Light rail enters the West’s most sprawling metropolis

New transportation sparked a renaissance in Denver. Can it do the same for Phoenix?

I ’m in downtown Tempe, Arizona, in the heart of the greater Phoenix metro area, and I just got off a public bus. That, alone, seems odd, here in one of America’s most car-centric cities. But the scene before me is even stranger: A light rail train with silver and teal cars slides into the nearby station — a sort of trellis with vines climbing on it, shaded by space-age, gleaming white sails.

It’s not exactly Manhattan or Berlin, but it’s also not like most Western U.S. cities, which after World War II devolved from walkable, human-scaled communities into sprawling, inhuman shrines to the automobile, with big-box stores, strip malls and suburbs that seem to stretch to infinity.


I cross the street to a coffee shop swarming with millennials, where I’m scheduled to meet Shannon Scutari, one of the driving forces behind Tempe’s nascent transformation. She’s 20 minutes late and stands out in the crowd: With her tousled short blonde hair and gold-rimmed aviator glasses, she resembles actress Meg Ryan, playing an energetic urban professional. Currently, she’s the director of the Sustainable Communities Collaborative, an organization that encourages and helps finance development along the light rail. Before that, she worked in the Arizona Department of Transportation and was a policy advisor for two Arizona governors.

“I’ve always been an idealist, someone who wants to change the world,” she says without preamble. She was the first girl to play Little League baseball in Prescott, Arizona, her hometown. After majoring in communications at Arizona State University, here in Tempe, she worked in the administration of then-Gov. Rose Mofford, a Democrat, on sexual assault prevention. She got a law degree, then an MBA. Finally, in 1996, while working on lobbying and policy for the city of Tempe, perhaps the most progressive of the two-dozen municipalities in the greater Phoenix area, she had an epiphany: If you want to change the world, get into transportation.

  • The Phoenix light rail travels across a bridge over Tempe Town Lake.

    Molly J. Smith
  • Rush hour traffic begins as cars travel along the I-10 Westbound toward Phoenix and the west valley.

    Molly J. Smith
  • An Arizona State University student waits for the light rail at the University Drive and Rural Road station, one of two stops on Arizona State University’s Tempe campus.

    Molly J. Smith
  • Homes under construction on 257th Lane and Marco Polo Road are part of a group of a dozen master-planned communities in Buckeye, Arizona. The communities sit crowded together in a large stretch of desert at least 12 miles west from the closest shops and other development of Phoenix, Arizona.

    Molly J. Smith
  • The Sun Valley Parkway (or Road to Nowhere) completed in 1989, stretches through 30 miles of nearly empty desert west of Phoenix to areas like Buckeye.

    Molly J. Smith
  • The Phoenix light rail travels across a bridge over Tempe Town Lake.

    Molly J. Smith
  • Shannon Scutari, director of the Sustainable Communities Collaborative, an organization that encourages development along the light rail in Phoenix, Arizona, stands at the Central Avenue and Van Buren Street light rail station.

    Molly J. Smith
  • Riders exit the Light Rail Littleton/Mineral stop outside of Denver while cars drive by on Highway 85.

    Theo Stroomer
  • Cars parked along the road at the Belleview Light Rail stop in Denver. Limited parking at this stop means that cars spill over into a number of nearby streets. Even with its growing light rail system, much of Denver remains car-centric and a challenge for pedestrians.

    Theo Stroomer
  • Dane Long of Denver waits for a train at the Broadway light rail stop, where five lines converge.

    Theo Stroomer
  • Hugo Nungaray installs foot panels at the Central Park Light Rail Station, on the East Rail Line, which by 2016 should reach to Denver International Airport.

    Theo Stroomer
  • New apartments near the Belleview Light Rail stop and the Denver Tech Center.

    Theo Stroomer
  • Tom Gougeon, who has been key to downtown Denver’s redevelopment, at the newly refurbished Union Station.

    Theo Stroomer

It makes sense. The West’s cultural and economic landscape was largely shaped by wagon trains, railroads and the interstate system. And in Phoenix, Denver and nearly every other Western city, growth has followed freeways and streets. “The philosophy has been, build the roads, as an economic engine, and the communities will follow,” says Scutari. “Contractors, homebuilders, municipalities have lobbied hard for more roads out in the fringes in the belief that it would encourage more building and growth.” And for better or worse, it has, resulting in thousand-square-mile mazes of cul-de-sacs, clogged arterial streets and row after row of water-, energy- and desert-gobbling homes.

