Today’s post is by Cavin Costello, an architectural designer I’ve worked with on Filmbar and am working with on The Castaway House.

Cavin Costello, M.Arch is a designer and principal of The Ranch Mine, LLC, a planning, design and development firm in Phoenix. Cavin’s
education, practice, and research focuses on sustainable architecture through improvements to the social, urban, economic, water, and
thermal relationships between people and the existing environment.

The current Phoenix mayoral race has brought up a lot of questions about the future of the Light Rail in Phoenix. Most of the questions have centered on the future Light Rail extensions and its funding. But before we answer these questions, maybe Phoenix needs to ask itself, what do we want to become and how do make that happen?

If Phoenix wants to continue to sprawl, the current proposed plan is excellent. Light Rail extensions to Glendale, Tolleson, Paradise Valley and Mesa will only incentivize businesses and homeowners to push to the peripheries for cheap land knowing that if they want to catch a ballgame, they can always hop on the light rail to avoid traffic and get in and out of downtown Phoenix as fast as possible.

If Phoenix wants to become a sustainable, thriving city, it needs to focus its efforts. Phoenix is huge. It is 1/3rd of the size of the state of Rhode Island. Conceiving Phoenix as a car-independent city seams crazy right now, and it is. However, like all major problems, breaking them down makes answering them a whole lot easier. Phoenix doesn’t need to be car-independent, it just needs a defined urban core that provides that alternative. Suburbs will continue to exist and serve their purpose, as they do outside all major cities. If Phoenix can define an urban core, creating a walkable center to compete with east coast cities is much more feasible.

Like many major cities, Phoenix can define its urban core based on its highway infrastructure. By using Interstate 17, 10 and Highway 51 we can define a 20 square mile urban core that radiates from downtown, midtown, and uptown Phoenix. These 20 square miles would be very similar to the 17 square miles that Phoenix originally was in 1950 before it started to annex all the land around it. This more historic area is better suited for public transit because the non-arterial roads are mostly right-sized and building setbacks are better suited than their suburban counterparts for walkable streets. Defining an urban core allows us the possibility of creating a car-independent area in the desert.

Now that we have highlighted the urban core, we can systematically break down the 20 mi2 mass to provide adequate mass transit. Mass transit will only work in Phoenix when it is more convenient that having an automobile. If we complement the Central Light Rail, the spine, with perpendicular east-west lines, the ribs, we can create the structure that the vital organs of the city need to thrive.

Below is a schematic diagram that proposes 12.5 total miles of east-west mass transit to create a potentially car-independent urban core and connect the Capitol and the Biltmore to the city infrastructure. When completed, the entire 20 mi2 urban core, or potentially 200,000 or more people, would be within a 10 minute walk of mass transit. The size and thoroughness of this network would allow a higher density of people to inhabit the city and easily live without a car if they choose. The comprehensiveness and dedication to a walkable core could motivate much more Transit Oriented Development, as opposed to some of the Transit Proximate Development we have seen thus far, as developers are not quite sold on Phoenix as a car-independent place.

So how do we provide this proposed mass transit? I don’t believe Light Rail is the right answer. Many of us love Light Rail because of its dedicated right of ways that avoid traffic, higher passenger capacity, it’s more visually and audibly attractive design, the smoother ride, and its legibility and permanence that give confidence to infrequent riders and T.O.D. developers. But it is very expensive. The current 20 mile Phoenix Light Rail cost $1.4 billion for an average cost of $70 million per mile.

Is there a less costly alternative? Bus Rapid Transit, or BRT, has gained popularity recently as an alternative to Light Rail. It is far less expensive, because it uses pavement rather than tracks, and it has reduced many of the negatives of the common city bus. Although generally used for longer distances for commuters, I believe a modified system could work perfectly in Phoenix.

The diagram below shows how this modified system may work. We could potentially use the width of the major east-west streets to provide the necessary lanes. Like the Light Rail, the system would have a dedicated right of way, 80 foot long buses could provide high passenger capacity, the design of the buses and stations could be styled like the light rail, and the simple routes and attractive stations would provide the legibility and permanence that infrequent riders and developers need at a much more attractive price.

