News

It Takes a Mix of Solutions to Solve a Complex Problem

May 07, 2019

The challenges of providing core services to a large metropolitan area can be daunting. And, the challenges of a relentlessly growing metropolitan area are also complex. Of course, the Phoenix Metropolitan Area is both.

Transit - having an easy to use, sustainable and affordable way to get from home to work, school, shopping, etc. - is one of the many challenges that must be met.

As people in The Valley, and their elected representatives, grapple with these challenges, one thing seems to be clear, the answers won’t come in one size fits all/all or nothing solutions. Transit, like the rest of these urban challenges, will be managed with a mix of solutions.

There are a lot of people in the various communities of The Valley. 4.7 million is the current estimate. That number is further estimated to go up another 2 million in the next decade or so. Getting those people from place to place in the 14,565 square miles of land they call home is the core challenge of transit in metro Phoenix.

This challenge of keeping a community’s citizens moving is not a new one. From 1887 to 1948, the early stages of the transit challenge was partially handled by horse-drawn, and then motorized buses and streetcars.

When World War II made cars and trucks too expensive for most people to use, public transit kept the flow of factory workers getting out to their jobs in spite of gas rationing.
In the post-war economic boom, private vehicle ownership became the dream and then the necessity of many Valley residents. To the point that public transit often became “someone else’s problem.” It can be easy to forget the challenges of access - getting to the doctor or a job - for many people when you’re behind the wheel of your own car. But, as more and more private vehicles filled the highways and surface roads of the area, many people behind the wheel of their own car began to notice they were doing less driving and more waiting to drive in traffic jams. All while breathing in the carbon monoxide and feeling the heat from a sea of gasoline powered vehicles around them.

This is where considering a combination of solutions makes sense. In addition to private vehicles (whether gas,diesel, or electric), there are options like buses, light rail trains, streetcars, ride hailing services (like Uber or Lyft) and ridesharing. No single method will solve the transit challenge in an easy to use, sustainable and affordable way that works for all those 4.7 million and counting area residents.

But, each of them brings something helpful to the challenge. The 16.5 million riders who use public transit annually in the area prove that. That number will continue to grow, with all the unique transit needs that come with that increased population and ridership.
Just saying, “everyone should take an Uber” ignores the fact that there are plenty of people out there doing very necessary jobs that can’t afford to get to that hospital, school or other workplace paying for Uber rides on the daily. And, anyone who’s tried to wrestle a powered wheelchair into a vehicle knows that access means more than just a ramp in front of the doctor’s office door.

When voters approved Transportation 2050 in 2015, it was the first time there was an attempt to fund a mix of various ways of getting from here to there in The Valley, including support for bus, light rail, streetcar and ways to solve that “last mile home” issue.
A bus can’t drop everyone off in front of their door. But, bike lanes and racks for bikes on buses help people make it from a nearby bus stop to their front door. Transportation 2050 had support for these as well.

On August 27th, a referendum seeks to end light rail as a part of Transportation 2050, reducing that mix of solutions. The challenges will continue to grow, but the list of solutions would get smaller if this referendum passes.

Transportation 2050 wasn’t designed to meet 21st Century problems with 20th century solutions. As much as using light rail money to fill potholes looks like a direct solution to the problem, ten years from now you’ll be driving over new potholes trying to share the road with another two million drivers. Because there’ll be no light rail to provide transit to those people or you. Just millions of drivers trying to avoid potholes.

Sometimes, the simple solution is a little too simple to get the real job done.

The fact of the matter is that transit is a complex challenge, and the solution will undoubtedly be equally as complex. If you look at the transit solution as a blend of solutions, including light rail, then having a healthy number of options makes a lot of sense.