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Arizona Postcard: Riding the Rails in Metro Phoenix and Tucson

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2 minute read

By Dave Scott

During a spring break to visit family and the Kansas City Royals in Arizona, I got a good sense of how urban Arizonans get around–mainly by barreling down seven-lane arterial roads at 45 mph.

This practice killed 10 people in Phoenix during the week we were there, helping Arizona retain its status as the deadliest U.S. state for pedestrians. And that was before a driverless Uber car fatally injured a woman in Tempe last Sunday

But at least some were riding the rails.

The $196-million Tucson streetcar runs for 3.9 miles through its redeveloping downtown. It’s similar to Kansas City, but I like ours better because it’s free, runs straight and you can see inside the cars.

Tucson’s route meanders as if they were trying too hard to connect the dots. The advertisements wrapped on their cars were opaque–no satisfying feeling of seeing the streetcar full of people.

Daily ridership is about 2,500–or half that of the Kansas City streetcar.

Unlike here where ridership really heats up on weekends, the Tucson system dials back service to 20 or 30 minute intervals on Saturdays and Sundays. Weekdays, it closes at 10 p.m.

The fare of $1.50 might contribute to lower ridership, but I found their downtown streetcar didn’t serve the function of an attraction in its own right as does the Kansas City streetcar.

Still, there was lots of development along the line, especially at one end where they seemed to be constructing an entire village within the confines of a streetcar loop.

Phoenix has a nine-year-old light rail system. At 26.3 miles, it’s impressively long, even serving the airport and distant Tempe and Arizona State University.

With mounting traffic on Phoenix’s massive freeways, the light-rail system has received ongoing voter support for expansion.

It carries about 50,000 daily riders–almost as many as the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority carries on all its bus routes combined. The total original cost and that of two extensions is about $1.7 billion.

Phoenix took advantage of its overbuilt arterial streets by generally taking two lanes (of six or eight) on major streets to give the light rail system a “semi-dedicated” right of way (it still intersects with roads at grade level).

It moves at a brisk pace and travels the whole route in 90 minutes.

But the train frequency seemed sporadic and the waiting crowd at stops was generally only a handful of people. Except in downtown Tempe and Phoenix, the route doesn’t really run through urbanized, walkable areas. And like Tucson, you can’t see inside the cars.

I did like the system and believe Phoenix is a better place for having it; yet it didn’t seem to inject vibrancy to the city the way Kansas City streetcar does.

If I had to say why I like our so much better than its Arizona cousins, I’d say, “narrower streets.” Even rail can’t fix the blown scale of Arizona’s cities.

The Kansas City streetcar seems like a perfect fit here. The Arizona systems feel swallowed by an environment that just isn’t very urban. A wide arterial street even with center-running streetcars doesn’t a walkable neighborhood make.

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