If they can do it, why can’t we?

The city of Phoenix loves its new light rail line.

The light rail here, which opened in December, has been a greater success than its proponents thought it would be, but not quite the way they envisioned. Unlike the rest of the country’s public transportation systems, which are used principally by commuters, the 20 miles of light rail here stretching from central Phoenix to Mesa and Tempe is used largely by people going to restaurants, bars, ball games and cultural events downtown.

The rail was projected to attract 26,000 riders per day, but the number is closer to 33,000, boosted in large part by weekend riders. Only 27 percent use the train for work, according to its operator, compared with 60 percent of other public transit users on average nationwide.

In some part thanks to the new system, downtown Phoenix appears to be one of the few bright spots in an otherwise economically pummeled city, which like the rest of Arizona has suffered under the crushing slide of the state’s economy. The state, for years almost totally dependent on growth, has one of the deepest budget deficits in the country.

In the first quarter of 2009, downtown Phoenix saw its revenues increase 13 percent, while the rest of the city saw a fall of 16 percent, according to Eric Johnson, a redevelopment program manager for the city’s Community and Economic Development Department. (Businesses along the line suffered greatly during the many years of construction, it should be noted.)

“It is bringing us new customers who didn’t have time to get in the car and drive out here before,” said Joel Miller, a co-owner of Maizies Cafe and Bistro, which sits right along the rail line.

The gaggle of light rail users — including Arizona State University students, who use a line that connects its Tempe campus with the downtown campus — have given a small part of the city a new, dense connectivity that was more or less unheard of in the city two years ago. Pub crawls along the light rail have become a weekend staple, and restaurants have seen new customers from outside the neighborhood popping in off the line for brunch on the weekends.

Read the article and mentally substitute “Houston” for “Phoenix”, and see if it makes a difference. I mean, what besides a dry heat does Phoenix have that we don’t? Consider:

– Carping about the cost of building the rail lines from the usual suspects, who oddly never complain about the cost of road building? Check.

– Completely wrong predictions by those same usual suspects about the line’s ridership projections? Check.

– A sprawling, car-centric metropolis? Check.

– A perception that “no one” would ever walk there because it’s too damn hot? Check.

Am I missing anything? The Main Street line has already done most of the things that Phoenix is enjoying with its new line. Some day, when we finally have all the pieces in place for Houston’s rail system, or at least the pieces that are now being put into place, I expect this same article to be written here. That can’t come soon enough. Thanks to Greg for the link.

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5 Responses to If they can do it, why can’t we?

  1. John says:

    You know, in casual conversation around my downtown office, the general feeling is that the Main Street line has been a good thing. In fact I rarely hear someone ranting about it. And a significant number of my coworkers are running around with Q cards clipped to their badges (the co. subsidizes them in lieu of parking, if you want) so many of them are regular METRO riders.

    I think one’s idea of the public perception can get warped by hanging out in certain online venues where light rail is a grand obsession.

  2. Peter Wang says:

    AND Phoenix LR has hangers for 4 bicycles per train car! Our do not and are not planned to. See biketrain.blogspot.com

  3. Pingback: If they can do it, why can’t we? — Tempe in Motion

  4. Nancy says:

    I live in Phoenix and can definitely vouch that the light rail has done wonders for downtown Phoenix. That, mixed with newly constructed projects such as Cityscape seem to be transforming Phoenix into a real downtown urban center.

  5. Mike says:

    “If they can do it, why can’t we?”

    Uh – didn’t we already do what they did – which is open a very successful starter line, about 5 years before them? Maybe it didn’t get written up in the NYTimes, but perhaps it should have been.

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