Based on average United States BRT capital costs, the schematically proposed 12.5 mile BRT Urban Core Network could be constructed for $13.5 million per mile, or $168.75 million total. That would roughly cost each of the 1.4 million inhabitants of Phoenix $120. Although that might not sound cheap, it is $41 million less than the proposed 3 mile light rail extension in Mesa in 2016 and $602 million less than the proposed Phoenix West extension in 2021. BRT also typically has a lower operating cost than light rail. It is difficult to imagine how a 3 mile extension into Mesa would have a higher return on investment than a 20 mi2 walkable urban core.

The BRT system could be built out fairly quickly and in phases. The first phase, the green line in the earlier image, would be built along Thomas and Indian School, which currently have the highest amount of bus transit users, and would encompass 12 square miles of the urban core. This phase would stimulate T.O.D. to hopefully get immediate return on investment in uptown and midtown and possibly be a catalyst for Canalscape. Based on that success the second phase, the yellow line, could link the Biltmore and Capitol districts with the urban core. The final phase could be McDowell, the red line, which currently takes the burden of most of the highway traffic to downtown.

The choice is ours, at least before the extensions are built, of what we want Phoenix to become. If we want to continue to sprawl into the desert and reward people for moving away from the city center, we can let that future happen. If we really want to become a sustainable city, with 20 square miles of potentially 200,000 or more car-independent people, and compete with the other great United States cities for tourism, business and culture, we can make that future happen. The choice is ours.

Image Credit: All images created by the author.

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16 Responses

  1. Will Novak says:

    Terrific article and idea! It reminds me of the “Mobilien” in Paris:


    Personally I’m partial to the idea of Modern Streetcar along McDowell b/c from 19th Ave to the 51 there’s so much classic street front retail already (the old Miracle Mile) and I think the potential for perhaps slightly higher density. Modern Streetcar or BRT though, either would be great.

    I like your 20 mile perimeter, though in an ideal world I’d like to see it expanded slightly down in the future. North to the Phoenix Mountains north of Sunnyslope (which has potential to be a very urban ‘hood) and South to the riverbank. These seem like natural boundaries to me.

    Finally, any thoughts about a N-S BRT? I’m thinking specifically on the 7’s. 24th St might be another corridor if you extended all the lines a bit East, because you could connect easily into the airport/future SkyTrain which I imagine would have high ridership.

  2. Will Novak says:

    Also, as you see in the “Mobilien” video, you may not need a dedicated bike lane, it could share with the buses. Since the buses will be operated by professional, trained drivers and separated from traffic it should theoretically be a safe biking environment. Additionally the shade strip you’ve shown would of course help bikers.

    Sorry to ramble on so much, its a great idea and it got me excited! Glad to see we have such great thinkers in PHX!

  3. Erin says:

    What a great and well-thought out idea. Very interesting!

  4. Thanks Will! Great video. I like the idea of combining the biking lanes with the BRT, that would allow much more room for automobile traffic. I think a N-S BRT could eventually work, I think its just a matter of prioritizing and trying to get the most bang for the buck on the initial investments. This article was just the tip of the iceberg to create a conversation about a realistic and economical mass transit vision for Phoenix. I think its just about finding the right systems and integrating them wisely into the existing infrastructure to make the money work.

  5. Unfortunately, the answer to the question posed in the title is “no.”

    Arguments in favor of BRT are almost always worded in terms of costs per mile to build and operate, and viewed purely from the point of view of cost-effectiveness, they seem at first glance to make a case for buses. Nevertheless, these arguments cannot overcome consumer preferences, which overwhelmingly favor rail over bus.

    BRT attempts to make the bus more like a train with special branding, elevated boarding platforms, pre-boarding ticket sales, and limited stops. Despite those efforts, the simple fact is that no matter how much we dress up BRT with rail-like amenities, the average rider still sees it as just a bus. That’s why the LINK BRT lines in the East Valley draw far few riders than light rail in Tempe and Mesa.

    BRT proponents will sometimes point to successful implementations in south American cities like Bogota and Curitiba; however, those cities exist in different cultural and economic realities that the United States. Americans generally will not ride a bus, even a very nice bus, unless they have to, but far more will voluntarily board a train, even one that stops at intersections. This is confirmed in every single conversation I have with discretionary transit passengers, and even though I do ride buses, I understand the point of view. Even the best bus simply cannot approach rail in terms of accessibility and comfort.

