Believe it or not Phoenix was one of the last major cities in the country to complete its freeway system.  By the 1960s Phoenix still didn’t have many freeways other than the 1-17.  Starting to learn lessons from other parts of the country, especially LA, many in Phoenix weren’t sure that adding freeways would be a good answer to our people-moving dilemma.  “…by the later 1960s, people in many cities were beginning to see that near total reliance on the automobile for transportation imposed significant unanticipated costs.  Many people now regretted the decisions to bulldoze older neighborhoods that resulted in the physical isolation of downtowns, the loss of affordable housing, and the disruption of minority populations.  Because Phoenix moved slowly to implement its plans, by the time it was ready for serious right-of-way clearance, many citizens were having second thoughts” writes Bill Collins in his book The Emerging Metropolis: Phoenix, 1944-1973.

A huge debate ensued about whether Phoenix needed a freeway system.  By 1970, we had virtually no public transit because of the failure of the free-enterprise bus system.  To address these issues, a new group was formed called Citizens for Mass Transit Against Freeways.  “They criticized the way the city had favored the automobile against any alternative that it had boxed itself into a position where freeways were the only possible means of relieving increasing traffic congestion” says Collins.  But unfortunately, there was already huge momentum behind building freeways led by City Manager at the time, Edward Hall.  Hall believed that freeways were “the most modern, most efficient” means of getting people from one place to another and that they gave people “complete freedom of choice”.  We can’t blame Hall for his utopian vision of freeways as opposed to the old system of rail-based transit.  He wanted what was cutting edge and new for Phoenix.  But in his excitement, he ignored the cost of this “modern day” transportation scheme, a cost that was not lost on the freeway opponents of the time.   A lot of people criticized Hall’s biased dedication towards the private car and his opposition of transit, including the Phoenix Planning Commission of the time.  But somehow he was able to get his freeway construction plans approved by Mayor Driggs and the council.

Freeway opponents would have been completely ignored were it not for an important ally in their cause, Eugene Pulliam, who owned the Arizona Republic.  “For some years, Eugene Pulliam had been warning against a freeway that would cut off downtown and his papers have surprisingly positive and extensive coverage of freeway opposition” Collins explains.  But alas, when Pulliam died in 1975, the freeway opponent movement essentially died with him and freeway construction was pushed through once again resulting in a city of freeways instead of a city of rail-based transit.

But the tide may be turning once again towards transit, although we have a very steep hill to climb.  The Light Rail, as David Bickford pointed out in one of his comments to my post yesterday, has been tremendously successful already and there are plans to extend it all across the Valley.  The freeways have done their damage, cutting off downtown from the suburbs instead of acting as connectors, having already destroyed neighborhoods in its construction, and facilitating the asphyxiation of urban life through sprawl.  Has the Light Rail come too late or is there still time to correct our past mistakes and start looking at the urban development of our city not soley through the eyes of traffic engineers by through holistic lenses that include livability, the environment and sustainable economic prosperity?

Photo Credit:  Photo of the Phoenix Light Rail on November 2010. Photo by the author.

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5 Responses

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Steve Dreiseszun and Taz Loomans, Taz Loomans. Taz Loomans said: How Phoenix became a City of Freeways and not Rail Transit http://bit.ly/ifvltB […]

  2. I think it’s interesting that during the era from 1948, when the streetcar lines were shut down, until 1985, when freeway construction began in earnest, Phoenix was essentially lagging in all modes of transport. A lot of this had to do with an attempt to deny Phoenix’s growth.

    In the late ’80s and early ’90s, I supported the freeway constuction program that led to the completion of I-10, the construction of SR51, and the initial segments of the 202. They had disruptive effects on neighborhoods, but they also created a modern road network necessary for a city the size that Phoenix has become.

    I’m less enthuiastic, however, about current freeway construction on the fringes of the metropolitan area. Now, instead of creating freeways that can bring people to the metro area’s core, we’re buildign ones that allow people to bypass the core and enable suburb-to-suburb commutes.

    As for your ending question, it’s never too late. I think that consitently high light rail ridership proves there’s an audience for public transit. The challenge is finding the funds to continue to expand rail and bus transit to meet the needs of even larger segments of the population.

    • Taz Loomans says:

      Interesting David…you’re right, current freeway construction is more about people on the outskirts of town to get to other outskirts of town and not necessarily even see the central core at any point. I’m hoping, like what you say, that the light rail will be a counter-acting force of connecting people back to the city.

  3. Wayne Murray says:

    A little late in chiming in on this. On the bright side of this the “system” has blocked off some rather nice areas for concentrated development….a return to the village concept. Living in the Historic Coronado I often mention to people and the City staff that we are bounded by the I-10 the 51 million dollar homes in the Country Club to the North and Central (the light rail) and great homes to the west. This provides the community with a “opportunity” to focus on a area for revitalization that can see some real progress. Like the human body however our “arteries’ of McDowell and 16th Streets need some private investment with public City support. This can only be done by not Bully-ing away the developers by depicting them as vultures ready to consume our historic home but by working with them in the revitalization of the area. Our three medical centers of Banner, Arizona Heart, and Phoenix Children’s Hospitals certainly could provide us with enough great neighbors if they wanted to walk or bike to work rather than “hop on the freeway” out of town.

    • Taz Loomans says:

      Good point Wayne! It’s time to work with what we have. I also live in a quite little nook that is cut off because of the 51, but it provides a nice sort of green space and also reduces the amount of cut-through traffic on our street. I totally agree with your notion that we (the community) need to partner with private investors as well as public entities like the City of Phoenix to improve major arteries liks McDowell Rd. and Indian School Rd.

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