January 21 2014

A Foundation for Rebranding: Light Rail Transit in Phoenix

In its continual search to be known for something other than its scorching temperatures, the Phoenix Metropolitan Area, also referred to as the Valley, has undertaken many ambitious projects. New resorts and golf courses are continuously being constructed to establish the region as a vacation and retirement destination. Several cities in the region have even invested tourism dollars in order to claim the title of “The West’s Most Western Town.” Though one of the most promising foundations for the Valley’s rebranding has been the Valley Metro Light Rail.

Launched in 2008, the transit system got off to a slow start. Daily ridership numbers were low, cooling the trains during the summer heat proved to be an expensive endeavor, and several jurisdictions refused to allow light rail within their borders. However, upon the system’s six-year anniversary, it is hard to overlook the many positive initiatives that have sprung from the light rail platform.

Light Rail Station, Tempe, Arizona

The most visible impact has been the increase of transit-oriented development constructed along the line. Apartment complexes, mixed use developments, and business plazas have been built around several light rail stations. Although many developments may struggle at the onset, their actions point to a future in which Phoenicians can rely less on their cars and more on public transit. One leader in transit-oriented development is Light Rail Connect, a regional organization that helps residents and businesses connect themselves to transit by advertising vacancies in apartment communities, brokering real estate properties, and promoting business along the light rail.

Another exciting outcome of the light rail’s establishment is the continued support of local businesses in the Valley. As extensions are being made to the existing light rail, Valley Metro offers a reward program, Metro Max, to residents who shop at businesses along the planned rail line. The initiative reflects the already robust local support of area businesses, led by Local First Arizona.

At a regional scale, the light rail holds promise for connecting multiple cities across the Phoenix Metropolitan Area. As an example, the light rail system allows Mesa residents to easily commute into Tempe to see an Arizona State University football game, as well as provide students who are living in Tempe better access to classes at the ASU downtown campus. The connectivity between the region’s municipalities supports a cohesive identity for the region’s future development.

Future Valley Metro Light Rail, Phoenix, Arizona

The success of the light rail is expected to continue with five light rail extensions planned over the next twelve years. With its help, Phoenix is headed toward a new identity that is sustainable, locally grown, and strengthened by residents across the metro area.

How can your local transit system support your community’s identity?

Credits: Image by Lynn Coppedge. Map and data linked to sources.

Lynn Coppedge

Lynn Coppedge graduated from Arizona State University's Master of Urban and Environmental Planning program Currently working as a Sustainability Planner for the City of Lakewood in Colorado, Lynn aspires to advance sustainability in the community of Lakewood through creative planning, programs, outreach, and events.

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This entry was posted on Tuesday, January 21st, 2014 at 9:49 am and is filed under Community/Economic Development, Infrastructure, Transportation, Urban Development/Real Estate. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.


10 Responses to “A Foundation for Rebranding: Light Rail Transit in Phoenix”

  1. Richard Hall Says:

    In Marin’s Civic Center, adjacent to Frank Lloyd Wright’s magnificent Civic Center – the surrounding neighborhoods were volunteered for high density development more than doubling the number of housing units within a 1/2 mile area – if not increasing 6 fold if the MTC Station Area Planning Guide of “Transit Town Center” targets were to be met:


    The process was clearly rigged. Outreach was near non-existent (admittedly completely non-existent in the case of PDA designation as disclosed by the city). The community meetings were ineffectively communicated as being around station design – when in fact they were about introducing significant increases in housing.

    The justification base on reduced trip reduction was flawed. But most importantly the community’s voice was consistently suppressed and disregarded.


  2. Richard Hall Says:

    I’m responding to the comment “How public #transit supports the economy, the environment, and the community” made by Renée van Staveren on Twitter when promoting this article.

    Regarding the environment – we are seeing many transit projects, such as this light rail, and in Marin County California, justified on the basis that it’s better for the environment. This is one of the primary ways heavy rail was justified in Marin, and I suspect in ARizona.

    This plays to a myth that public transit has lower emissions than cars, but this is just not the case. First we need some foundational facts. Just what are the emissions of light rail? Superficially one might suggest that an electric system is zero – but behind the veil that’s one heavy vehicle, be it running on low friction rails, that’s drawing power from a power station that generates emissions.

    For reference CO2 emissions are near inversely proportional to miles per gallon. For the purposes of comparison we must consider “passenger miles per gallon” to consider that both light rail and cars have different numbers of occupants.

