The Phoenix Experiment

Our columnist rides the rails in a city known more for sprawl than transit.

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Map courtesy Valley Metro

My plan was straightforward. I was going to take the PHX Sky Train from Terminal 4 of Sky Harbor International Airport to the Valley Metro Rail stop at 44th Street and Washington. From there, I’d ride the line directly to my hotel in downtown Phoenix. No big deal. It would be faster and easier, in theory, than my New York excursion: taking the AirTrain from JFK to Jamaica and picking up the J train back to Williamsburg. But in sprawling Phoenix, mass transit is a twenty-first century phenomenon and still somewhat exotic. A single $1.4 billion 20 mile rail line opened for business five years ago, and a pair of extensions recently began construction at the far ends of the route.

The PHX Sky Train, which opened earlier this year, ran about every three minutes, as advertised, and delivered me swiftly to a futuristic tubular station connected by covered walkway to an outdoor light rail platform in the middle of sun-baked Washington Street. The surrounding landscape was bland in a way that I think of as Phoenix-specific. A generic beige airport hotel stood across the street and the overall terrain was either black asphalt or desert dust.

But in sprawling Phoenix, mass transit is a twenty-first century phenomenon and still somewhat exotic.

The exception was the metro station, designed by DWL Architects + Planners, a firm with offices north of downtown Phoenix. The narrow platform—serving eastbound trains headed to Tempe, home of Arizona State University, and to the city of Mesa, and westbound trains traveling toward downtown Phoenix and the lively crossroads of Camelback Road and Central Avenue—was an assemblage of small acts of kindness. Overhead were a series of fabric shade canopies, and the framework in the middle of the station island supported tiers of perforated, rust-colored louvers, both of which afforded relief from the sun. A stout green drinking fountain, distinctly unpromising in appearance, dispensed wonderfully chilled water.

A streamlined eastbound train blanketed in a jumbo Coors ad arrived and departed. But no Phoenix-bound train. Another Mesa-bound train arrived. The doors opened, and the conductor made an announcement about delays. The train sat for about 15 minutes and finally pulled out. Others awaiting the west-bound train packed it in, dashed across a couple lanes of traffic, and caught the nearest bus. I waited. A third Mesa-bound train came and went. No announcements were made, except for a few about not skateboarding on the platform. I waited for nearly an hour before I gave up on mass transit in Phoenix. Later, I learned that at almost the exact instant that I set foot on the platform, 1:15 p.m., a “major power event” zapped the system. Service was either slow or nonexistent for roughly an hour and resumed, predictably, the moment I dashed back to the airport to catch a taxi.

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Dec 21, 2013 10:36 am
 Posted by  hawkeye7

I often get questioned why I would rather live in a city than the suburbs or rural America considering what a outdoor person I am. The authors story of the elderly woman and the young man who wants to help her is the reason. The city, in my case Atlanta, reminds me we are a better people when we are one, not divided by class, ethnic minority, sexual orientation or the glass of a car window. Our train system in Atlanta is 40 years old and is often very crowded. It is a great system, but it needs to grow and the suburbs that use it but don't pay for it, need to start.

Jan 5, 2014 06:45 am
 Posted by  Lainie

I lived in Phoenix from 1990 to 1996 and recognize much of what is described in this article. I have returned frequently to this, my heartland, since then and have witnessed huge, and effective growth to this beautiful place. I have just returned from Phoenix, Jan 1st 2014 and life is beginning to take on a different feel. When I lived here as a very English woman in the early 90's no one walked let alone caught a bus; in fact the bus system was virtually non existent. When I walked to the supermarket, baby in stroller covered by sun parasol, I was named the "crazy" English woman that walked in the sun and heat!!! But as an English woman I was used to walking to the shops with my baby. Nevertheless, this 2013/14 trip, I witnessed more walkers than ever and people waiting for the buses on the sides of the road. Breath of fresh air (no pun intended). Go Phoenix.

Jan 5, 2014 03:02 pm
 Posted by  Grid Bike Share

Phoenix has truly become a great place to live and every day we see more and more people walking, bicycling and taking the light rail. People no longer feel the need to travel only by car.

We're so happy to say that we'll be bringing bike share to Phoenix, Mesa and Tempe this year! This will help many people complete the first and last mile trip to and from the light rail, making it more accessible. Find out more about how bike share will benefit you and our city at

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