Now comes Valley Metro, in one of the most apparently unpromising locations for transit of all, and it’s working, though not quite the way transit does in, say, New York, Boston, or Washington. Every day, Valley Metro attracts some 33,000 riders, way above the projected 26,000. But what’s interesting is the clientele. Unlike systems elsewhere, which are used principally by commuters, the 20 miles of rail in Phoenix running along the central spines of Phoenix and then through Tempe to Mesa are used largely by students shuttling between Arizona State University’s downtown and Tempe campuses, and people going to restaurants, bars, ball games, and cultural events downtown. Only 27 percent of the system’s riders use it for getting to work (compared to 60 percent elsewhere), which suggests that for now at least the Phoenix light rail will flourish as a sort of jitney service supporting a post-industrial metropolis’ ongoing cultivation of a classic entertainment district downtown, higher education there and in Tempe, and associated nodes of new and intensified development along Central Avenue.
Moving possibly intoxicated students around seems to me to be an underrated virtue of public transportation. Austin’s a fun town, for example, but when I was there I wished there weren’t quite so many people driving around after having so much fun. Growing up in New York then going to school in Boston and moving to DC, I’ve never really dealt with drunk driving youth culture on a consistent basis. In the parts of the country where there are no good alternatives I guess people are just accustomed to that sort of thing happening. But it’s really bad and dangerous.