    If we look at the American Public Transit Association’s Factbook 2012, Appendix A we can look at the national totals for light rail which show for 2010:
    - average passenger load 23.2
    - vehicle miles per gallon 1.56 (diesel equivalent)
    - passenger miles per gallon 36.1 mpg
    Note: The vehicle miles per gallon for light rail has remained steady at around 1.5 mpg since 1994; light rail is not becoming any greener.

    Now lets look at cars. We need to look out into the future when considering building future light rail lines to the midpoint of the locomotive’s life 30 year expectancy. So a light rail started commencing operation in 2014 should be looking at the efficiency of cars in the year 2029.

    For cars we need to look at average occupancy. The US DOT provides this figure in their 2009 Travel Trends survey on page 33, table 16 which is 1.67 occupants per vehicle:

    Now consider the fuel consumption of cars. As opposed to light rail and other forms of transit the fuel efficiency of cars has been steadily improving. The EPA reports that in the model year 2012 the average new car achieved 23.6mpg. This was a gain of 1.2mpg oer the prior year.

    So to compare this to light rail which gets 36.1 pmpg (remember higher is better) we need to multiple cars’ mpg x occupancy.
    RESULT NEW 2012 CARS: 39.4 pmpg

    We can convert these pmpg figures into g CO2 emitted per passenger mile using a fairly simple conversion of 5,636 / pmpg (gasoline) = CO2 emissions. Even with this unfair 2012 cars vs light rail we get:
    CARS: 143g CO2 per mile
    LIGHT RAIL: 156g CO2 per mile
    RESULT: 2012 cars are greener than light rail

    The EPA and Whitehouse have mandated that the average new car must attain 54.5mpg by model year 2025. These cars will be the average car in 2029.

    Now applying 54.5mpg to 1.67 occupants per vehicle we get a 91 pmpg, or 100.2 pmpg when converted to diesel equivalent (how light rail is measured)

    This works out as follows:
    CARS: 143g CO2 per mile
    LIGHT RAIL: 56.3g CO2 per mile
    RESULT: 2029 cars are about three times greener than light rail


    What’s happening is that:
    - people are buying into a myth that transit is greener than cars
    - this myth is being propagated
    - sure if transit is filled to capacity emissions per passenger mile do drop
    - BUT only on East coast arterial routes to centralized cities (monocentric cities) is transit actually becoming marginally greener
    - throwing more transit at cities, especially dispersed non-monocentric cities, with low densities results in lower ridership
    - lower ridership translates into higher emissions per mile


    There seems to be an unquestioning, near pied-piper style buying into the myth that transit is greener than cars. But this overlooks the scrutiny of actually calculating emissions. I’ve created this Google Doc that lets you compare different cars against different modes of transit – this uses:

    - American Public Transportation Association 2012 Factbook, Appendix A data
    - actual mileage achieved as reported by drivers on fueleconomy.gov (since car manufacturers can “cook the books” and achieve higher mpg than in reality):


    I welcome feedback. I realize that this doesn’t consider:
    - the massive environmental cost of building transit (in my neighborhood unmitigated damage is being made to wetlands containing federally endangered species for a heavy rail project)
    - “deadhead miles” – light rail needs to get vehicles to departure points where it’s carrying no passengers
    - diminishing returns: if you add more transit ridership will drop. Right now transit is serving the heavy arterials.

    Feedback more than welcome. And thanks Renee for asking – I greatly appreciate the opportunity to lay out the counter argument.

  3. Lynn Coppedge Says:


    Thank you for all your feedback! You bring up very important points that are often overlooked by transit advocates. Constructing transit lines are extremely costly both economically and environmentally. If the trains are not filled to a certain capacity, emissions per passenger mile can be more detrimental than fuel-efficient personal vehicles.

    In the case of Phoenix, Arizona, billions of private and public dollars have poured into the freeway system and created a community that is completely reliant on personal automobiles. In order to reverse the trend and create walkable communities offer affordable, safe, and comfortable public transportation options for all, Phoenix has to make large investments in its transit system, the Metro Light Rail.

    Perhaps the largest potential for environmental benefits that could come from Light Rail Transit in Phoenix is transit-oriented development. If people choose to live in areas in which they can access their daily needs by foot and take public transit when needed, there will be a decrease in vehicle miles traveled (VMT) per person and an increase in health and community.

    Again, thank you for providing another perspective to the cost of public transit infrastructure. It emphasizes that light and heavy rail lines are not right for every community and should be carefully planned when needed.

