Let’s explore Phoenix: Getting transit right in the hottest city in the US

Ahead of ITS America's Conference & Expo in Phoenix, ITS International asked Transit Unplugged's Paul Comfort (with Tris Hussey) to offer some thoughts on urban mobility in this part of Arizona
Mobility as a Service / March 4, 2024
Phoenix Arizona transit mass Waymo © Sean Pavone | Dreamstime.com
Phoenix: growing fast presents huge challenges to any transit system (© Sean Pavone | Dreamstime.com)

I recently took a tour of the vibrant southwestern city of Phoenix, Arizona for our Transit Unplugged TV show.

Phoenix (and the surrounding cities of Mesa and Tempe) is not only the fastest-growing city in the US, but also one of the hottest with 31 straight days over 110 degrees Fahrenheit (about 44 degrees Celsius) in the summer of 2023. Growing fast presents huge challenges to any transit system, but while talking with Phoenix’s transit system Valley Metro’s CEO Jessica Mefford-Miller, I learned how they are growing smart with expanded light rail and streetcar services.

And, it’s not Transit Unplugged TV without taking in all the things that make a city great. From its food to its art, from music to people, our journey through a jewel in the desert gives you a real taste of this amazing city.


"One of the first cities in the world to have fully autonomous Google Waymo taxis on the streets"


We start off with Jessica Mefford-Miller, the CEO of Valley Metro, over a delicious local meal at local Mexican hot spot Tacos Chewas. Jessica shares with us the story behind Valley Metro and her passion for urban transportation. Jessica studied Geography in college with a Bachelors, Masters, and now working on her PhD. Jesssica feels that studying geography isn’t just about putting places on maps, it’s a study of how people interact with the land. In Jessica’s case, how people move across the land. This passion for understanding how people move and interact with the world around them gives her unique insights into how to build a better transit system for the people of Phoenix.


Diverse mobility options


Valley Metro has over 61 bus routes, a dynamic streetcar system, a rapidly expanding light rail system encompassing 28 miles and 38 stations that bridges the gaps between bus and streetcar. I took at trip on one of the newest light rail segments to check out this amazing city. As I explored the streets of Phoenix with Jessica, I was amazed by the city's growth and commitment to offering diverse mobility options. And not just streetcar and light rail, but microtransit and one of the few cities to have fully-autonomous Waymo taxis.

Our first stop on the light rail was Culdesac in downtown Tempe, the first car-free neighborhood built from scratch in the United States. Spanning 17 acres and featuring 35 buildings, Culdesac is a testament to the innovative approach that the Phoenix area has adopted towards urban planning. With an emphasis on mixed-use development, Culdesac offers a variety of amenities, including residential buildings, commercial spaces, a plaza, and even a weekly night market.


"One of the keys to success is having a robust multimodal transit system"


I toured the community with CEO Ryan Johnson and he talked about how this purpose-built community is a blueprint for communities across the US and North America. The residents might not have cars themselves, but they have ready access to light rail, an electric bike for each resident, and car share for longer trips. On Transit Unplugged we’ve heard more and more people talk about the need for more compact, walkable neighborhoods where people don’t need a car for a lot of errands. As I saw in Culdesac, one of the keys to success is having a robust multimodal transit system. Culdesac has plans to expand car free options around North America.

Phoenix was one of the first cities in the world to have fully autonomous Google Waymo taxis on the streets. I took one with my friends Jaime Cuadra and Valerie Neilson to get from the MPACT conference. I’ve tried a lot of autonomous vehicles before, but this was my first time in a “robotaxi”. It was quite an experience watching the steering wheel turn itself and get us where we were going. Booking the ride was simple with the Waymo app. I know I’ll be trying one again the next time I can.


Valley Metro has over 61 bus routes, a dynamic streetcar system and a rapidly expanding light rail system


Integrating transit infrastructure


One of the highlights of my trip was attending and speaking at the MPACT conference, a gathering of transit leaders and enthusiasts dedicated to improving community planning and integrating transit infrastructure. This formerly rail-focused conference has expanded to include more general transit and planning sessions. While at the conference I had a chance to sit down with Scott Smith who was the Valley Metro CEO prior to Jessica and he talked with me about his time at Valley Metro and his career in public service as the former Mayor of Mesa, AZ.