When the housing boom busted almost a decade ago, the momentum was curbed, at least temporarily. And into the vacuum stepped people like Scutari, looking to turn things around. By creating new transportation options, primarily light rail, and then building walkable, bikeable, mixed-use neighborhoods around them, they hope to re-weave the urban and suburban tapestries that are fraying from the inside out. Once, the “smart growth” crowd tried to stymie sprawl by fighting new highways or by implementing growth boundaries and regulations — not popular ideas in much of the conservative West. Now, however, they are encouraging development, albeit in a different form. “A lot of people wanted to get aggressive against sprawl,” says Scutari. “I said, we need to spend that energy creating the alternative, instead, knowing that people will flock to that alternative.”

Scutari and her colleagues point to Denver, where a major expansion of the light rail system, along with a revamping of city zoning around stations, has transformed large swaths of the city, despite the worst recession in decades. A once-blighted railyard west of downtown is home to a field of brand-new offices, residential and retail high-rises; colorful new apartments have sprouted in run-down neighborhoods around light rail stations. It’s a hipster haven, one of Forbes’ 10 “coolest” cities in the nation and, according to at least one headline, the most advanced transit city in the West.

Phoenix, with its conservative politics, pro-growth politicians, and real estate- and development-fueled economy, is no Denver. But maybe, just maybe, it can catch the same train to the future.

The original streetcar in downtown Phoenix, circa 1912, and the same area today.
Courtesy Vintage Phoenix, Molly J. Smith

Board the light rail in Tempe, and head west, across the confined waters of the Salt River and through the liminal, quasi-industrial space that separates the city from Phoenix proper. It seems absurd to compare this place to Denver, with its elegant, historic buildings erected with mining riches during the City Beautiful Movement of the 1890s and 1900s. Phoenix seems to have no history; the oldest buildings on the route are the Hayden Flour Mill, built in 1918 and now a bleached-out memorial to the region’s agricultural past, and the Tovrea Castle, built in 1929, and almost indistinguishable architecturally from the nearby Castle Boutique, a sex-toy megastore. Indeed, less than 5 percent of the homes in metro Phoenix were built before 1950.

And yet, for about a century, Denver and Phoenix followed a similar growth path. Both cities were nourished through their adolescence by extensive streetcar systems. Denver’s had more than 250 miles of track and a train to Golden — some of today’s best neighborhoods still surround old streetcar station sites, a phenomenon now known as transit-oriented development. And the Phoenix Street Railway System orbited a relatively densely populated urban hub, where residents could stroll shady sidewalks to the barber, the butcher, the grocer.

After World War II, American cities, particularly those in the West, were blown apart by the baby boom, the burgeoning middle class and the invasion of the automobile, which also killed both Phoenix’s and Denver’s streetcar systems. Just as the railroads had facilitated exploitation of the West’s natural resources, the interstate system, created in 1958, enabled humanity to take advantage of the region’s seemingly limitless supply of “empty” land.

Phoenix’s population quadrupled during the 1950s alone, bleeding away from the urban core and into the desert. Businesses followed, and the city centers slowly collapsed, like an urban sinkhole. In ensuing decades, Phoenix aspired to become a cheaper version of Los Angeles, sans earthquakes. And Denver — thanks to the energy boom of the ’70s — was on its way to becoming the next Houston. Denver even had its own oil-centered television drama, Dynasty.

The energy rush was good for Denver’s economy, but also accelerated the unraveling of the urban tapestry, as mixed-use downtown neighborhoods were bulldozed to make way for monolithic office towers and a seven-square-block parking crater. “Downtown was becoming this 9-to-5 place, destroying the historic fabric,” says Tom Gougeon, a key figure in Denver’s revitalization since the 1980s. The city’s residents, its tax revenues and much of the culture fled to the fringe.

Desire spurred the flight from the urban core: The yearning to own a home and a car and a lawn out in the less crowded — and much whiter — suburbs. But post-war growth was no free-market phenomenon. In fact, it was guided at almost every turn by local and federal governments, who fed sprawl with taxpayer-supported highways and giant water projects. Federal lending laws encouraged single-family home-ownership. Zoning and building codes separated residential from commercial districts, prohibited multi-family development in many areas, created minimum lot and home sizes and in many cases incentivized demolishing and replacing historic structures rather than preserving and repurposing them. The state of Arizona continues to require utilities to extend power lines to new homes and subdivisions for free. And cities, especially in the West, enthusiastically annexed unincorporated land, expanding their boundaries to lasso a portion of the fleeing population (and the taxes they took with them), encouraging leap-frog development in the process.

