Why Phoenix Light Rail is Doomed in One Chart

The Arizona Republic had another of its cheerleading articles on light rail this morning.  In it was a chart that, contrary to the intent of the article, summarized exactly why Phoenix light rail is doomed.  Below is a chart of the employment density (top chart) and population density (bottom chart) at each stop along the first rail route.  Note that this line goes through what passes for the central business district of Phoenix and the oldest parts of town, so it was chosen to run through the highest density areas - all future extensions will likely have lower numbers.  Unfortunately, they do not reproduce this chart online so here is a scan:


Take the population density chart.  As a benchmark, lets take Boston.  The average density for all of the city of Boston is 12,199 people per square mile.  Phoenix's light rail line cut through the highest density areas of town has only one stop where density reaches this level, and most stops are less than half this density.  And this is against Boston's average, not against the density along its rail routes which are likely much higher than the average.

Rail makes zero sense in a city like Phoenix.  All this will do is create a financial black hole into which we shift all of our bus money, so the city will inevitably end up with a worse transportation system, not a better one.  Cities that build light rail almost always experience a reduction in total transit use (even the great God of planners Portland) for just this reason - budgets are limited, so since rail costs so much more per passenger, other transit is cut back.   But the pictures of the train will look pretty in the visitor's guide.

Postscript: Phoenix's overall average density is around 2,500 per square mile.  Assuming that the 12,000 in the chart above is one of the densest areas of Phoenix, this gives a ratio of about 5:1 between peak and average density.  This same ratio in Boston would imply peak density areas of 60,000 per square mile.  This may be high, but indicates how much higher route densities on Boston rail should be.  Oh, and by the way, Boston rail is losing a ton of money.

Other city densities here from 1990.  People think of LA as spread out, but LA has a density over three times higher than Phoenix!


  1. Allen:

    Just to play devil's advocate for a moment, does density matter? Won't people just take the bus or drive to a station and take light rail?

  2. John Costello:

    I live just nine miles outside Boston now, but in the 70s and 80s I lived in Brookline (an adjoining city.) Boston's subway started as a set of private companies and actually made money until the city took it over. The reason it does not make money now is that for seventy or so years it has been a socialist enterprise which exists to provide jobs and patronage (like the US banking system will after the Dems get their hands on it with the bailout.)It has been alternatively starved for funds (for everything but wages and pensions) and then had money thrown at it.) In one of Lanny Friendlander's first mimeoed Reasons he called it "The Slum Beneath Boston." The city could not function without it (OR Amtrak, because of all the office workers who live outside and pour into town every morning) but anyone other than the MBTA running it would do a better job.

    Why density matters? n The busses that rn from Boston to Peabody (nine miles) go through Lynn, Swampscott, and Salem. My girlfriend had to do a two hour jaunt to visit me in Lynn Union Hospital from Cambridge/Somerville when I was sick several years ago. The busses run every hour and are not full. If I were still working in Cambridge, it would take me that long to get in to work on public transport; it only took half an hour by car.

  3. AC:

    Two different density metrics compared: average density of urbanized area vs weighted density of urbanized area. The latter better captures the density at which most people live. http://austinzoning.typepad.com/austincontrarian/2008/03/weighted-densit.html

    See the next link for the association of standard/weighted density and transit use. http://austinzoning.typepad.com/austincontrarian/2008/09/the-association-between-density-and-mode-of-commuting.html

  4. Highway:

    Allen, two problems with the idea of people going to the stations. The first is that once people are in their cars, it's very difficult to get them out of the car. It's really gotta be a huge time cost for driving over rail, and that's very difficult to deal with. A light rail system that has to stop at the same streets their car does is not going to provide this time benefit.

    The other issue is that going by car limits your ridership to your parking lot size, which is far smaller than your rail capacity. It might fill up some trains at the morning and night rush hour, but it doesn't replace roadway capacity at that point.

  5. Corky Boyd:

    "Rail makes zero sense in a city like Phoenix. All this will do is create a financial black hole into which we shift all of our bus money, so the city will inevitably end up with a worse transportation system, not a better one."

    What rail does, especially when it supplants bus, is to dramatically increase proprty values near the stations. In cities with dishonest politicians you will find a high level of ownership within a mile or so of the proposed stations. Have someone go troughh property purchases in the past 12 to 18 months. Analyze partnerships and other group purchases. Betcha you find some familiar names.

  6. Ropyro:

    Hi All,

    I understand the criticisms of this project but still don't think it's a bad idea. I agree that for a while it'll be a financial drain for the short-term. But I doubt that at $70 million per mile, anyone was viewing this as a short-term investment. Two major changes to downtown will certainly aid the viability of the rail system (and there are more, but I'll list only 2): ASU's greatly-expanded downtown campus & Phoenix's strategy for making downtown Phoenix a more nationally-recognized convention destination.

    The light-rail greatly simplifies the trek students make between Phoenix & Tempe (and there will be 15,000 of them in the next few years). Also, it's attractive to those visiting for conventions to travel outside of downtown Phoenix to see Downtown Mesa & Tempe, & the increasing number of restaurants/clubs along Central ave (as well as the Phoenix Art Museum & the Heard Museum).

    Also it will help those who work downtown to avoid the ever-worsening driving/parking mess, those who work downtown that may find regular transportation difficult to come by (office cleaners, janitors, etc.), and those who wish to go downtown for events (baseball, basketball, parades, etc.)

    I live about a mile or 2 north of downtown and I'll use the rail often on the weekends because, franky, I dive all week and I'll be relieved to visit my favorite hangouts without worrying about my car -- not to mention when I drink.

    I do have a criticism of the rail, though, and that is the fact that the plan is for the rail to shut down around 11:00PM -- which won't do much to help those who want to avoid drinking and driving.

    Anyway, I'm sure that all I listed above is likely still not enough to put the Light Rail's financials in the black, but I feel like it's a good start for the first line of the system. The value of the system shouldn't be measured purely on its ability to make money directly for Valley Metro, I believe. There are other less-tangible benefits it will provide that won't be seen or felt for many years.

    Anyway, just my 2 cents (or 4).

  7. Stewart:


    I too lived in Brookline MA, but in the early 1950's. The MTA was well used then and revamped with new rolling stock.

    I think the route of Phoenix Light Rail fails because it is not integrated with Sky Harbor Airport, or the Greyhound Bus terminal. The Red Line serves the communities better along the route. Instead travellers will be humping luggage between connections.

    At a more basic level: the Light Rail needs PEDESTRIANS, and the Phoenix "Fathers" are still not switched on to pedestrians. We have yet to see Mayor Phil Gordon taking the Bus to work: maybe then there would be better appreciation for the needs of pedestrians.

    They have failed to make the system "User Friendly."


  8. 2smart4u:

    Actually, there is a bigger reason light rail will fail in Phoenix. It is called the laws of Physics. Better known as the summer heat.