  4. Richard Hall Says:

    Thanks for your review. Your response contains some presumptions that merit further scrutiny.
    You state: “created a community that is completely reliant on personal automobiles”
    yet you do not explain why this is bad. I might say:
    “we have an international travel system completely dependent on jet planes” or
    “we have a lighting system completely dependent on electricity”. Does this mean it’s bad?

    Consider the alternative. Here in the Bay Area:
    - BART riders have been at the mercy of union strikes, repeatedly finding their commutes lengthened and disrupted; some days not being able to get to work
    - the Sonoma Marin planned heavy rail project is destined to be highly unreliable. Costing $1.6 billion yet removing less than 1% of highway 101 freeway traffic it will not run on days when the lines are submerged (3 days last year and water levels are rising). It is a single track line using entirely new trains. In the event of a breakdown there is no way “around” the broken down locomotive on the single track.

  5. Richard Hall Says:

    Next you state:
    “In order to reverse the trend and create walkable communities offer affordable, safe, and comfortable public transportation options for all, Phoenix has to make large investments in its transit system, the Metro Light Rail.

    This statement is loaded. It presumes that everyone wants to make the changes to achieve these “walkable communities”. In my area the picture is becoming clear that this comes at immense cost that outweighs the benefits and overlooks the importance of preserving existing resident’s quality of life through:
    - conducting highly destructive projects in protected wetlands with endangered species
    - building high density apartments that are entirely out of character with the adjacent low density communities (and disliked by the majority once they wake up to what’s going on)
    - adding immense burdens to traffic. At best trip generation is reduced from 6.72 to 4.5 trips per unit, but this isn’t achieved in low density suburban areas: the new residents still drive! Then we have California Senate Bill 743 combined with a new planning methodology that dismisses consideration of traffic and parking impact (from CEQA review). So new transit oriented development can be added causing car gridlock – but that’s how 90%+ get around in suburbia. This is unlikely to change. Getting the middle classes out of their cars is going to be a major challenge. Not everyone shares the “transit” mindset.
    - often times the housing is pushed through as being “affordable” and built by non-profits. Sure they don’t make profits but their executives still make $200k+. This *subsidized* housing places significant incremental burdens on schools and taxes. An entire apartment block can pay the same property taxes as a modest 3 bedroom single family home yet have dozens of school children that cost $10k/year to educate in local schools.

    It is a highly presumptuous statement to suggest that Phoenix *must* invest in light rail for reasons of affordability, safety and comfort. The case has not been made, at all. If it’s the same as what happened in Marin
    - voters passed a measure to put in heavy rail as it would be green, but it emits far more greenhouse gases than equivalent cars
    - voters passed this measure as they were told it would reduce freeway congestion, but the congestion reduction is under 1,000 cars a day. It is literally a rounding error.
    - voters passed this $1.6bn measure for a train when express buses could have achieved a far superior service at a fraction of the cost (under $400k). But the alternative scenarios were rigged to justify a train.

    What is most concerning is that transit advocates are making presumptuous statements and there is no scrutiny being performed – and this is leading us into:
    - making neighborhoods much more unaffordable (higher taxes)
    - diminishing quality of life (increasing traffic, adding unsightly, out of character TOD buildings), noise of heavy diesel trains running past from 5am – 10pm
    - adversely impacting the quality of schools
    - adversely impacting the environment through higher emissions, destructive building of train lines

    Given what is being said the impression given is that many “sustainables” and transit advocates are hiding behind words, and not conducting the due diligence, or considering residents views and allowing local control. Instead we’re being quite literally, railroaded.

  6. Richard Hall Says:

    Finally I must also contradict this statement:

    “Perhaps the largest potential for environmental benefits that could come from Light Rail Transit in Phoenix is transit-oriented development. If people choose to live in areas in which they can access their daily needs by foot and take public transit when needed, there will be a decrease in vehicle miles traveled (VMT) per person and an increase in health and community.”

    Transit oriented development is not a “benefit”. It is a methodology (some might say ideology). Here are some real goals / benefits:
    - reducing greenhouse gases
    - protecting the environment
    - allowing local towns to maintain local control and decisions

    I would argue that if transit oriented development occurs then this can significantly adverse people’s quality of life – and ESPECIALLY their health. Here are some articles documenting how building housing in close proximity of freeways and major arterials – as advocated by TOD – is highly adverse to health:
    - increases risk of heart disease
    - causes autism:

    So I would argue that transit oriented development, involving building in close proximity to freeways and arterials, is most specifically NOT a benefit as it causes death.

