Any proposed new mass transit system inevitably touches off a religious war between those who see light rail as the saving grace of car-choked, sprawling metropolitan areas, and those who view it as an expensive boondoggle. Unsurprisingly, my sympathies lie with mass transit advocates, but of course it’s important that expensive public works projects actually serve the taxpayers that foot the bill.
So it’s nice to see that Phoenix’s new light rail system has surpassed ridership expectations. The 20-mile system linking Phoenix, Tempe, and Mesa was projected to carry 26,000 riders per day. Currently it’s averaging 33,000. Moreover, the rail line has attracted $3.5 billion in private investment along its length, and the newly accessible downtown area has seen its revenue rise by 13%, even as revenue in the rest of the city has fallen by 16%. Another 37 miles of track are already in the works.
The pattern of ridership in Phoenix is unusual. On most rail systems, the majority of passengers are commuters. In Phoenix, the system is more popular with people traveling to restaurants, ball games, and cultural events during the nights and weekends. Perhaps that will change over time, as people begin to make decisions about where to live based on access to rail. It takes many decades to shape the built environment, and that process requirements smart and deliberate investments like the one Phoenix is making.