Friday Five: Transportation Improvements II

The Friday Five for August 29: More public transportation improvements for Phoenix.

friday five logoAs it turns out, one list of five items to improve Phoenix’s transit network isn’t enough! There are certainly a lot of areas for transportation improvements in this city. Building on last week’s installment of The Friday Five, here is another set of five improvements for public transportation in this city, with a refresher on the first five:

1. Get rid of the $2 bus tax; reintroduce transfers.

2. Designate high-capacity / high-frequency routes.

3. Retrofit existing light rail stations with cooled spaces; shade all bus stops.

4. Have bus system achieve schedule parity with light rail.

5. Introduce stored-value fare cards for all riders.

6. Connect transit to trailheads. I’ve written on this extensively in an essay comment from Monday so I will refer you to that for more detail.  In summary, if we want to alleviate parking problems at some of our most popular parks, trails, and mountain preserves, we must think about different ways to get people there.  I propose connecting our bus system to those trailheads.

7. Establish site guidelines for bus stop locations, especially during construction. Especially in central Phoenix, bus stop locations can be located quite a distance from the intersection they serve. For instance, the eastbound Thomas Road bus stop is 250 feet from its corner, which doesn’t include any street crossings needing to be made by passengers. During construction, as we are seeing on 19 Ave for light rail’s extension, bus stops can be 1/8 – 1/4 mile away from the intersection and can constantly change. When transfer times are in the 1-2 minute range instead of 5-6 minutes and especially in unshaded environments, bus connections are missed. Guidelines should be created and enforced (especially during construction) that bus stops should be no more than 100 feet from the intersection.

8. Improve bicycle infrastructure on buses, trains, and at major stations. Public transportation is a great way to get from point A to point B without having to pedal everywhere. Most times when I ride the train, the hanging bike racks are full.  Often times, too, bicycle racks on buses are full.  (Trains can hold four bicycles per car; a bus can hold two or three bicycles.)  Bicycles are not allowed on the bus so if a bicycle rack is full, a rider has to wait or cycle to their destination; on trains, when the bike racks are full, bicycles and their riders are blocking aisles and doors.  As METRO orders new rolling stock for its system and evaluates its current equipment, more bicycle racks are certainly an imperative!  Something that’s equally important is the addition of practice bicycle racks at major transit centers. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve seen try to load their own bicycles into the trains with bad results. I know that I’ve had problems loading my own bicycle into the hanging bike rack. “Practice makes perfect,” as the saying goes, and I am sure that some practice bicycle racks at major transit centers would provide some no-pressure/no-stress practice for both novice and experienced transit users alike.

9. Update schedules with real data. More often than not, there is a disconnect between what the schedule says and when the next bus or train arrives.  On a recent bus trip, the schedule was off by 10 minutes.  Trains are usually off by 1-2 minutes.  As Valley Metro updates their schedules for the future, perhaps they should add this experiential information and realize that while schedules are nice, they are often aspirational.

10. Make Valley Metro data, including real-time positions, truly open source. We’ve heard that Valley Metro is in the process of creating their own in-house app for bus and train schedules, route guidance, and general information about the system. While their limited release of GTFS data is welcome, why not make it open source for everyone? There are great mobile apps for getting transit directions, many often times better than Valley Metro’s own website. In addition, some of these apps contain GTFS-Realtime information, meaning directions are based on realtime bus and train positions, not predetermined schedules.

The (Almost) Friday Five: Transportation Improvements

The (Almost) Friday Five: Some thoughts on public transportation improvements in Phoenix in light of City Hall’s push to collect our feedback.

[editorial note: On some Fridays here on edwardjensen.net, we publish “The Friday Five” — a quick list of some things that catch our attention either about our community or anything in general.  Today, we are talking public transportation improvements. This week’s “Friday Five” is published on Thursday because there will be a Friday Essay.]

friday five logoThe City of Phoenix announced a new online initiative called talktransportation.org to collect Phoenix residents’ ideas about transportation improvements and the future of transportation in our fair city.  While my verdict is still out on these online forms of citizen engagement and the quality of information received, I applaud the City for doing this again.  Here are some thoughts I’ve shared to improve transportation in this city:

1. Get rid of the $2.00 bus fare tax and reintroduce transfers. At the moment, it costs $4.00 to purchase an all-day pass except if you’re on a bus, where it’s $6.00. While the reason given was that it is to encourage riders to purchase their passes and tickets at transit centers or third-party retailers, there is no practical reason to keep it. An all-day pass should be the same price no matter where it is purchased.  Conversely, the two-hour transfer should be reintroduced because our bus system is designed around Phoenix’s grid streets system.  To get from one point to another on bus or light rail, there is a great chance that you’ll need to take two (or more) bus lines or connect from bus to train.