If this is a tale of two cities, racing along parallel post-war paths toward a suburban utopia, then in the 1970s and ’80s, Denver faltered while Phoenix zoomed along. Denver’s annexation run was halted in 1974, when a state constitutional amendment aimed at stopping racial integration in the suburbs made it nearly impossible to annex unincorporated neighborhoods. A decade later, oil prices crashed. Some 15,000 jobs were lost in the industry in Denver alone, along with nearly 10 percent of its population.

Meanwhile, in Phoenix, opposition to new freeways failed, and one sliced through the city’s core, wiping out historic neighborhoods and dealing a near-fatal blow to downtown. The real estate industrial complex continued its evolution from an industry that feeds on other industries — following jobs, for example — into one that feeds on cheap land, taxpayer-supported highways and, ultimately, itself. After a brief lull for the late ’80s recession, the suburbs continued to metastasize into the desert.

By the time the housing boom hit its peak a decade ago, more than 30,000 people worked home construction in metro Phoenix, and housing and real estate made up an outsized portion of Arizona’s economy. Numerous efforts to limit or slow growth were squashed, and in 2006, Proposition 207 effectively eviscerated land-use laws by forcing governments to recompense landowners for a loss of property value resulting from zoning and regulations.

The city of Phoenix covers more than 500 square miles, and some of its suburbs are almost as vast, adding up to a 9,000-square-mile urbanized footprint, at least half of it devoted to the automobile. Denver’s suburbs are a sprawling mess, too, and anyone who’s driven between city and mountains on a Sunday afternoon has witnessed the triumph of the automobile. But while metro Phoenix added 60,000 single-family homes in just one year, greater Denver built a mere 17,000. And Denver’s footprint today is just 153 square miles.

“It just blows me away,” says Andrew Goetz, a geography professor at the University of Denver. We’re sitting on plush couches beneath the soaring ceiling and giant chandeliers in Denver’s Union Station this July, just days after the grand opening that celebrated its metamorphosis from an abandoned relic of the past into a place now buzzing with life: people catching the Amtrak, light rail, regional buses or patronizing the upscale hotel, a snazzy bar and a variety of restaurants and retail shops. Not bad for a place that was in the wrecking ball’s path a few decades ago.

Some 80 trains per day once passed through Union Station. But in the 1950s, air travel surpassed train travel, and the station started a long downward slide. By the late 1970s, the decaying structure was sandwiched between the blighted Lower Downtown, or LoDo, and a vast, mostly abandoned railyard. Union Station, built in 1914, was slated to become a shopping mall, maybe, or even demolished to make way for another parking lot or skyscraper.

In 1983, Federico Peña, a progressive urbanist, started his first term as mayor, just as the energy boom was busting. The city could no longer simply open its doors and expect people and money to appear. It had to distinguish itself with personality and authenticity. In 1988, Peña signed an ordinance that blocked the bulldozers from historic downtown structures, thereby preserving the city’s good “bones.” That same year, John Hickenlooper, an out-of-work petroleum geologist who would later become the mayor and then Colorado’s governor, opened a brewpub in an old LoDo warehouse not far from Union Station, leading a wave of revitalization bolstered by the construction of Coors Field a few years later. People and businesses flocked back to the urban core.

Light rail came, too, albeit incrementally and not without resistance. The Regional Transportation District built a small segment downtown in 1994. Five years later, it constructed a 19-mile line, paired with massive freeway expansions, along the heavily congested southeastern corridor. In the interim, voters shot down a $16 billion proposal that would have spread a web of rail throughout the metro area.

Finally, in 2004 a populace fed up with sitting in traffic passed an ambitious new plan, FasTracks. It would extend light rail by some 120 miles with Union Station at the hub, and add commuter rail and bus rapid transit to Boulder. Businesses and developers supported it, as did all 31 mayors of the greater metro area’s municipalities. Goetz calls the vote “a significant departure from the automobile orientation of the post-war period.”

While a robust bus system can move people around as effectively as light rail, it will never guide development and growth to the same extent. FasTracks was as much about land-use planning as it was about transportation. And to make sure it achieved its potential, the city adopted Blueprint Denver — an integrated land-use and transportation plan — in 2002, which in turn guided a form-based zoning code, adopted in 2010. Most significantly, it created transit-oriented development zones, encouraging compact, mixed-use development near light rail stations.

The single light-rail line in Phoenix, top, and the many lines that spider through Denver and beyond.

FasTracks has grappled with budget shortfalls and obtaining rights of way, but work is progressing on highly anticipated lines to more suburbs and the airport. And the transit-oriented development side has flourished. Since 1997, more than 27,000 multi-family housing units, 5.5 million square feet of retail space and millions more of medical, office, cultural and educational space have been constructed within a half-mile of light rail stations. Most dramatic is the buildup around Union Station, the result of a public-private partnership, some of whose proceeds go to the station’s revamping. From a grim industrial graveyard, hundreds of gleaming new offices and more than 3,000 residential units have sprouted.

