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.Tags: BRT Urban Core Network, Bus Rapid Transit, Canalscape, car-independence, Cavin Costello, downtown Phoenix, filmbar, Glendale Light Rail Extension, mass transit, Mesa Light Rail Extension, Midtown Phoenix, Paradise Valley Light Rail Extension, Phoenix Highway 51, Phoenix highway infrastructure, Phoenix historic area, Phoenix Interstate 10, Phoenix Interstate 17, phoenix light rail, phoenix mayoral race, Phoenix public transit, Phoenix urban core, The Castaway House, The Ranch Mine, Thomas and Indian School, Tolleson Light Rail Extension, transit oriented development, transit proximate development, uptown Phoenix, walkable streets, walkable urban core