Rising From The Ashes Of Car-centrism

March 20, 2012

Phoenix had me conflicted.

On one hand there was so much baseball. So, so much baseball, played in human scale stadiums (yet still goliathly priced concessions) with the players – superstars and all the other ones both – close enough to hear their on field banter. Hey. Isn’t that George Brett, dressed in Royals blue and spitting out sunflower seeds in the Kansas City dugout?

On the other hand there was so much driving. So, so many cars, six lane roads and intracity freeways, driving, driving and more driving. A steroid sprawl, a mini-L.A. without any of the character of place Los Angeles can exhibit. Suburbia in the sun, bleached colourless and arid.

But it had baseall. Did I mention that?

Perhaps I am being too harsh. It’s hardly fair to judge a city based on one extended long weekend especially as seen almost exclusively from the driver’s seat of a car, not that Phoenix offers up much in the way of alternatives. Yet, on first blush, the city is a sea of charmlessness in what is one of the most spectacular natural regions on the planet. It’s almost as if the European mind arrived, saw the raw, rugged beauty of the place and decided it could never compete and just start building something, anything.

Or maybe, there was so much space, the landscape seemingly ad infinitum that it was never about building, designing, planning well. It was just about filling it up. Actually, that would be filling it out.

An aging Frank Lloyd Wright certainly saw the area as a broad canvas, an experimental laboratory to plot out innovative ideas in home design and urban planning. A product of its post-World War II mindset, a belief of unlimited space and cheap fuel, much of it did not come to pass and some mercifully so. His proposed Broadacre community was drawn up with low density in mind and automobile travel at its core although it’s hard to imagine how it could’ve turned out any worse than the current city itself.

A Saturday morning drive through the west valley was especially gruesome. A wide thoroughfare surrounded by cargo rail on one side and a dry riverbed on the other, single story housing tracts popped up here and there, almost exclusively the ruddy, rust brown shade of the landscape. As with most car based communities, the social hub seemed to be strip malls sometimes anchored by futuristically designed churches. Religiously retail, you might say.

This being the southwest, the area still seemed to be reeling from the 2008 economic meltdown. Houses were being offered for $10,000 down! (What, did we just travel back to the 50s?) Apartment complexes had $129 move in specials.

And the strip malls were boarded up. Not one or two stores but entire strip malls. Just boarded up.

Now, I’d like to see these hideous blights on the landscape bulldozed and rebuilt in a more thoughtful way as much as the next strip mall hating guy but to see one just done, desolate, out of business is surprisingly unsettling. Where have the people gone? Those that remain, just how far and how often do they have to drive to get to work, to shop for groceries, to go to a restaurant or bar?

You haven’t really experienced a truly Irish St. Patrick’s Day until you’ve had yourself a whisky sour and nachos while watching March Madness in a chain pub in the middle of a Phoenix strip mall. How do you spell mass D.U.I.?

This is not to say there was nothing aside from baseball that would draw me back to Phoenix aside from being a convenient hub for more interesting destinations. There were what looked to be from the outside some very nice gated communities. Downtown Phoenix isn’t devoid of life even on a cold and rainy Sunday afternoon. It boasts a sizable art gallery across the street from imitation brownstone houses that start in the low millions according to the sales banner. Both the NBA’s Phoenix Suns and the MLB’s Arizona Diamondbacks have their home turfs in the core as opposed to the ailing Coyotes of the NHL whose arena was moved out to suburban Glendale much to the team’s ultimate detriment.

The Phoenix proper downtown is connected to another thriving core in Mesa by… wait for it, wait for it… an LRT. Yeah, that’s right, boys and girls. Even car crazy Phoenix has built itself about 32 kilometres (20 miles in American) of light rail recently, right down the middle of the road for the most part. For anyone still insisting that LRT isn’t fast or it impedes traffic or is second class, they are simply admitting that they don’t know what they’re talking about.

The Metro Rail Line stops almost exclusively only to pick up and/or drop off passengers. Traffic flows easily in and around it and there are stretches when cars simply can’t keep up to the train. Not because of congestion but just the natural flow of traffic lights and the competing demands of other private vehicles.

Wait. How did I get onto that subject? There I was, minding my own transit business, driving around, watching baseball, hating on Phoenix.

Think of it as a passing observation on a city steeped deep in car culture and how it learned to share the roads with public transit. Phoenix is living proof of the horrors wrought by building a city around the primacy of the automobile. If it thinks LRTs are the way forward, what exactly are we here in Toronto so afraid of?

grand canyonly submitted by Cityslikr