Matt Yglesias on Motivating Density in Phoenix

Progressive blogger (and budding urbanist) Matt Yglesias was in Phoenix last week for a speaking engagement.  When he was here, he checked out our downtown and light rail system.  Here’s what he had to say:

Motivating Density

Phoenix is largely a stereotypical sunbelt “no there there” sprawling auto-oriented city. But it does feature a smallish, but very nice, walkable urban downtown core. And it also has a new light rail line, with more lines to come. These developments are, it seems to me, very beneficial to the city and should keep paying off down the road.

But with my wonk hat on, it’s hard for me to imagine that the light rail system passes a cost-benefit test relative to just improving bus service. That is, however, a bit of a narrow-minded way of looking at the situation. The key element to downtown Phoenix’s success is that there’s been a lot of different rezoning initiatives (here’s one) to allow for increased density, more mixing of uses, and reduced parking requirements. It’s this rezoning to allow for more economically efficient use of the land that’s driving the benefits. And a city could—and should—do this without necessarily waiting for the construction of expensive light rail systems.

But when you’re talking about political change, you can’t leave the politics out and in this case it seems to me that they largely come as a package deal. Real estate developers and businesses like the idea of fixed rail stations to anchor development. And they also can serve as key elements of a political coalition for rezoning. Meanwhile, the idea of rail construction paints a picture for the city’s residents of urban transformation instead of “exactly the way it was before, but more crowded.” So the package works.

But of course the converse is also true. If a new transit system does anything useful, it will raise the price of station-adjacent land. Whether that constitutes a private benefit to landowners or a broader economic benefit to the community is almost entirely contingent on upzoning the land to increase the number of people able to take advantage of its increased value.


Yuri Artibise

Yuri Artibise is an experienced policy analyst, community engagement practitioner and social media specialist. I have a Master of Public Administration degree with over 10 years of public policy research, analysis, and advocacy experience.


  1. Rezoning w/o the rail wouldn’t have done anything. 90% of choice riders will not use buses with any frequency, and buses will not motivate the lifestyle choices and mode shifts necessary to create the demand for density that developers need.

    • Rezoning with the rail hasn’t done much either. The City is even ignoring their own overlays and codes. And the vast majority of developers are not even taking advantage of current incentives. As a result, we are still building suburban style developments (CityScape) and more parking in the center of the city (ASU).

    • Exactly right. Pure cost-benefit comparirsons of rail vs. bus ignore differences in travel times, ride comfort, accessibility, and social acceptance betwen different modes of transits. While there are some cities in South America that have built truly impressive and heavily-used transit systems based on BRT, those cities exist in different cultural and economic realities than U.S. cities, where many discretionary passengers are willing to ride trains but not buses, no matter how dressed up they are with BRT features.

      That being said, it isn’t even the case that rail has come at the expense of bus in Phoenix. The same voter-approved measures in 2000 and 2004 that have funded light rail have also funded new bus routes and expanded hours of service. Even with recent cutbacks necesssitated by the recession, bus service has seen a tremendous net increase over the past decade. I doubt, moreover, that we would have seen voters approve any measure that simply increased bus service. The cominbation of rail construction and bus improvements reflects what people will vote for and what people will actually ride.

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