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I had the good fortune recently to attend both City Council meetings regarding the Light rail projects around town. The first of which focused solely on the South Central extension and whether it is to be two or four lanes. I was impressed and heartened by the amount of people who came out to participate in the discussion. I was  especially surprised to see so much support for the light rail extension, since so much of the media coverage leading up to the meeting  had focused on the ‘4 Lanes or No Train’ opposition group.

I took off work early to attend the meeting and filled out a card to request to speak, but had to leave before my turn arrived.

There are a few quick takeaways from this meeting:

1. By the time I arrived home, the City Council approved the 2-lane configuration 6 to 2. (Yay!)

2To construct the light rail in the 4-lane configuration would have required another environmental assessment and would have sent Phoenix to the back of the line in terms of priority for funding from the federal government. In so many words- 4 lanes meant no train.

3. There was a lot of support for the light rail in the 2-lane configuration.

4. Councilman Sal Diciccio ‘will never support light rail’, according to his words.

The Second Meeting

During the second meeting, a controversial project in Kierland mostly took the spotlight, and the Council deferred the Light Rail discussion to the very end, perhaps anticipating more people than actually arrived. I got to speak at this meeting as one of maybe three people who showed up to defend future light rail projects in the city.

This meeting left me wondering where all the allies went. The council eventually voted to kill off the Northeast/Paradise Valley or at least delay it indefinitely. They also indicated they might stick the Camelback extension on the shelf as well due to Glendale’s decision against building their light rail leg, which would’ve connected to the rest of the system around 43rd Avenue and Camelback. Luckily, the Metrocenter, South Central, and Capitol/I-10 extensions are still a go.

I learned a couple more things at this meeting, namely that Waring and Diciccio seem more concerned with how people currently get around as opposed to how they could get around if you simply gave them more options. It’s a position that feels more than a little short-sighted.

Why Phoenix needs Light Rail

The post-WWII years were very kind to Phoenix; millions of Americans moved from farms and cities to live in what became a seemingly endless suburbia, egged on by developers eager to convert wilderness into easily profitable streets of neatly-arranged single family homes. During this rapid outward growth, houses spring like weeds with little concern about building real neighborhood cores, walkability, or bike-friendliness. City planners worshiped at the altar of wide roads and ample parking.  Our culture changed as a result of this process; a driver’s license and a car became a symbol of freedom.

Fast forward to today, and cities are contending with choking traffic, vehicle-borne pollution, identity-deprived neighborhoods, and bloated road maintenance budgets. It turns out that the 2-car garage and white picket fence hasn’t made us happier or healthier – just the opposite, in fact. Americans now commute over an hour total each day, are generally overweight, and spend a full fifth of their income on transportation. We’re ready for a change.

There is a solution, and it can be found downtown.

America sits on a bit of a demographic precipice. Baby Boomers and Millennials alike are revealing a strong preference for walkable, transit-oriented, urban living, and there are 150 million of us. This preference is the driving force behind the unprecedented boom currently being observed in America’s downtown areas. I could throw a bunch of numbers at you (and I might, later) but suffice it to say that the evidence isn’t hard to come by.

Phoenix must become a competitor for the kind of people who are moving in droves from suburbia to places like Seattle, Portland, Chicago, Washington D.C., and others. These cities have invested in mass transit and walkability, and are reaping the benefits in spades.

These cities are attracting young, well-educated, entrepreneurs and professionals looking to start careers in big cities with the big city lifestyles they saw on TV growing up. On the flipside, these same cities are also attracting retiring baby boomers looking to leave their empty nests for places that offer more community and less maintenance.

Phoenix, reborn.

What Phoenix needs is to reinvent itself, much like the legendary bird after which the city takes its name. The thesis is this: In the face of skyrocketing demand for walkable urban living combined with the accompanying crash in demand for suburban living, Phoenix must choose whether to be a city people come to, or a city people leave.

It’s really up to us.