    I also take issue with the idea that light rail expansion should be confined to a strictly defined Central Phoenix core. Such an argument ignores the political reality of how light rail is funded — by a combination of local taxes in the three participating cities and a countywide tax. To suggest that Mesa is undeserving of three more miles of light rail to its Downtown is to disregard the commitment to regional transit its mayor and council have shown.

    Furthermore, it’s incorrect to suggest that every light rail extension outside of Central Phoenix is automatically a sprawl enabler. While it would be inappropriate to try to bring light rail to exurbs such as Anthem or Queen Creek, Downtown Mesa is quite different than those communities. It is a walkable, historic, established neighborhood and full of the same potential for high-density development as Central Phoenix and Tempe.

    Getting back to BRT for a moment, high density development in any city, whether Phoenix or Mesa, is unlikely to be centered around a bus line. It will take rail transit, combined with appropriate zoning changes, to encourage walkable urban development.

    I could go on about why park-and-rides used by passengers like me who split the difference between driving and transit are also an essential part of the picture, but my rule is that a blog comment should never run longer than a blog post, even one I disagree with as vigorously as this one, so I’ll leave it at that.

  6. Appreciate the comments David.

    The overall objective of this post is to create a walkable, car-independent urban core. The issue with light rail, and the light rail in Phoenix, is that not enough people have access to it. All I am saying is that perhaps we should make use of the existing light rail system that the 3 cities contributed $1.4 billion before extending more of the same, for even more money to an area that has 1 square mile of walkable area. 1 square mile at the density of Mesa, will not create the ultimate goal of the car-independent urban core that can attract money from tourism, migration, business and culture, that the 20 square mile car-independent area can provide.

    The point that few riders use the BRT in the East Valley has very little to nothing to do with the network that is proposed. The only similarities is the name BRT, which the urban core network would be a modified system. The key to a successful mass transit is cost and convenience, not style. The whole is much greater than the sum of its parts, especially when the whole is $41 million less expensive than just one small part.

    BRT has not just been successful in South America, or Asia, it has been very successful in Boston, Dallas, Denver, LA and Paris to name just a few. Why is it succeeding in those places? Because it is about the convenience of the greater systems that they serve, and well designed implementation. To say that the average rider sees it as just a bus is a challenge to designers and planner, not a negative that should scratch it.

    Also to throw cost out immediately does not work in our society. Why don’t we all drive a Prius or power our houses with photovoltaics? It’s because there is a big difference between personal preference and consumer preference, and as consumers we have been provided with adequate less costly alternatives. The urban core of Phoenix needs that alternative.

    And lastly, high density development is being developed in American cities already around BRT. South Boston has experienced fantastic growth around the Silver Line. I’m not saying light rail is bad. In fact it is the spine and central to the entire scheme. I’m just saying that it needs to be supplemented to reach its potential and a modified BRT and Bike network can provide that.

  7. You’re absolutely right that not enough people have access to light rail, despite ridership levels well in excess of forecasts. That’s why sensibly-designed extensions in all three currently participating cities, as well as other selected inner suburbs of Phoenix, are essential. Well though-out extensions like the one likely to built in Central Mesa (not so much the one along I-10) will allow light rail to reach a wider audience than the considerable one it already has. That audience will come both from walkable neighborhoods that light rail cultivates and from park-and-rides that extend the reach of light rail to people who cannot or will not relocate, yet who wish to reduce their driving.

    BRT will not do that to nearly the same extent. The bus is just too stigmatized, especially in Sunbelt cities, to attract significant discretionary riders over long distances. It is appropriate to improve bus service with more frequent runs and longer hours of service, but it cannot be seen as a replacement for rail in corridors where that mode makes sense. The examples of successful BRT given above are for the most part isolated cases, and there are some such as Denver where it’s too early to say if any success will be sustained.

