Boosterism: The enthusiastic promotion of a person, organization, or cause (in this case of a city)
If you don’t have only good things to say about Phoenix and you purport to be an activist, you might be considered cynical or worse, a hypocrite, lazy or ineffective. But I think boosterism is dangerous to the progress of Phoenix because it leads to delusion, which may feel good now but isn’t conducive to moving forward. Knowing where you are now is the first step to making constructive change. The same goes for Phoenix. We have to know where we are now, what we have to offer and what we don’t if we are to make positive changes that register on the national scale.
Phoenicians like to say that you can’t compare this place to cities like Portland or New York. But the problem is that people do compare because they can, and Phoenix falls short in many respects. Having traveled to Portland and New York recently, it is my estimation that Phoenix is 20 years behind when it comes to transit-oriented development, density, walkability and bike-infrastructure. Nationwide, these characteristics are what millennials and boomers are looking for in a city. Devin Benson says in her article The Economics of Walkability,
“In his The New York Times piece “The Death of the Fringe Suburb,” Lienberger notes that the 1990s market increased development in expensive, car-oriented suburbs. That trend is fading as Boomers (people born between 1946 and 1964) and Millennials (born between 1979 and 1996) look for different amenities in their communities. For example, aging residents might have trouble driving and walkable areas free them from the car. Millennials, on the other hand, might find it impractical to buy or maintain a car in the current economy, or might want to live closer to the jobs and entertainment that walkable areas contain. Taken together these two groups are roughly 50 percent of the total population. When they come to agree on consumer preferences, the market is impacted.”
Cities like Portland and New York are offering this kind of urban experience right now. Portland is the 12th most walkable large city in the U.S. with a Walk Score of 66. New York is number 1 with a Walk Score of 85. Phoenix came in at 33 with a walk score of 45. Our attempt at creating the urban experience that millennials and boomers want is at its infancy and has a long way to go. This to me should warrant some kind of urgency on Phoenix’s part if it wants to compete with the rest of the nation in becoming a city that attracts and retains young talent and recently retired boomers.
The small incremental steps we are seeing take place right now, though encouraging, are not enough. For example, the Northwest Light Rail extension, which is scheduled to be completed in 2016, does not have any bike lanes planned with it because traffic engineers were too afraid to give up vehicle lanes. We seem to be operating under the old paradigm that the car is still king and we must do everything in our power to accommodate it just as we have been over the past 60 years. But the national trends indicate otherwise, that transit, walkability and bike-ability are becoming just as valuable, if not more, as the ability to drive. We need a cultural shift in Phoenix to embrace this change in tide. Either this or we should wholeheartedly embrace and dig our heels into our car-culture, as an offering to all those in the world who are seeking this kind of lifestyle. We could indeed stop trying to compete with Portland and New York and say this is a city for the car and if that’s not what you want then you shouldn’t come to Phoenix. But this in-between attitude, all these diluted attempts at change, these hankerings to move forward while clutching on to the way we’re used to doing things, just won’t get us anywhere.
If we don’t look at Phoenix with the cold, hard objectivity of someone who has a choice to live in any city she chooses, we will always be 20 years too late. Sure, I think there’s plenty of room for optimism. But I’m tired of boosterism, of saying Phoenix is making great strides in the right direction. The truth is Phoenix is taking some small, tentative steps in the right direction, but it is still very far behind compared to what other cities are doing already. This difficult truth shouldn’t dog us into paralyzed depression, but rather increase the urgency for a major shift in our priorities. And hopefully it keeps our eye on the prize instead of being satisfied with small victories.Tags: bike infrastructure, car culture, new york, phoenix, portland, transit, transit oriented development, walking