ABOVE: The westbound light rail pulls out of the Van Buren Street and Central Avenue station in downtown Phoenix. (Photo by Jordan Evans/Cronkite News)
By Lauren Schieler, Cronkite News
PHOENIX – More than 20 years ago, employees of the Maricopa Association of Governments made projections for ridership numbers for downtown Phoenix’s newest project, the light rail system.
Eric Anderson, who’s now executive director for the association, known as MAG, was among those employees who didn’t expect Phoenix would become the fifth largest city in the country by 2017.
“We were projecting maybe 25,000 riders a day when that system matured, and we’re almost double that now,” Anderson said.
Maricopa County was the fastest growing county in the U.S. for the second year in a row, according to 2018 Census information. One of the biggest challenges accomodating a growing population is building sustainable transportation to meet demand, especially with greenhouse-gas emissions on the rise.
According to a preliminary report from the Rhodium Group, carbon emissions in the U.S. increased by 3.7 percent in 2018, and the transportation sector held its title as the largest source of U.S. emissions for the third year in a row.
Rhodium Group is an independent research provider that analyzes global trends based on economic data.
But population growth isn’t the only issue.
Planners argue that we can’t build our way out of the problem and need vibrant public transit, but not everyone is aboard the bus.
Rideshare and delivery services, such as Lyft, Uber, DoorDash and Amazon are adding to the traffic congestion.
“Uber and Lyft, while they provide great options, what we’re seeing is the more availability you have in travel options, the more you travel,” Valley Metro spokeswoman Susan Tierney said.
But even Anderson, who works to reduce traffic congestion, understands how convenient rideshare and delivery services can be.
“We do think that rideshare services can increase the number of vehicles out on the street,” Anderson said. “But by the same token, they also provide very efficient transportation. It’s kind of a double edged sword.”
Anderson said he uses UberEats or DoorDash a couple times a week.
“Rather than going out to eat at a restaurant, we can just have it delivered to our door,” he said. “It’s so convenient.”
But Tierney said Uber, Lyft and similar services have been a disruptor in the public transportation marketplace and a contributor to emissions and traffic congestion.
“We have to be thinking about our air quality,” she said. “In the summertime in greater Phoenix, emissions from a fuel based car combines with the atmosphere and sunlight to create ozone, which is unhealthy for us to breathe at ground level.”
In addition, Anderson noted, Maricopa County also could lose federal funds if agencies do not try to mitigate air quality issues.
Another driver of increasing traffic congestion and emissions in the Valley is the economy, Tierney said.
“Ridership on public transportation ebbs and flows really according to the economy,” she said. “When gas prices are really high and the job market is more stressed, we see a lot more ridership because people were looking for cost saving options.”
In the past few years, Anderson said, the Valley has had a fairly strong economy, which means more traffic.
“This time of year in March and April is also kind of our peak season with a lot of tourists and snowbirds in town, so our traffic volumes have increased,” Anderson said.
The challenge for urban planners is to accommodate transportation for a booming population while prioritizing environmental stewardship.
Although public transportation services are a good option to reduce emissions and traffic congestion,Tierney and Anderson recognize that not all residents and tourists prefer to travel this way.
“We understand that not everybody’s going to ride public transportation, but not everybody can afford to take an Uber or Lyft,” Tierney said. “Not everybody wants to own a car. You really need to have a menu of options.”
However, not everyone supports investments in public transportation.
Building a Better Phoenix is a local organization that would like taxpayers money spent on improving the city’s infrastructure rather than the “disastrous expansion of the light rail.”
“It increases traffic congestion, crime and gentrification,” said Susan Gudino, the group’s treasurer, who contends light rail costs too much and provides too little.
“That’s our tax money for something that one percent of the population will be using,” Gudino said. “Even the CEO of Valley Metro, Scott Smith, has testified in court saying that the train is a losing process. It doesn’t create any revenue.”
But with an expected 1 million new residents moving to greater Phoenix in the next six to seven years, Phoenix transportation services will need to work together to accommodate the population, Tierney said.
“We are not building more freeways,” Tierney said. “It’s difficult to make streets wider because it’s too expensive for the land that you would have to take away from a property owner. Quite frankly, public transportation is really the only way you can move a lot of people at once.”
And according to Tierney, though rideshare services have shaken up the public transportation marketplace, it’s also something that can be taken advantage of in partnership.
Last summer, Valley Metro partnered with Lyft through a program called Ride Choice. The program offers Lyft rides to people who have disabilities that prevent them from accessing public transportation.
In 2018, Lyft also launched a carbon-offset program to ensure all Lyft rides are carbon neutral. Lfyt’s co-founders wrote a Medium article describing how in the first year of the program the company planned to offset over a “million metric tons of carbon, equivalent to planting tens of millions of trees or taking hundreds of thousands of cars off the road.”
Lyft also pledged to purchase enough carbon offsets to make the company fully carbon neutral.
“We look forward to working with public and private partners to drive carbon out of the transportation system,” Lyft said on a blog.
Valley Metro also partnered with Waymo, Google’s self-driving car program, last July.
“It’s a pilot program to provide first and last mile trips so that someone would not even have to own a car in order to travel across our county,” Tierney said. “They would be able to take a Waymo car.”
Tierney says Phoenix voters have supported public transportation through several referendums and believes they want to continue to see growth.
“We are going to see increased public transportation options,” she said. “We will see new lines being built on light rail. We will see efficient bus service as we continue to grow that area.”
It will take the combination of all public transportation services to maintain mobility in the Phoenix area, Tierney said.
“We have to work together to find out solutions,” Tierney said. “There’s enough market share for everyone.”
But with autonomous vehicles creeping into the marketplace, the Valley will see new challenges.
“It’s kind of a daunting challenge for us to figure out what all these technological advancements mean,” Anderson said, but if we don’t invest in our transportation and developments, the urban core will decay.
As Phoenix continues to expand, leaders have to decide where to put future investments.
“We think about what we might see out there in 25 years in terms of technology and transportation,” Anderson said. “We’re working on the 2045 plan now.”
But how people will use rideshare and autonomous vehicles down the road as they become integrated into our daily lives? Only time will tell.
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