2. Designate high-frequency routes and increase service and capacity. When METRO light rail opened after Christmas 2008, it ran one train every ten minutes between 7am and 7pm on weekdays.  Today, the headway is 12 minutes between trains on weekdays, with less frequent service outside of those times.  For buses, a quick glance at the schedule shows that the most frequent line is the Thomas Road line, Route 29, which achieves a 10-minute headway during weekday morning and afternoon commutes.  Using ridership data, Valley Metro should identify these routes with high ridership and create a high-frequency service promise for these core lines.

3. Retrofit existing light rail stations with cooled spaces and put shade at all bus stops. Train and major bus stops in many Midwestern cities have adapted quite well to the extreme cold that comes their way by installing heated areas on platforms and stations.  Having traveled to some of these places during the winter, it is very welcome for this native desert dweller whose idea of cold is anything beneath 50º F!  While I know that physics and electromechanical engineering state that it’s easier to heat than to cool, the number 1 hallmark of a great city is adapting to climate.  We’ve created two light rail platforms in downtown Phoenix that have cooled spaces.  Let’s make them all have cooled spaces.  In addition, let’s put shade at all bus stops.  Too many bus stops are just a sign with no shelter from the heat.  We live in a desert; it gets hot here.  Let’s adapt to our warm climate.

4. Have the bus system achieve schedule parity with light rail. Right now, the last city buses leave downtown Phoenix around 10:15pm on weekdays and 9:00pm on the weekends. Meanwhile, the last light rail trains leave at 11:30pm Sunday through Thursday and 2:30am late night on Friday and Saturdays. Bus service needs to be enhanced to match light rail or light rail service needs to be cut back to match bus services because the two methods complement each other.

5. Introduce stored-value transit fare cards for all riders. Washington’s WMATA has SmarTrip. New York City’s MTA has the Metrocard. Boston’s MBTA has the Charlie Card. In Minneapolis, they have the GoTo Card. All of these cards are reusable cards that have combinations of stored value and day / week / month unlimited-ride passes for bus, subway, or commuter rail. These cards can be purchased by anyone from a vending machine or a station agent. Phoenix doesn’t have that system and it’s long past time we have something like that. Our closest thing is the Platinum Pass but that’s only for companies through trip-reduction programs. Paper tickets for various passes are available. If we want to make public transportation a truly viable and equal option for urban dwellers as we want it to be, a stored-value card program available to the masses has to be introduced.

Friday Urban Dispatch: May 9

The Friday Urban Dispatch for May 9: Comparing Phoenix’s urban progress to cities that have done the urban thing for a couple centuries.

The Friday Urban Dispatches are a unique boots-on-the-ground perspective of what’s happening in our own backyard of downtown Phoenix. For this edition, there’s a unique twist.

friDispatchThings have been quiet here on edwardjensen.net over the past couple weeks as I’ve been away from Phoenix taking some much-needed time in different cities. Using the Amtrak Northeast Regional intercity train as the connector, I visited Washington, Philadelphia, New York City, and Boston. This week’s Friday Urban Dispatch highlights some of the highlights from my two weeks away and how we can implement them in Phoenix…

Density, density, density! The average population density of Phoenix is 2,798 people per square mile. Of the quartet of cities I visited, Washington, D.C., had the lowest population density at 9,856 people per square mile, an almost fourfold increase over Phoenix. One certainly feels the increased density of all of the cities because there is a definite energy — a certain je ne sais quoi — in those cities. Public transportation is beyond wonderful. The sidewalks are full. People are enjoying third places in public and private spaces. (For your edification, Philadelphia’s population density is 11,379 people per square mile; Boston is 12,793; all five boroughs of New York City is 27,012; Manhattan proper is 48,201.)

Stored-value transit cards. Washington’s WMATA has SmarTrip. New York City’s MTA has the Metrocard. Boston’s MBTA has the Charlie Card. And Philadelphia’s SEPTA is working on its own system. All of these cards are reusable cards that have combinations of stored value and day / week / month unlimited-ride passes for bus, subway, or commuter rail. These cards can be purchased by anyone from a vending machine or a station agent. Phoenix doesn’t have that system and it’s long past time we have something like that. Our closest thing is the Platinum Pass but that’s only for companies through trip-reduction programs. Paper tickets for various passes are available. If we want to make public transportation a truly viable and equal option for urban dwellers as we want it to be, a stored-value card program available to the masses has to be introduced.

