Review of Desert Visions and the Making of Phoenix (1860-2009)
In Desert Visions and the Making of Phoenix (1860-2009) (University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 2010), Philip VanderMeer tells an exhaustingly researched (seventy-seven pages of footnotes!) tale of the history of Phoenix from the first settlers to the present day. While the book if more about history and urban planning than about public transportation, there are still some interesting facts about the development of Phoenix's transportation networks.
One thing that few people probably realize about Phoenix is how late the city came to freeway building. As late as 1980 Phoenix had only thirty-five miles of expressways even as its sprawl was already well under way. In fact, considering that by 1980 the freeway revolts in the United States had already started, the city was lucky to get any built. Phoenix was one of the few cities that sprawled without the benefit of freeways. Unfortunately, do to its late population growth Phoenix did not have an extensive streetcar network and few streetcar suburbs, as its population for the city proper was only 65,414 in 1940.
Phoenix's transit system, which as late as 1988 had no Sunday service, has always been terrible, even considering the low-density spread out nature of the area. However, the opening of a new light rail line in 2008 has caused residents to rethink the value of transit for the Valley of the Sun. The rail line, which has had ridership in excess of projections, is already in the process of being expanded. When combined with an increased interest in downtown and transit-oriented development , the future of Phoenix may start to focus more on a revitalization of the center rather than continued development of the desert.
VanderMeer tells the story of politicians believing that growth was inevitable and had to be accommodated even as the delays in freeway construction were caused by citizens opposing road expansion. Would Phoenix have grown as much in land area if developers had had to pay the full cost of their development? Impact fees, which can add $17,500 to the cost of each new housing unit, are now imposed but were absent for most of Phoenix's history.
It is interesting comparing this book to Bird on Fire by Andrew Ross . While both spend a lot of time on the issue of water, we learn from VanderMeer (but not Ross) that at one time Phoenix had a large number of irrigation canals, complete with trees on both sides, that helped to cool surrounding homes and provided for swimming and other leisure activities. Unfortunately, once widespread air conditioning obviated the "need" for such things such as trees and open water, the canals were either fenced off or enclosed in pipes. Where Ross wonders if Phoenix can ever be made sustainable, VanderMeer talks about a time when it already was.
Neither VanderMeer nor Ross spend enough time discussing transportation issues. For example, the fact that both Phoenix and the few other nearby towns (Tempe, Mesa, Scottsdale, Glendale, etc.) have historically put a lot of effort into annexing land to expand their boundaries has left the metropolitan area with a lot fewer jurisdictions than other areas of similar population like Denver and Minneapolis. The fewer the number of jurisdictions, the easier it is to accomplish things on a regional basis. In addition, each city decides separately how much transit it wants within its borders. While this may seem like a drawback to a regional approach as each city is looking out for itself, by making sure that each jurisdiction gets exactly what it pays for I believe this business method improves the view of Valley Metro in the eyes of the public. "While those are empty buses, at least they are our empty buses" a resident of Glendale might say. In addition, this method allows cities to enact transit network improvements as soon as they desire to, without waiting for other jurisdictions to join in. For example, Tempe continues to pay for service to operate until midnight even as other cities in the are have cut back.
Overall, the book tells the tale of a city that wanted to downplay its southwestern heritage and has managed to grow, under the long term leadership of a technocratic, non-controversial city government, into one of the biggest cities in the country. A large number of senior citizens living in the area will make improved public transit essential for the future as more and more residents will get too old for drive.