Public transportation is an important element of urban density. In recent years Phoenix has made huge strides in this area with the implementation of our light rail system. The Phoenix light rail will be in use for decades and we are barley beginning to see the advantages it will bring to our city. The development that will be built along the light rail corridor will be greater oriented to pedestrian traffic coming from the trains. This type of living will give urbanites a strong desire to live in a downtown setting who will want to utilize public transportation. We have already seen this begin to happen and my hope is that it will snowball and the growth will be exponential. So how can we facilitate this transit system and make it and our city more successful. The answer may be in supplemental transportation. Supplemental public transportation consists of any vehicle, motorized or other, that would aid in getting people from our downtown neighborhoods to the light rail stops. These smaller scale methods of transportation would be directed at getting people from the neighboring areas to the light rail stops.
Research shows that in an urban setting, most people will walk about a mile to a public transportation station before considering an alternative form of transport. In a less than urban setting that distance shrinks to half a mile, and in Phoenix, a realistic estimate may be a quarter mile. This comes down to the friendliness and walk-ability of that city’s street. (see post The STEPS to a walk-able street) In Phoenix we have a unique situation and the density around the light rail corridor is growing, but the way that our neighborhoods are set up, it would be impossible to reach all of our citizens with a light rail line.
One method could be the use of circulator buses. These are small buses that make loops instead of lines. They would be aimed at picking people up from designated areas within a community and dropping them off at the light rail stops. Tempe uses a similar method in the form of its ORBIT lines. An ORBIT-type commuter bus through the outlining neighborhood would further extend the reach of public transportation and would also be an opportunity for public interaction and community building. Our suburban style houses with their attached garages means we can go from the car to the house without ever seeing our neighbors. This reduces the connection to the neighborhood. Civic pride comes from being a part of the community and taking an active role. A circulator, community based bus that you ride with your neighbors would be a catalyst for creating connections and enhancing that sense of ownership and belonging.
Another possibility for supplemental transportation has already been set in motion. The GRID bike share program has recently launched in Phoenix and they are taking suggestions for station locations. I would suggest that we use this system in conjunction with the light rail system and place bikes stations at the light rail stops as well as within the neighborhoods. Again, having a station within the inner core of a community will give that community a sense of ownership. It provides for an instant public meeting spot and could foster several different types of multitenant or even mixed-use development. Placing a bike-share rack with the newspaper stands, mailboxes, and public bulletin boards could even create a new type of infrastructural program element within a community that is customizable and unique to that place. These are the types of amenities that urbanites want on their blocks.
Finally, the best possible way to supplement our public transportation system is to the make surrounding blocks pedestrian friendly and walk-able. This means much more than landscaping and wide sidewalks, it means focusing on a tightness that truly urban cities have. Development of the blocks surrounding the light rail corridor is crucial. There must be continuous, engaging, purposeful collection of buildings for the pedestrian to interact with. Having worked and lived without a vehicle in Buenos Aires, Argentina and Santander, Spain, I can tell you that the street with several publicly oriented businesses from major hotel lobbies to fruit and flower stands would regularly have more pedestrians than beautiful tree lined streets with private entrances. We must get off the notion that landscaping is the solution to encouraging walk-ability. It is the programming of the street that brings people there. It’s the available goods and services that attract them, not the trees. I have walked down several busy streets in big cities that did not have one leaf on them and let’s face it, desert mesquites and Palo Verde’s are not the best at producing shade. A building adjacent to the sidewalk will provide more shade than a tree every twenty feet. If a street has both interactive store fronts and landscaping then the combination would be even better, but by landscaping un-engaging blocks, we are putting the bow on the present before the gift wrap.
I close this week’s post with a quote from Libby Seifel, Urban revitalization council San Francisco:
“The last mile from transit is critical: people want pedestrian- and bike-friendly paths between housing and the transit stop. Urban core areas that are able to achieve this will be extremely successful.”—Libby Seifel