Blending old and new. By far, Boston was the best city in which the old and the new were seamlessly blended together: one enriched the other. In lower Manhattan, skyscrapers were built around and even integrated historic buildings seamlessly and beautifully. Were this happening in Phoenix, I am sure the historic preservation community would cringe. If our definition of historic preservation is that we must retain buildings as they were when they were built, then we will not achieve the density Phoenix needs to have. By museum-ifying buildings and neighborhoods, that is a fast path to ensuring that we will not get there, these historic buildings will deteriorate, and we won’t get the urban density and quality we need to be in Phoenix to be competitive in the 21st century world economy. Preservation is important; however, we must reuse buildings in ways that celebrate history but look toward the future.

Great cities require great parks. One of the common elements of these four cities are their use and love of parks and public spaces. Among other parks, Washington has the National Mall and various squares; New York City has Central, Bryant, Brooklyn Bridge, and Prospect Parks; Boston has the Boston Common, Boston Public Garden, and Kennedy Greenway. All of these parks have public-private partnerships and conservancies that fund the parks’ operations and maintenance. We have some nice parks and preserves in Phoenix that are sometimes woefully underused. As I have commented previously, there is a hopeful future of downtown’s Hance Park: its Hance Park Conservancy is beginning to implement a wonderful new Master Plan that celebrates desert urbanism.

Grand statements. As my friend Will Bruder said once, “it takes one really good street to make a city.” To take that a step farther and to build on that philosophy, it takes one statement to show that we are who we think we should be. I am proudly serving on the City of Phoenix’s Bicycle & Pedestrian Ad Hoc Task Force and one of our first deliverables is to come up with a new Bicycle Master Plan for Phoenix. I have been reminding my colleagues on this citizens’ panel not to think linearly but to think disruptively. What interventions can we make to make a statement not only to ourselves but to the world that we take cycling seriously here? A two-way cycle track ran the length of Pennsylvania Avenue from The White House to the Capitol in Washington. New York City has closed off Broadway to automobiles in Times Square. These are grand statements and it’s time that Phoenix have some grand statements of its own. What about making Central Avenue in midtown and downtown Phoenix’s first truly complete street? Or what about making all of the canal crossings to go above or below major streets?

Toward D.C., not New York City. A lot of Phoenix advocates think that buildings should be tall just for the sake of being tall. The new Arizona Center for Law & Society building in downtown Phoenix’s University District? Too short. Roosevelt Point? Ditto. Just recently announced is a tower to go on the Central Station site that will block much-needed winter sun for the Civic Space Park. I’m a big believer in a constant and continuous density that features buildings about 6-10 stories tall, which is what is found in downtown Washington. It’s a perfect height in which the buildings and the street engage each other intimately and one is not detached from the other. While the towering skyscrapers in Manhattan are certainly engineering marvels and some are nice to see, they create a cavernous feeling and limit seeing the sky. In Washington, the sky is readily viewable and accessible. There’s also a rebellious nature on proud public display in Washington. Their official motto and rallying cry is taxation without representation, noting that while Washington residents pay Federal income taxes, they do not have voting representation in the U.S. Congress, sending a nonvoting delegate to the House of Representatives. While Phoenix has voting representation in Congress and in the Arizona State Legislature, the values of urban Phoenix are certainly different from what our representatives in the Arizona State Legislature are trying to force upon us.

Friday Urban Dispatch: April 25

The Friday Urban Dispatch for April 25: density, bicycles, and shade.

The Friday Urban Dispatches are a unique boots-on-the-ground perspective of what’s happening in our own backyard of downtown Phoenix.

friDispatchWill it be built? News broke this week of the purchase of the soon-to-be-former Childhelp building at 2354 N Central Avenue in midtown Phoenix. While Childhelp has moved to the Phoenix Family Advocacy Center building down the block at 2120 N Central Avenue, Deco Communities is planning a $22 million five-story condominium project to replace the current building. This will be the first new-build project in midtown since the opening of light rail in 2008 and the first new project proposed since adjacent anti-density / NIMBY neighbors in historic districts killed a four-story apartment complex at 3rd Avenue and Camelback near the uptown Phoenix METRO station.

Ballpark density. Another residential project has been proposed for south of the Union Pacific railroad tracks. Marketed as the “Phoenix Ballpark Properties,” the project takes design cues from the developer’s recent portfolio of projects in Portland, Ore., and Denver. Situated on a site containing two historically significant buildings and a warehouse, the two buildings will be integrated into the site while the warehouse will be demolished. It’s a project, it’s density (yay!) and the design is relatively okay. But one does wonder if this design would pass design review in those two other cities.

