My Plan for a More Sustainable Phoenix, (the start of) Part III – Transportation

Other health related issues associated with high levels of miles driven per year include increased likelihood of crashes, potential hard to pedestrians and bicyclists, and decreased physical activity (which can lead to all sorts of health issues such as obesity and loss of muscle function) (p. 203-208). People who live in higher-density, more “walkable” cities are found to have far fewer incidences of these problems.

The biggest demon encouraging automobile addiction in large American cities such as Phoenix, of course, is urban sprawl, coupled with lack of or inadequate planning of public transportation through a city’s arterial roadways, and into outlying areas. Sprawl occurs when a city’s population expands to the very edges of the city’s borders—and then goes even further. The trend started after the Industrial Revolution, when families were earning more money, and desired bigger houses and better quality of life from the congested cities, which often faced health and sanitation issues. The migration to lower-density areas caused many urban areas to expand outward by the square mile. This has resulted in the need to build more roads and freeways, and to deliver more servers, such as electricity and sewers, further and further to outlying suburban areas. It is estimated that one of two Americans now resides in a suburb (Frumkin, p. 201).

To accommodate all of these suburbanites, U.S. cities have had to do major roadway expansion and freeway building starting in the 1950s and continuing today. These projects are often readily funded by federal and state agencies. However, mass transit, for some reason, doesn’t always receive the same amounts of grants and funding. This is true in Arizona; the state does not provide any funding for transportation programs (Ross p. 11). Basically, in order to take on a major mass transit project like bringing Light Rail to Phoenix, planners and public officials would have to propose and then get voted in an increase in property taxes, which is generally not favorable with the public. This is a great burden for transit planning locally. However, there always seems to be federal money around to build a freeway, and many pro-automobile parties will contend that freeway building, constant needed improvements and maintenance, and road expansion add jobs to the local economy.

For these reasons and others, there is and always has been a local attitude that promoting mass transit equates “social engineering;” it smacks of Marxism/Communism. Thus, there has been a general reluctance to improve or expand mass transit systems in Phoenix, up until about the last 15 years when planners starting trying new tactics to sell the idea to the public.

Light rail was proposed more than a decade ago, with the promise that commuters might beat traffic getting to downtown Phoenix and the heart of Tempe, and the lines might also be used to ease congestion to stadium events on game days. But many business owners and developers who criticized the light rail’s routes, rail lines, and stops for “blocking” entrances to businesses and restricting access to parking lots, side alleys, and other channels fought the plan. Eventually, a light rail plan was adopted and implemented, but it was greatly scaled down from the originally proposed plan, and so far it is projected to take more than 20 years to complete (www.valleymetro.org, www.azrail.org).

Part of the solution to mitigating and controlling air pollution in the Valley will be to curb sprawl by encouraging adaptive re-use of existing buildings within incorporated Phoenix, encouraging infill (building homes and condos on bare lots within the city), and setting stricter zoning standards to block further development on the edges of cities. Phoenix has in place a number of incentives programs to try to promote re-use of buildings, and to encourage infill.

Phoenix is working on a number of improvements to make the downtown area more “walkable,” and therefore safer and more attractive to inhabitants. A walkable city is one where a person living within a central metropolitan area can easily and quickly walk or bike to grocery stores, restaurants, entertainment, and other necessities in a matter of 30 minutes or less. It also helps promote urban living and makes an area more walkable if there are fewer areas of urban blight, or empty lots, that have no aesthetic or practical value to the walker.

One example of a minor success in improving usability/walkability is the design of the Arizona State University Downtown Campus and its connected housing for students. ASU’s Downtown Campus received the 2009 Smart Growth Award: Urban Land Institute because it is so walkable, and close to several Light Rail stops.  The city is also working on City Edge limits to protect the Sonoran Preserve, an area of raw desert housing many native plants and animals (City of Phoenix website).

Development often leads to the stripping of the land, and that can have many ill effects, not only removing “green spaces” from cities and lessening the ground’s natural ability to soak and retain water, but also, more concrete and asphalt contributes to the urban heat island effect. The City of Phoenix has committed to creating a Heat Island Task Force (launched in 2005) and to promote more awareness and creation of shady spaces to fight the heat island effect. “In 2005, the city council established an inter-departmental Urban Heat Island Task Force led by the Planning Department to research the issue and recommend new policies and programs. In addition, several city departments are working in collaboration with Arizona State University’s (ASU) Global Institute of Sustainability to study the impacts of the Urban Heat Island and possible mitigation options.” Phoenix is also promoting urban forestry and “greening” projects to promote shade and keep more water in the ground.

But promoting infill and trying to encourage people to reside in the central city are not the only ways that Phoenix is dealing with sustainability issues, and especially air quality. In the City of Phoenix’s Green Government Program statements (May 2011), the city has vowed to fight dust and air pollution problems in the following ways: dedicating about $3 million to paving “low volume dirt roads and shoulders to reduce dust”; applying dust palliative to at least 65 miles of roadway shoulders per year (when “economically feasible”); stabilizing exposes soil areas created during construction projects; to lessen local fuel consumption by 10 percent, based on 2007-2008 averages; continue to spray water along dirt roads and shoulder surfaces to try to prevent dust from flying around, and several other dust and particulate control tactics, when the funds are available (Source: GGP PowerPoint, published May 2011).

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