    Often, BRT is advanced as an alternative to rail by anti-transit forces that simply want to claim they’re pro-something rather than anti-everything. I realize that’s not the case here. Your intent seems good. Nevertheless, your proposal defies the realities of consumer preferences by favoring bus over rail and disregards the political circumstances surrounding regional transit planning by suggesting that we focus so intensively on Central Phoenix that we effectively deal established inner suburbs out of light rail. For that reason, I’m strenuously opposed to your proposal, even though I suspect we’d agree on many other issues.

  8. Will Novak says:

    Whats the general cost per mile of Modern Streetcar vs BRT vs LRT? It might be a middle of the road solution for thoroughfares like McDowell form 19th Ave to 24th St, Camelback Rd from Central to 44th, 44th St from Camelback to the Airport and maybe even 24th St from Camelback to the Airport.

  9. Will Novak says:

    Another thought:

    Obviously there’s only room to have the buses traveling one way on each street. Was your thinking to have for instance the Thomas Rd line always going East and Indian School always traveling West? That would seem less than ideal for people wanting to go the other direction.

    I suppose the buses could turn around at the end of the 3 or 4 miles, but then it seems the stations would be on the wrong side for the doors. Are there buses produced that have entry doors on both sides like LRT trains?

    Additionally, any BRT system like this through the Central Core would have to have ‘red light priority’ to keep service frequent.

    From 19th Ave to 16th St is a 7 minute drive so doing that loop with service every 15 minutes would be tricky. Even every 15 minute service on a system like this seems less than ideal, I’d hope it would be every 10 but I’m not sure how that would be possible.

  10. Phx Planner says:

    Thoughtful post but would be a short-sited investment for Phoenix.

    The author states that BRT has a lower operating cost than LRT – this is false. LRT is approximately 20% cheaper to operate, as it requires fewer operators per rider, cheaper fuel, and trains have a longer shelf life and need fewer repairs and replacement parts over that life compared to buses. So, despite the higher initial construction cost, LRT is more cost-effective over the long term.

    The author also states that BRT is cheaper to build because it uses pavement and not tracks. OK, but laying tracks is not really where the expense is. Utility relocation (digging up the water and sewer lines under the dedicated guideway and replacing them under the car travel lanes) is the main cost of LRT. The only reason this is done is so that, in the event of a needed repair to a broken water/sewer main, they wouldn’t need to remove the tracks and shut down transit operation during the repair. But, if you do true BRT (a dedicated guideway) you would still need to relocate utilities or face the same scenario (except removing and replacing the track, which would be an additional cost) and you would need to shut down the BRT service and move the bus to the general purpose lanes (the same would be done with LRT, as is done now when, for example, the train is involved in an accident – buses fill in for the LRT in the general purpose lanes while the train is not operating)

    Portland, for example, builds streetcar lines incredibly fast and cheap because they don’t relocate the underground utilities. And because the track is placed right in the pavement (as opposed to an entirely new concrete foundation and curbs, like Phx Metro) utility repairs are also cheap because it’s a simple cut and replacement weld to the track. And because they operate in general purpose lanes, the ever-present anxiety of the traffic engineers are eased because they aren’t removing traffic lanes. (although, in the future, curbing could be easily installed to make the streetcars dedicated lanes if traffic conditions warrant.)

    The final point is that primary purpose of transit investments in a city like Phoenix is not to simply “move people”, but to transform the built environment from unwalkable suburbanism to walkable urbanism.

    BRT does not accomplish this objective, as other comments have noted. BRT works (albeit, more expensively over the long term) in cash-strapped developing countries – as others have noted – for cultural reasons, but also because cities like Curitiba and Bogota were already “urban” because of historical colonial settlement patterns and the Law of the Indies.

    So, in these cases “moving people” was, in fact, the objective and not urban form transformation – like the primary objective in most American cities which were formed by Euclidean zoning codes, highway subsidies, standardized (commodified) real estate financing, construction and design practices which led to dispersed, horizontal sprawl.

    So really, the answer to the post is “No”. The answer is a bigger emphasis on streetcar investment and continued support for light, commuter and intercity rail.

  11. Perhaps the modern streetcar might be a good alternative.

    “The author states that BRT has a lower operating cost than LRT – this is false.”

    This comment was based on the following information. As a Phx Planner, perhaps you have more information.

