead of miles of paved roads with cars backed up for stretches, this rail system would allow cars carrying passengers, nearly 450 per car, throughout carious points in the city for a nominal fee and perhaps more quickly than could be expected by driving. According to Valley Metro statistics, “Initially, the system will carry 3,000-5,000 passengers per hour during peak hours, the equivalent of an arterial street. With additional vehicles, the system will ultimately have the capacity to carry the equivalent number of people as a six-lane freeway – or 12 – 15,000 people per hour” (Valley). While this would be beneficial for several reasons which shall be addressed in coming pages, it is also useful to think about the wasted money both by individual drivers (especially since the cost of gasoline is skyrocketing) as well as the taxpayer since over time it can be assumed that less road repairs will be deemed necessary, at least within the inner-city where the light rail is intended.
Common sense would thus lead one to believe that consumers would put this extra money back into the local economy, thus the region would benefit economically from such a shift in public transportation. Part of the problem with this urban revitalization plan is that it will take a great deal of effort and finesse to convince Phoenix residents that this is public transportation that is worth using. While the individual financial benefits suggested above may provide minor incentive, it is going to take more than the promise of more spending money to encourage riders to get on board with Valley Metro rail. The benefits are plenty and within reach, but when the final phase of construction is complete, the worth of such a massive undertaking can only be measured in the active support of those citizens whom approved the funding in the initial planning stages.
If an urban revitalization plan is to succeed, there must be lasting benefits for members of the community. Although the light rail system would not employ vast numbers of people, it would at least provide regular employment to some people and the opportunity for a career. “Initially, approximately 150 people will be employed at the site, including maintenance staff and light rail operators, who will check in for their shifts at the facility. As the system and vehicle fleet grows, the number of employees will increase, according the projected statistics, to approximately 250 people by 2010” (Valley). Again, 250 people is not a staggering number but with the money coming in from those riders who have cash leftover after cutting the large costs of gasoline, the city might eventually see an economic benefit. Furthermore, the skills these men and women learn will be unique to the profession and thus might encourage them to stay until retirement, which would provide a base in the community for the light rail. It should also be noted that this is a relatively self-sustaining enterprise if the whole project will only take around 250 people to operate. Instead of having a large bureaucracy or wasted money, the light rail will be efficient and simple to operate with storehouses for repairing cars that are set in industrial areas.
According to Marsh, one of the concerns of the average citizen when choosing private versus public transportation was being on time. Instead of waiting in a long hot line of morning and then afternoon traffic, Valley Metro has planned a route that will hit major centers of the city in a timely fashion. As stated by the Metro Valley Rail organization, “The light rail system in the Phoenix metropolitan area will operate at street level in its own lane separated from automobile traffic and have a certain level of priority at traffic signals. This dedicated guide way gives light rail vehicles the ability to travel much faster than local buses, offering a reliable travel time over the long term competitive with automobile travel times during peak periods today. Light rail will travel at posted speed limits on city streets and can reach 55 mph in future freeway corridors” (Valley). This description is beneficial in terms of a preemptive urban revitalization plan for several reasons. First of all, there is a lane specifically devoted to the light rail system, thus the potential for minor traffic jams and delays will be virtually thwarted. With this near-guarantee of speedy arrival, not only is the worry and stress of traffic solved for citizens, but so is the possibility even for individual accidents in the small pile-ups or fender benders so common in urban areas. Furthermore, the fact that the light rail is not limited in terms of speed further enhances its appeal since it will be able to move at a rate comparable to that of local traffic on roads with higher speed limits.
Although some of these financial speculations are grounded in theory rather than practice, it should be noted that, “Given a choice, most Americans, especially those in the west, prefer the car, with its promise of comfort, flexibility and freedom” (Marsh 35) and in order for this urban revitalization effort to get underway successfully, there will need to be a shift in the way residents perceive public transportation. Marsh goes on to note, “In theory, a determined Phoenician could get just about anywhere in the area by public transport. In practice, they made only 12.7 bus trips each in 2002, compared with 37.1 transit trips for the average Denver resident” (35) thus demonstrating that willingness to actually make use of public transportation is very low. In addition to helping residents of Phoenix see that the individual economic benefits are worthy of attention, other more broad issues are also at stake. If one considers that nearly every resident of the city of Phoenix owns and drives a car to work, it is nearly unimaginable how much havoc is being wreaked on the local environment and health of the population. Smog and other signs of urban decay are typified by constant congestion and the light rail offers Phoenix the opportunity to move ahead of other Western United States cities such as Los Angeles, for example, and balance a booming population with clear air and lower instances of environment-related illnesses such as asthma and other breathing problems. Again, this is an abstract selling point, but for this program of preemptive revitalization, this is one of the first steps in preventing the kind of horrifying traffic and subsequent health situation one might see elsewhere.
