Review of Bird on Fire: Lessons From the World's Least Sustainable City
In Bird on Fire: Lessons From the World's Least Sustainable City by Andrew Ross (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011) Ross argues that we cannot have a sustainable world until we make every city sustainable. He holds up Phoenix as the world's least sustainable city and examines why it is not sustainable and what we can do to improve its sustainability.
As this site is about pubic transportation, I eagerly looked for the section that explains how Phoenix became so car-centric and how we can coax Phoenicians out of their cars. Unfortunately, apart from a brief mentioning of the city's new light rail line as a means to promote development of the downtown area, Ross completely ignores this issue. This oversight is unfortunate, as any visitor to Phoenix can attest to the vastness of the suburban area. Although the light rail line has exceeded even the most optimistic ridership projections, the curious statistic that ridership is frequently higher on Saturdays than it is the rest of the week suggests that much of the ridership is derived from suburbanites driving to a free park and ride lot and taking the train in for a game or a concert. Due to the dispersal of everything far and wide, not that much employment is actually accessible from the line despite the fact that it serves the few concentrations of employment in the city reasonably well - the Central Avenue corridor, downtown, and the ASU campus in Tempe. So far the line has had little transit-oriented development , but it does feature a large number of park and ride lots .
In contrast, the bus system is a mess. Only a handful of routes operate more frequently than every thirty minutes at any time of the day, and recent cutbacks forced by the recession have meant that the service span , which had been extended for a few years, is now back to seeing the last buses leaving at 10 PM Monday through Friday and 8 PM on Saturday and Sunday. This poor service quality no doubt forces the poor to buy a car to have basic mobility - and the fact that the cheapest cars are also the oldest and most polluting means that every additional old car that stays in existence due to poor public transit contributes more than its fair share to the smog that now covers the city. Indeed, the light rail line makes no mention of the bus system at all, not even to announce transfer opportunities with the lines that serve the rail stations.
Interestingly, there is still time to put Phoenix on a different path in this area. Due to quick population growth, the freeway network is not as fully developed in Phoenix as it is in other cities and the increased interest in "greening" Phoenix - the mayor's stated goal is to make the city the greenest in the country - but Ross, apart from a discussion of how a homegrown downtown art community is slowly making inroads against the pervasive "megadevelopment is king" culture of the area - does not delve into discussion of how Phoenix might be made a more walkable and bicycle friendly place. Inevitably, of course, Phoenix will reach the end of developable greenfields, and right now the city is pushing against mountains, national forest preserves, and Native American reservations.
Water and Energy
Ross spends most of the book talking about water and energy. Of course, sustainable water and energy usage are key for a sustainable life and he relates some surprising bits of knowledge. For example, I did not know that household water costs more in Seattle than it does in Phoenix, or that, not only has sunny Arizona been far from a leader in solar energy but that the state voted to consider nuclear power a form of "renewable" energy. Sometimes viewed through the lens of environmental justice, especially when he relates stories like the Gila River Indian Band's successful attempt to recoup water rights guaranteed by a 19th century treaty, Ross's tone is that if Phoenix is ever going to become sustainable it will have to shift is mindset from a growth-at-any-cost mentality to a stability paradigm that when practiced by the ancient Hohokam Indians allowed them to maintain an agrarian lifestyle in central Arizona for hundreds of years. Given that the recession has curtailed the region's main industry - indeed, there was such a reliance on construction that it was almost Ponzi-scheme like - there has never been a better time for Phoenix to re-examine it's existence. Let us hope that it will change its ways before it becomes like so many desert cities before it - an abandoned wasteland covered in shifting sand.