    Source: National Transit Database and six transit agencies

    Operating Cost Per Vehicle Mile
    Dallas $12.54
    Denver $11.72
    LA $13.72
    Pittsburgh $15.60
    San Diego $4.20
    San Jose $12.68

    Dallas $1.74
    Denver $2.24
    LA $3.95
    Pittsburgh $8.52
    San Diego $3.86
    San Jose $3.45

  12. Phx Planner says:

    Couple things. BRT numbers can show lower operating costs over short term measures. Long term, the consensus in the research literature is LRT is cheaper. Second, “passenger miles” not “vehicle miles” is the standard measure.

    See here for latest research paper that was just published a couple weeks ago:


  13. Thanks Phx Planner, I very much appreciate the information and response to the idea.

  14. Bob Graham says:

    I wholeheartedly agree with Phx Planner & Will Novak, who collectively stole my thunder!

    People, and particularly tourists, like rails because they can see where the line is going, and dislike buses because of their negative experiences with them over the last 50 years.

    If rail investment is placed AHEAD of development instead of reacting to it, then we have a chance at actually shaping urban form to something a bit greener than we have now. This is something that buses can’t do, and I suspect that is the case even if they have a dedicated lane.

    Transportation planners have ruled the roost for many years in this town, and modern streetcar is going to have less resistance (due to lane sharing) from that group than either LRT or BRT.

    @Will: The costs I have seen for modern streetcar are in the $20M per mile range, although the Portland model with little or no re-paving and no utility relocation can be much less. We are estimating $10M for a mile of GARP, in part because it is a former streetcar line location and there are no utilities in the street.

    @Cavin: I am glad that people are even discussing non-auto transportation options of any type. The City Council needs to get educated about all the different strategies available other than what we have: auto, bus, and LRT, and coming soon HRT. Until we have support from the political establishment, any of these ideas are dead in the water.

    [Political Endorsement: STANTON FOR MAYOR! Greg is kind of a transportation policy wonk. Good record on these issues when he was on council.]

  15. Will Novak says:

    I think Cavins main point is still a solid one, that Central Phoenix needs to be beefed up transportation wise. The LRT line is great, but if you’re at 16th St and Thomas or 15th Ave and McDowell, both areas that should grow into urban places, it doesn’t do you much good at all.

    Remember we still have MAG dreaming up insane plans where the Hassayampa Valley west of the White Tanks will be the future for all growth. If you look at this Rail Study they did:


    They have one plan that calls for a crazy LRT down the I-10 then up the 101 in their cheaper scenario. In their pricier scenario they advocate running LRT all the way to Happy Valley Rd & I-17 which is insane!

    PHX would be much better off focusing on a 20 or 30 mile urban core like Cavin has said, with LRT and HRT extensions branching out from there. I don’t think BRT should be in lieu of LRT, but rather a compliment to it.

    Here’s a quick map I drew up showing a dream scenario of LRT & BRT in Central PHX (red=BRT, blue=LRT):


    I still believe in LRT going NW to MetroCenter, East to 44th St/Camelback (and eventually to Scottsdale), West to the State Capitol, West along Thomas and Northeast to Sunnyslope along 7th St.

    However BRT could compliment it very well on the other major streets providing connections to Phoenix College, the Airport via 24th and really laying the infrastructure groundwork for densifying Central Phoenix. A plan like this would allow Central PHX to easily hold about 10K people per square mile and truly become a walkable, urban place.

  16. The discussion of modern street car takes this conversation in a good direction. While BRT makes buses more like rail, modern streetcar makes rail more like buses. While that might seem like a distinction without a difference, I think it can have enormous perceptual impact, with passengers and developers drawn to a bus-like train more than a train-like bus.

    Personally, I’d love to see the suicide lanes on the 7s removed and replaced with modern street car lines running between Central Station and Sunnyslope. Such lines would help extend the potential TOD corridor beyond Central Avenue to two thoroughfares that have made enormous strides in cultivating independent business but still lack walkability.

    I should clarify, however, that I would not favor this idea over the Central Mesa light rail extension, which I have strongly defended above. Instead, I would see it as a future project to be funded from another source or perhaps built in place of other proposed light rail extensions that may not be as well though-out.

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