Bicycle share on hold. The news came out earlier this month that due to supply chain issues, the launch of Phoenix’s “Grid Bikes” bicycle-share system is on hold until later this year. While many in the downtown community are lamenting this, I’m actually quite happy with the delay. As we are starting to march toward summer, bicycling happens with only the most die-hard individuals who have their own equipment. And this gives Phoenix more time to set up actual bicycling infrastructure in the downtown core, which is something I believed should have been done before bicycle-share was launched.

Yet another high-priced destination restaurant. I realize that I’m turning into a sort-of Mr. Cranky when it comes to the opening of restaurants downtown but while I’m sure they have good food, I wonder where the nearby density to support them is. Also, for those of us who prefer to make our own meals at home in our own kitchens (for health reasons, economic reasons, or because we like to make our own food!), where’s our walkable grocery store downtown?

Shade, shade, shade. On Facebook, I posted my three ways to make urban Phoenix more livable and more walkable, especially as we near summer. I’ll share them here: 1. Shade; 2. Shade; and 3. Shade. And no, metal shade doesn’t count…at all. We need trees that provide shade at the pedestrian and bicycling level. And while I realize palm trees are a key part of Phoenix’s history and heritage, no new palm trees should be planted in Phoenix. Existing palm trees can certainly be replaced with new palm trees as the need arises. This is something that I have continuously communicated with City leaders and in my civic advocacy but it always seems to fall on deaf ears. Sometimes the simplest interventions are the best.

Friday Urban Dispatches: April 4

For Friday April 4: Friday Urban Dispatches are a unique boots-on-the-ground perspective of what’s happening in our own backyard of downtown Phoenix.

The Friday Urban Dispatches are a unique boots-on-the-ground perspective of what’s happening in our own backyard of downtown Phoenix.

friDispatchHance…enHANCEd. Last week was the big master plan reveal for the next chapter in the life of downtown’s Hance Park.  The plan delineates the park into three areas: a neighborhood park on the west, a civic plaza in the middle, and a performance hub on the east.

BIDding for Roosevelt Row. The City of Phoenix is in the process of authorizing up to $80,000 to study whether an Enhanced Municipal Services District (EMSD), otherwise known as a Business Improvement District (BID), would work in the Roosevelt Row neighborhood.  The academic literature is mixed on its assessment of EMSDs but a couple trends and themes quickly emerge: 1. Property values in EMSDs do rise significantly.  For real estate investors, this is good; for independent shops, can they shoulder the added expense of their lease payment?  2. EMSDs are generally instituted in areas that have significant decline in property values or civic interest.  If there’s one neighborhood in central city Phoenix for which that is the exact opposite, it would be Roosevelt Row.

Budgeting for the worst. Since the last Friday Urban Dispatch, the City of Phoenix released their trial budget and their cuts-only solution to ameliorate a $38 million deficit from the books is not pretty.  It closes parks and parks-related programming, slashes operational support to arts and cultural organizations, and places minimal value on the civic fabric of our community.  While I do think some long-standing contracts, including employee compensation, need to be looked at, to fix this year’s budget through cuts only is not right.  Was the 2% food tax phased down too early?  Maybe.

A podcast of action. After Monday, The Downtown Phoenix Podcast will be 3/4 finished with its inaugural series production. What’s in store for it after the series 1 finale goes online on April 21?  Even I don’t know.  I have been pleased with its reception and I am sure it will be back for even greater things.

Thank you, Debra. Tonight is First Friday and I hope that you’ll be able to come by Obliq Art at the Arizona Center for a community tribute to the life and legacy of Debra Friedman, the former Dean of the ASU College of Public Programs who unexpectedly passed away in January. To those who had the great privilege to work alongside Dr. Friedman, it was so evident that the arts held a special place in both her heart and as a cornerstone for the partnerships that she facilitated.

Friday Urban Dispatches: March 14

The regular Friday Urban Dispatch from downtown Phoenix for March 14: a unique boots-on-the-ground perspective of what’s happening.

Every other Friday or so on this blog, I’m going to do a mini-series of urban dispatches—thoughts from the urban landscape in Phoenix.

friDispatchMeeting new voices. This has been a great week for meeting new voices that have an honest interest in making our downtown community better.  I realize that I’m coming at the downtown question from an academic / intellectual perspective (I mean…my undergraduate degree is Urban and Metropolitan Studies!) but I’m starting to find these new voices that are approaching the downtown question from the same angle.

