To call Mayor Greg Stanton of Phoenix a mere transit supporter would be an understatement. "I love public transportation," he says. "I love light rail. I love bikeability. I love walkability. I talk about it all the time. I'm a passionate advocate." Such passion might seem like an odd fit for a city with a reputation for car-reliance, but the truth is that Phoenix is having a love affair with transit, too.
Just look at its recent resume. The light rail system, which opened in 2008, has already reached 2020 ridership projections. Its success has sparked a wide push for walkability and transit-oriented development in the corridor. The Valley Metro transit agency had a record year in 2013. The share of car-less households is increasing. A bike-share system is nearly ready for launch. And there's Stanton at the helm.
"A great city, a great community, is truly multi-modal, and has many forms of transportation that work well," he says. "I want to make sure that people understand that from my perspective, great public transportation, great bikeability, great walkability, is of equal value as those cars on the road."
The mayor's appreciation for Phoenix transit goes back to a childhood spent watching his father take the bus to work at JC Penny in the Park Central mall downtown, because the family couldn't afford a second car. Stanton knows many people will choose a traditional car-centric suburban lifestyle in a metro area as vast as Phoenix. He just wants to make sure those who prefer a modern car-free urban lifestyle have that option, too.
To identify a long-term plan for transit expansion, Stanton recently convened a Citizens Committee (chaired by former Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters, a local). The committee will collect public feedback on service needs and funding ideas, and present its recommendations to the city in the coming months. Stanton hopes to take a plan to Phoenix voters next year, perhaps on a ballot to extend the existing dedicated transit sales tax. He's confident in its prospects.
"The people of the City of Phoenix love what they've seen with our public transportation improvements," he says. "They understand that our transportation system and access to higher education, access to jobs, access to our bioscience campus in the heart of city, our economic development, are all one and the same. There is not an inch of space between the economic success of our city and the growth of high-quality public transportation."
Mayor Stanton spoke to CityLab at length about his transit priorities for Phoenix. What follows is an account of our conversation, edited lightly for length and clarity.
You've made public transportation a big priority. That might surprise some people, given that Phoenix has a reputation as a car-reliant place. Why do you think it's so important for the city to shift its approach to mobility?
Well, because we have been a car-reliant place. For the exact reason why people might be surprised to read about a city and a mayor so committed to public transportation. Because we've been overly car-reliant in the past and our planning efforts have been geared toward that.
Transit usage in Phoenix really seems to be on the rise. What do you see as the major factors behind these trends?
Phoenix residents are like residents of any other major city across the United States. If you provide them a high-quality transit experience, if you make it as convenient as possible, if you keep the cost at a reasonable level, they're going to use it. That's exactly our experience here in Phoenix. Our ridership numbers have been significantly above what we projected when we invested in our light rail system. And they continue to grow.
And in fact, as a result of our investment in transportation, we are seeing a renaissance in our downtown. Thousands of new apartments and condos are being constructed. Many buildings are being reoriented from office to residential because they want to be located near light rail. We have major urban development projects—including CityScape, which has been a massively successful development project in the heart of the city—that simply would not be there except for our investment in public transportation.
Let's touch on light rail. It's been a big hit. What's the outlook for expansion of the system?
We are under construction right now with expansion to the north. So the original line, which is about 23 miles, is being expanded two miles to the north in Phoenix. Our friends in Mesa are extending the eastern side of the light rail line about two miles.
Probably one way of describing the success of light rail: When we originally put it to the voters a few years ago, there was concern that the people of Mesa wouldn't like it. It's known as a very conservative city. Would they like this new form of transportation? Would they think it's too expensive? Would they be concerned about it? The truth is that it's been even more popular in Mesa than almost any other part of the line. You can't get elected mayor of Mesa or onto the city council unless you support light rail. You'll get no traction politically if you come out and oppose public transportation, particularly light rail.
As you look to build off these positive trends in transit and keep the momentum going, what other efforts do you plan or hope to take? Buses often get overlooked when we talk about transit.
I know how important a high-quality bus system is to get kids to school, to get people to their jobs, to get them to church. So, yes, absolutely, with this improvement to our light rail system will be, in addition, significant improvements to our bus system. Which, by the way, is not just the traditional bus system. We need more bus rapid transit, which has been massively successful here in Phoenix.
And let me add to this: Phoenix, Arizona, what used to be the ultimate car-centric city—I'm demanding that we become a bikeable city. We're going to be putting bike share in the City of Phoenix over the next few months. We're going to be using a portion of these resources that are provided by the citizens of Phoenix to improve bikeability, including having dedicated bike lanes in our city.