I was also privileged be able to sit down with Congressman Earl Blumenauer to talk about his 50-year career in politics and his lifelong passion for livable cities and streetcars. It was an honor to have time with Rep. Blumenauer as he nears the end of his term in Congress and learn about his continued plans to promote transit as a private citizen.

I recorded several episodes of the Transit Unplugged podcast during this trip and you can listen to them all in this handy playlist.


"As we’ve seen wherever Taylor Swift’s tour stops, public transit plays a key role in getting people to events"

From the MPACT Conference I started my tour of Valley Metro itself. I got a behind the scenes tour of the operations control centre (OCC) with Mike Pal, Valley Metro’s Chief Transportation Officer. Mike and I talked about how Valley Metro and his team handle mega-events like the Super Bowl, Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour, and the recent World Series. The key, of course is planning, with extra service, increased staffing, and park-and-ride facilities, Valley Metro ensures that residents and visitors can enjoy these events without the hassle of traffic congestion. 

More importantly, as we’ve seen wherever Taylor Swift’s tour stops, public transit plays a key role in getting people to events and most importantly introduces thousands of people to their local transit system for the first time.

This past summer Phoenix experienced record-breaking heat with over a month over 110 degrees and not dropping below 90 degrees (32C) at night.


Extreme weather conditions 


Maintaining a transportation system in extreme weather conditions presents its own challenges. To combat Phoenix's scorching heat, Valley Metro has implemented rigorous maintenance protocols to ensure that the light rail cars operate smoothly. With increased preventative maintenance on HVAC systems, Valley Metro ensures that passengers experience a comfortable ride even during Arizona's hottest days. The AC systems on the trains are so powerful that each one could cool several houses. This, as you can imagine, puts a massive strain on the electrical grid, but Valley Metro has that covered too. They have installed enough solar panels to meet their energy needs in their light rail shop during the day and only need to tap into the electrical grid for it at night. What a great use of a natural resource to help cut costs and help the environment.

 Valley Metro has installed enough solar panels to meet energy needs in their light rail shop during the day and only need to tap into the electrical grid for it at night

On Transit Unplugged TV, we love to showcase an entire city and its culture. Throughout our journey in Phoenix, we come across numerous examples of public art installations that add vibrancy and character to Phoenix's transportation infrastructure. From sculptures paying homage to the history of the area to suspended artworks reflecting the legacy of iconic places like Metro Center Mall, on their new Light Rail Northwest Extension Phase II.  These installations showcase the city's commitment to blending art and transportation seamlessly.

Then there of course is the food. At Tacos Chewas, I got to sample some iconic Mexican food and sample some new twists on the classics. I love sitting down with people over a meal to not just talk transit, but also learn about their lives and passions too. From Jessica’s passion for understanding how people use the land to her career journey, a good meal is a great way to sit really get to know someone.


"The ever-expanding transit network is growing to meet the needs of the burgeoning population"


Phoenix is an amazingly beautiful place. The Sonoran Desert is alive with flora and fauna of all kinds. I wandered through several of the desert parks to reflect on everything I learned and saw here on my tour of Phoenix. Valley Metro is committed to connecting the community with transit. The ever-expanding network is growing to meet the needs of the burgeoning population. And their growth isn’t limited to the things that run on wheels, their customer care team are out there every day helping locals and visitors alike navigate the transit system.

While I was there in the fall, Valley Metro was just finishing the next round of light rail expansion that opened to the public earlier this year. A testament to their commitment to meet the diverse transportation needs of this rapidly growing region. Through light rail extensions, streetcar networks, and innovative solutions like microtransit, Phoenix is paving the way for a more sustainable and accessible future.

Phoenix is a city that never ceases to amaze. With a world-class public transportation system like Valley Metro, residents and visitors alike can explore the vibrant streets, diverse neighborhoods, and breathtaking landscapes with ease. Whether you're a food enthusiast, a music lover, or an urban explorer, Phoenix has something to offer everyone. So hop on board Valley Metro and discover the beauty and excitement of this southwestern gem.

Paul Comfort is the former CEO of the MTA in Baltimore, Maryland and the producer/host of the Transit Unplugged Podcast and TV show as well as a best-selling author of numerous books about public transportation; Tris Hussey is the blog and podcast manager for Modaxo and the editor of the Transit Unplugged Podcast

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