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.