And we need to be more walkable. As you know, you can't just improve light rail and the bus system. You need the built environment. The planning process needs to be geared toward a more urban, dense development system. We have to come to the conclusion that downtown Phoenix, for example, is not just a place for people to go to their jobs and go home. Downtown Phoenix is a neighborhood. So walkability is a much bigger part of our thinking here in Phoenix than it ever has been before.
Walkability certainly seems to be a priority along the light rail corridor. Can you talk about the transformations that have occurred there, and the lessons the city is learning in terms of how to become a walkable place?
First off, when it comes to issues of walkability and bikeability, these are not soft issues. These are critically important issues when it comes to economic development. The companies and entrepreneurs that provide the highest-quality jobs—technology, science, etc.—the employees of these companies won't come to a place that doesn't have a great bicycle culture or a great walkable culture. None of those things are going to happen by accident. They're going to be smart policy choices made by leaders who understand how important that is.
So in the City of Phoenix, we've put a lot of roads on diets. We've taken away lanes of traffic so that there's much less intensity of traffic. We've expanded the sidewalk system. We've allowed businesses to expand outside of their indoor arena and allowed to have seating outside and on sidewalks, etc. Just creating a place where people collide, as they say. That's what makes for a great city. Where people are out and about, out of their cars, walking around, biking around, running into each other, and having real human interaction. Great cities create those opportunities, and Phoenix is heading in the right direction in that regard.
The flipside of improving transit is what higher transit usage means for the highway system. We know driving is in decline across the United States and in Arizona, too. How do you shift your approach to roads given the new trends?
Here's the truth about Phoenix, Arizona: We have been the fastest growing—by far—post World War II big city in the United States of America. … We're going to continue to grow. Which means that we're going to need a continuing well-functioning freeway system.
So creating a much-improved public transportation system—it may slow down congestion that is going to occur, and I hope it does and believe it will. But make no mistake: We're a growing city. So there's going to be continued pressure on our transportation system. We always have to be investing, and that includes great freeways as well as great public transportation.
Going from infrastructure to the behavioral side—even if you offer people better transit service, it's very difficult to get them to shift their commuting habits. What do you see as the obstacles to changing habits in a place like Phoenix with such a heavy car history?
I believe from the bottom of my heart that if you provide a great system, people are going to use it. If it becomes a better option than their vehicle in terms of convenience, in terms of less stress, people are going to use the system. That's been our experience here in Phoenix. Many of the people, particularly on the light rail side, many of them that use it are people who formerly were commuters in their vehicles. They've made the choice to switch over to the light rail side.
Look, I'm not naïve that in a city like Phoenix, for the foreseeable future, the majority of people are going to switch from driving their own vehicle to our public transportation system. But we've gotta offer a great public transportation system for those that want that lifestyle, for those employers that want to be in a place that their employees can choose that lifestyle. Many people make the choice that using public transportation is a better option than getting in their car. I don't want one to be the opposite of the other.
You've called transit a "personal passion" and you mentioned your personal history with it. Would you say this helps you frame your views toward transportation policy?
There are some people that view public transportation negatively. They make it social stratification. I don't know anything about that. From my personal experience, buses are really important to people who are working-class families to make sure the kids can get to school and mom or dad can get to their job or maybe their second job. It is important to the lives of many, many, many people in our community. For many people it'll be the most realistic option for their day-to-day needs. As it was for the Stanton family when I grew up.
Let me make one other point: There are going to be people who are going to vote yes on expanding public transportation next year, expanding light rail, who have never stepped foot on a bus and have never stepped foot on a rail system. But they are smart people. They understand how a great transportation system adds to our economy. How a great transportation system is a huge selling point as we try to get the best employers in technology, and in science, and in research. When we go to the voters and ask for their support, it'll pass not just because of transit users but because of transit believers, and we have plenty of those in Phoenix, Arizona.
You're not the only city with this gap you mention between transit use and support.
I'll be doing many interviews about the Super Bowl [the city will host it next year], which is going to be a massive amount of business in Phoenix. We're going to generate huge amounts of revenue. Those opportunities would only be possible because of our investment in public transportation. And many people in the City of Phoenix are going to have a great time in downtown Phoenix for Super Bowl Central that won't utilize public transportation. They'll be glad that event is there and they'll understand that event is only there because of the investment our community has made in great transportation.
If the Cardinals keep it up they might be playing a home game.
I am a Cardinals fan. But I also realize we'll sell a lot more hotel rooms if we have two out-of-town teams. So I'm rooting for both.