Friday, April 17, 2009

Paving the Desert

By: Jason Yots

Last August, I visited Phoenix to catch some baseball games with a few friends. At that time, the price of gasoline in Buffalo was around $4.00 per gallon, and only slightly cheaper in Phoenix. For all of the negatives accompanying the high gas prices of 2008, one of the upsides was a surprisingly vigorous dialogue about what Americans can do to reduce our dependence on oil. Despite that promising dialogue, my August trip to Phoenix exposed, at least in my mind, the fallacy that a meaningful shift from oil dependence will occur in American in my lifetime. To say that the Phoenix valley sprawls is like suggesting their summers are a bit warm. According to Wikipedia, the city of Phoenix is 475 square miles. In contrast, the city of Buffalo area is all of 50 square miles. And Phoenix isn’t just large; it also seems to have been designed with only cars in mind. It abounds with massive, intertwining superhighways, broad multi-lane city streets and twenty-pump gas stations. The city’s development is predominantly horizontal, and low-rise buildings, parking lots and drive-through establishments define the landscape as much as the surrounding mountains do.

I realize that describing Phoenix’s sprawling growth is not exactly a news flash. But four very hot August days in that city led me to the conclusion that conservation efforts of other communities will be pointless and ineffective unless cities like Phoenix immediately and drastically alter their development and transportation policies. The rest of us can ride the bus until the cows come home, but such efforts will be futile and silly if others continue to pave the desert.

So, when I returned to Phoenix last week for a vacation with my family, imagine my pleasant surprise to discover, amidst the strip malls and clover-leaf highways, a sleek new light-rail system darting about town. Launched in earnest about 2 months ago, the "Metro," as residents are calling it, shares the street with cars and meanders from Phoenix's near suburbs to its city center. Future phases will connect the city to its outer-ring suburbs. While Phoenix remains the poster child for American sprawl, its investment in light rail suggests at least some effort to slow its unsustainable growth.

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