Not just “no” but “no…but what are the alternatives?” One of my conversations this week was with Paul Lopez, a Phoenix native and someone who’s in-tune with the goings-on in City Hall on many levels.  We talked about the need for downtown to have a grocery store—somewhere on the scale between a neighborhood market and a suburban grocery store—and our conversation hit on an important decision-making philosophy: Rather than saying ‘no’ outright, let’s ask this question: “No…but what are our alternatives?”

City Hall is starting to get the urban condition. It’s not perfect but I am getting the sense that City Hall is starting to get the notion that the downtown / urban condition is different and has a different lexicon, vocabulary, and design imperatives than suburban Phoenix.  It’s not perfect yet but the right baby steps are being made.  More promising, however, is that City staff are wanting to listen to downtown interests to make sure that everyone is on the same page.

Whither McDowell Road.  While the previous point is a plus, there are still silos within City Hall that need to be broken down and addressed.  The City’s definition of “downtown Phoenix” goes to the south right-of-way of McDowell Road while their definition of “midtown Phoenix” begins at the north right-of-way of McDowell.   Left out of the discussion is McDowell Road itself, a core east-west street in central Phoenix.  Right now, it’s a nightmare to travel at any time of day.  At 3:00pm on weekdays during the school year, the mass pick-up of students from Arizona School for the Arts makes Manhattan traffic look like a small town.  (The City needs to work with the school to work on a traffic management plan…or the same school needs to encourage its students to take public transportation!)  I like the streetcar line proposed for McDowell Road but that’s a long-term aspiration.

A city in potentia.  Last Friday night, I was walking around downtown to see and hear the goings-on of the Viva Phoenix music festival.  In addition to the musicians performing on their outdoor stages, there was a definite energy downtown: there were people, there was noise, there were even random marching bands walking around.  I’m loathe to use phrases like “seminal moment” or “turning point” but I think March 7 will be looked on in years hence as a turning-point for downtown.

The Friday Dispatches: February 21

The Urban Friday Dispatches: SB1062, geographic precision, walking and biking, and pedestrian malls

friDispatchEvery other Friday or so on this blog, I’m going to do a mini-series of urban dispatches—thoughts from the urban landscape in Phoenix.

SB1062…sigh. SB1062 has been passed by both houses of the State Legislature and is on Governor Brewer’s desk to sign.  It’s a discrimination bill that targets our friends, neighbors, and colleagues in the LGBTQ communities…full stop.  To say that it’s a “religious freedom” bill is wrong and is an explanation that should be an affront to any person of faith.  Lots of statements opposing SB1062 have been sent along to the Governor’s Office — including Phoenix’s mayor Greg Stanton, the Steering Committee of Downtown Voices Coalition, the Greater Phoenix Economic Council, and others — and one must hope that the Governor has the decency to veto this unconstitutional legislation.  One wonders if Google’s announcement that it’s considering deploying its Google Fiber service or next year’s Super Bowl are in jeopardy. Otherwise, it’s off to the courts.

Where is downtown Phoenix.  The massive fire yesterday at a salvage plant near 23rd Avenue and McDowell Road is out and our first responders did a spectacular job responding to this dangerous situation.  In reporting the fire, lots of media outlets labeled the fire as being “in downtown Phoenix,” something we who live here know is geographically incorrect.  I sent out a “note to media” tweet that said that 23rd Avenue & McDowell is “NOT downtown Phoenix” but I don’t know how many outlets heeded that advice.

Walking and bicycling.  For the past four months, I’ve been a part of the City of Phoenix’s Ad Hoc Pedestrian and Bicycling Task Force, the group that is tasked with looking at the City’s plans for pedestrian and bicycling master plans.  A draft document of a pedestrian safety plan was given to Task Force members and I was generally pleased about its content.  The tone, however, of that document seemed to place the onus of responsibility for their actions more on the pedestrian instead of those around on bikes and in cars.  For pedestrian safety, though, there are two things that can be done that will enhance that in the downtown core: ban bicycling on sidewalks and ban mobile phone use while driving a car or bike.

Pedestrian malls.  Something that I’ve really gotten the feeling of in this town is that we really really don’t like the idea of pedestrian malls.  As the most progressive cities in the world start to think about their future without cars, it’s certainly something that we in Phoenix need to start thinking about.  “What!?” you ask.  “Phoenix without cars?  Surely you can’t be serious!”  (I am serious and stop calling me Shirley.)  Look at the data: We’re past the point of “peak car” — more people aren’t getting their driver’s licenses when they turn 16 or 18.  The first cities were formed in Mesopotamia ca. 5400 BCE.  The first modern cars were driven in 1886—more than 7,200 years after the first cities.  By my math, cars have been around for just about 2% of the time cities have been around.  We can certainly have cities, again, without cars.