Phoenix By Bus

Atrios links to a story about growth patterns in Phoenix. It quotes a woman who wishes she could walk to stores from her house:

“In Goodyear, for instance, the opening of the Estrella Falls mall was postponed last week for a second time. Shopping center developer Westcor now plans to open it in late 2011.

Another Goodyear shopping center, on Estrella Parkway, has only one tenant, a pizza parlor that opened last year. The center sits near hundreds of new homes. The next closest place to shop and eat is a few miles away along Interstate 10.

“Karen Madison lives in the neighborhood. She shares a car with her husband, who works during the day.

“I feel stranded most days because there’s nothing close enough for me to walk to,” said Madison, who sometimes walks a few miles, pushing her daughter in a stroller, to fill prescriptions. “We were so excited when we saw the shopping center go up just a few blocks away. But there’s nothing there.””

As it happens, I know something about trying to get around Phoenix. In my youth I used to write for Let’s Go, and one summer I had to cover Phoenix. Let’s Go had, at the time, incredibly low per diems — if memory serves it was $34/day for this leg of my travels — so except for one day when I had to drive out to Tortilla Flats, I covered Phoenix on foot. It was horrible: there were very few bus routes, and most buses ran about once an hour, so if you missed one, you had to wait (in the Phoenix midday sun) for an hour until the next one arrived — after having walked forever just to find the bus stop. If you had to change twice, the round trip could easily consume half of your day.

I decided to see how much things had changed in the intervening decades. Before I get to the bus schedules, though, those of you who live in a walkable city should know that blocks in Phoenix are huge. Here’s the Google map of Phoenix, and here’s a map of Atrios’ own Philadelphia (link fixed) for comparison. Click down to about the fifth highest resolution; you can see that the blocks on Phoenix are considerably bigger. And that’s downtown: click a few times in any given direction and it gets much more striking.

I checked the bus schedules for Phoenix. (Actually, since you have to check each route individually, I checked about fifteen, chosen at random.) For the most part they seem to run two or three times an hour, with some extra buses at rush hours; on weekends, it’s once or twice an hour, and whereas on weekdays the system seems to operate until midnight, no bus I looked at runs after 10pm on Saturday or Sunday.

Here’s a map (pdf) of public transportation in Phoenix. It doesn’t provide any information about scale, but Google indicates that the distance between 7th St. and 7th Ave. in downtown is about a mile. Look at the map and note the place where it says ‘see downtown insert’. There’s a brownish line (8) running by the left side of the ‘downtown insert’ thingy, and an orange line (7) running right through it, between the o and the w in ‘downtown. The distance between those is a mile.

That means that there are very few places in Phoenix where bus lines are less than a mile apart, and many places where they are further apart than that. And bear in mind that the bus line that runs half a mile from your house might not go where you want to go, in which case you would have to change lines, waiting for a significant chunk of time with each change.

Here, by contrast, is a map of the bus lines in central Philadelphia. Note the scale: as best I can tell, the area shown here is only slightly larger than the ‘downtown insert’ on the Phoenix map. It’s absolutely crawling with bus lines. (And there’s also the subway and regional rail.)

In Phoenix, getting around by public transportation is an ordeal. In Philadelphia, it’s a whole lot easier. There are a lot of bus lines, so you don’t have to walk forever just to get to a bus stop. They run more frequently, so you don’t have to wait forever every time you miss a bus. In Philadelphia, you can use public transportation as your default method of getting around. In Phoenix, you’d have to be a masochist.

If you want to get a sense for why the woman in the article feels stranded, you can find her neighborhood, Goodyear, about 30-odd miles west of downtown Phoenix on the Google map. It is served by one (1) bus line (the 131), which runs to the Desert Sky Mall (about halfway between Goodyear and what Phoenix calls “downtown”) 10 times every weekday, and not at all on the weekend.

And if you want to get a sense for just how much work it will take to get some American cities to be anything like walkable, looking at the Google map and the transit system for Phoenix is a pretty decent way to start. Goodyear is extreme even for Phoenix, but there are very few places in Phoenix in which it isn’t incredibly hard to get by without a car.

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