One issue that is often overlooked when one thinks about traditional urban revitalization projects is health. It is well known that emissions from vehicles cause a great deal of greenhouse gas and other harmful toxins and in a city like Phoenix, where everyone is committed to having their own car, the potential for damage to health is great. Since urban areas often suffer from the noise and other pollution brought about by high levels of congestion, Valley Metro’s light rail system would help alleviate some of this problem. This large difference in the number of cars on area roadways will certainly make the city more attractive, but also healthier since one must assume the smog and other emissions would be greatly reduced. When one considers that, “Electrically powered vehicles don’t directly generate any emissions that contribute to air pollution–a major benefit for a region with air quality concerns. Light rail vehicles are also extremely quiet and make about as much noise as a late model passenger truck” (Valley). Even though this may not come immediately to mind when thinking of urban revitalization, it is much easier to have a happy community if it is a healthy one—free from the ill effects of smog and other pollutants from vehicles and of course, more free from the noise pollution associated with high traffic areas. This seems as though it should be the number one selling point for the city of Phoenix, especially since the population has showed little signs of decreasing or even leveling out. In order to maintain a vital city, cutting down on the number of toxins in the air is of the foremost importance, especially since Phoenix is valued for its sunny and luminescent blue skies and good “healthy” air.
What one does tend to think of in terms of urban revitalization programs is putting a better façade up to the public. For instance, many communities will tear down unsightly buildings with the hopes of building something more pleasing to the eye. It seems that part of this reason is because it will attract rather than repel people away from the area. This same idea is being applied to the Valley Metro Rail system and there are plans that extend past mere functionality to include more aesthetic elements. For instance, the Metro Valley Rail organization has discussed the idea of paving the area around the rails themselves with something more decorative and has talked about making it look as though it is an organic part of the communities it runs through. Even the stops are being considered as targets for the preemptive revitalization. “Stations consist of a large platform, approximately 16 feet wide by 300 feet long – or about a city block long and two downtown sidewalks wide. Platforms typically contain ticket vending machines, information on arrivals and departures, benches, shelters, lighting and other amenities. Stations will be designed to reflect the character of the community, and many stations will incorporate artwork as an important design element” (Valley). Instead of relying merely on the functional nature of the rail system, this attractive façade might encourage new riders—more so than a bland gray train-station front might. Valley Metro has recognized that one of the more important aspects of any effort to revitalize an urban area is making it aesthetically pleasing and in this sense it seems they will succeed if such plans are carried out at these stations.
Construction for the project has already begun (and began in earnest in 2004) although there have been some delays. “It is important to note that light rail is one of the largest construction projects ever undertaken in the region, and will involve coordination of more than a dozen prime construction contractors. Because of the tremendous coordination and flexibility required to complete this project, it is too soon to determine the exact location and timeframe of construction in a specific area” (Valley). Although the time frame is still uncertain, the plans are in the works and Phoenix is still destined to have this model of public transportation. There were many concerns among area business owners that long periods of construction in front of their storefronts would hinder business but Valley Metro decided it would guarantee that they would not remain in the same area for more than 12 months at one time, thus minimizing the risk of small businesses being threatened. The city soothed these business owners with the prospect of more customers who might not even have made it to a particular storefront and encouraged patience, assuring these businesspeople that eventually the efforts would pay off. In many ways, it’s hard to imagine a better location for a small business than right off one of the many station platforms and it is hoped that small businesses will benefit in the long run.
The Valley Metro light rail may revolutionize as well as revitalize. The main struggle will be to get residents to get on board with the idea and help make Phoenix a cleaner city. Although the benefits seem obvious at this point, the project is still facing a great deal of construction in the next couple of years and only then will the fruits of the effort be seen fully. If it is successful, residents can expect a revitalized urban setting with lessened congestion, cleaner air, and even station platforms that are designed to integrate into the community rather than simply exist. Overall, despite some arguing on the part of some local politicians and the slight minority that believes the light rail is a waste of money and effort, it will be fascinating to see what kind of economic and social benefits arise as a result of the light rail in the next decade.
Other essays and articles in the Main Archives related to this topic include : An Overview of Housing and Urban Revitalization • Wetlands : The Ecological Effect of Loss • Compare / Contrast On Rural Versus Urban Living
Marsh. ”The Octopus and the Tortoise.” Economist 377.8451 (2005): 35
“Light Rail.” Valley Metro Home. Valley Metro Agency. 17 Feb. 2006 http://www.valleymetro.org/rail/