  7. Lynn Coppedge Says:

    Thank you for identifying the need to clarify my assumption that a complete reliance on personal automobiles is detrimental to the community.

    Reliance on personal automobiles exclude those who cannot afford the high costs of purchasing and maintaining an automobile. Although personal automobiles are undoubtedly a valuable and necessary mode of transportation, it should not be a community’s sole transportation option. Transit it an important piece of transportation systems that support those who choose walking and biking for health, social, and economic benefits. Transit supports these types of communities by connecting them to the greater region without necessitating a car.

  8. Richard Hall Says:

    Regarding cost of access to an automobile:
    - this can be achieved, at far lower cost than a light rail system costing billions, through systems such as ZipCar and Lyft.
    - for a fraction of the cost these services can be subsidized for those on low incomes
    - those on low incomes can then access more jobs further afield
    - some on lower incomes can work two jobs because they can get there by car
    - we can also be doing a much better job at encouraging car sharing by promoting services like the Carma app

    I would suggest that the above could be achieved and target those on lower incomes at a much lower cost than light rail. This would also avoid needlessly increasing taxes – typically using regressive forms of taxation further reducing affordability.

    You state “Transit it an important piece of transportation systems that support those who choose walking and biking for health, social, and economic benefits.”. I would like to travel via hot air balloon or steam train – should my community pay taxes to allow me and a minority of others sharing my viewpoint to indulge?

    I have already covered how TOD is adverse to health based on dozens of documented reports from respected medical and health organizations.

    Providing subsidized zip car access can “connect communities to the greater region” at a fraction of the cost.

  9. Lynn Coppedge Says:

    Although not in every community, there is a large shift towards walkable communities. According to the National Association of Realtor’s 2013 Community Preference Survey, 60% favor a neighborhood with a mix of houses and stores and other businesses that are easy to walk to, rather than neighborhoods that require more driving between home, work and recreation (http://www.realtor.org/articles/nar-2013-community-preference-survey).

    I do agree that higher density developments should be places appropriately and to scale with the existing neighborhoods. However I think your statement that they are “disliked by the majority once they wake up to what’s going on” is presumptuous.

    You are correct that getting people out of their cars and using transit systems will be a challenge, which is why in Phoenix, the light rail was a major step towards multimodal transportation options. The City undoubtedly recognizes that cars will always be a part of the community, but options are important.

    You say that subsidizing Zipcar and Lyft will be a fraction of the cost of subsidizing transit, but that does not include the massive subsidies that are already going into road systems. One such case is seen in the MAP-21 law, which allocated $40.9 billion for highways and $10.7 billion for transit in FY 2014.

    For those who choose to walk or bike instead of drive to their locations, it can hardly be seen as “indulging,” but rather as a boost to the local economy. In fact, those who do are likely to spend locally rather than putting their income towards cars and gas. According to IRS data, about 73% of the retail price of gas and 86% of the retail price of cars immediately leaves the local economy. Also, a strong correlation between walkability (including distance to transit) and lower BMI has been identified by a number of articles cited in this article: http://beh.columbia.edu/neighborhood-walkability/.

  10. Richard Hall Says:

    I’m familiar with the NAR survey. The problem is survey bias and the stigma of driving a car. I’ve worked extensively in market research. Here’s a paragraph from the summary of the very survey to which you refer:


    “Americans prefer walkable communities, but only to a point. In most comparisons tested, a majority prefers the community where it is easier to walk or the commute is shorter. But when comparing a detached single-family house to an apartment or townhouse, the detached home wins out – even with a longer commute and more driving.”

    I suggest that a combination of additional buses combined with subsidized Zipcar and Lyft would be a far superior solution to a very expensive light rail system.

    The diversion of transportation dollars from roads – which are used in Marin where I live by nearly 50 – 100 fold more people than transit – serves to undermine economic benefit. If you divert money from the transportation modes that people are using to those they don’t use, then roads are going to get more congested. Congested roads represent a reduction in economic benefit. People can’t get to work, work less, shop less…

    Finally multi-modal transportation is not a goal. It is rhetoric. Real goals are:
    - reducing greenhouse gas emissions; as my figures present this is achieved 3 times better via cars and the gap is improving
    - improving mobility: this can be achieved much more cost effectively by buses, or as I propose a combination of buses and subsidized car transportation
    - preserving and where possible improving quality of life; harder to measure

    We don’t have the resources, or time to play with fighting climate change, to entertain pipe dreams or confuse objectives (as described above) with tactics such as multi-modal transit. You are confusing tactics with objectives.

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