In a weird throwback to the 1970s, many of those offices are occupied by energy companies drawn, ironically, by the walkable, bikeable, transit-connected neighborhoods, not to mention the pool of potential employees: A recent study found that Denver has become one of the top-five destinations for young, college-educated adults. They, no doubt, are also drawn to the high-paying jobs located near their new downtown loft apartments. It took 30 years, billions in public investment, good policy and some good luck, but Denver has morphed from just another sprawling, fading city into a vibrant, economically bustling place.

Feliciano Vera, in dark-framed glasses and stylishly rolled-up white jeans, disembarks from his fixie, looking as if he just rolled off a San Francisco or maybe Denver street. But this is downtown Phoenix, and Vera is part of a new generation of developers here — real estate, not software — trying to break the old post-war real estate mold. We sit at a heavy wood table at the Cartel Coffee Lab, revered for its coffee and sometimes reviled for its pretentious hipster vibe, next to a partition made of bicycle wheels hanging from the ceiling.

Vera grew up in South Phoenix, where “everything was Latinos or African-Americans. It’s where you could buy a house.” He went to Harvard, where he learned how liberating it was to live without a car, and then came back to Phoenix, where he set to work as a community organizer, determined to keep his city from cooking itself “in the crockpot of our own stupidity.” That included advocating for the most recent of a slough of transit initiatives that have come before local voters over the decades.

In February 1980, back when Denver was too preoccupied with its oil wealth to worry about transit, the rain-swollen Salt River wiped out key street bridges in Phoenix, making car travel nearly impossible in some areas. An impromptu commuter train was cobbled together to run along Amtrak tracks, shuttling more than 45,000 passengers between Tempe and downtown Phoenix over 10 days.

The “Sardine Express” died once the bridges were fixed, but Phoenicians had gotten a glimpse of a less car-centric world, and many liked what they saw. In 1985, county voters approved a half-cent sales tax, mostly dedicated to 271 miles of new freeways. Still, a fraction of it funded a regional transit authority and creation of a valley-wide transit plan, called ValTrans, which would have expanded the bus system, added 23 miles of commuter rail and a 103-mile elevated light rail system. But its time had yet to come: Voters shot ValTrans down in 1989.

One city wouldn’t give up. Tempe is completely surrounded by other municipalities, limiting it to just 40 square miles and giving it one of the region’s most densely populated footprints. In 1996, the city broke out on its own and passed a tax to fund bus system improvements and build its own light rail line. Phoenix joined in with its own transit tax in 2000, clearing the way for the first stretch of rail from Tempe to downtown Phoenix. In order to make it a “regional” line and eligible for federal funds, at least three cities needed to be involved. So Tempe and Phoenix coaxed and bribed Mesa — the most conservative city in America, according to a recent study — to accept a mile of the line within its borders.

In order to get the most out of the light rail, Phoenix revamped its zoning along the transit-shed-to-be to “encourage an appropriate mixture and density of activity around transit stations and promote alternative modes of transportation to the automobile.” In 2003, Vera and his colleagues started construction on Portland Place, an upscale condo complex north of downtown and the city’s first transit-oriented-development. The next year, ASU announced it would build a new campus in downtown Phoenix, funded in part by a $200 million voter-approved bond measure. The advent of light rail, which would provide a link between the two campuses, was critical to the proposal.

By that time, downtown was already attracting new life, thanks to the entrepreneurs and artists who had planted their flags on Roosevelt Row and Grand Avenue, a somewhat rundown area with cheap rent and raw potential. Dorina Bustamante, an Arizona native, “frustrated by what wasn’t happening in Phoenix,” had fled the region for Los Angeles, Paris and New York City. When she saw the Roosevelt Row renaissance, she returned to lend her own energy to the effort. “People saw what people like me were hungry for,” she says. “It’s amazing to see how quickly things advanced.” 

Then, in 2004, Maricopa County officials asked voters to extend the 1985 transportation tax. About two-thirds of the revenues would go to build new highways and streets, to please homebuilders and other growth-boosters, but the leftovers, or about $4.8 billion over the next 20 years, would help expand the regional bus service and add as many as 57 miles of new light rail. Despite conservative lawmakers’ attempts to kill the light rail portion of the fund, the tax passed with 58 percent of the vote. It was a huge victory for transit advocates.

But trouble loomed. Single-family home construction and home prices in the area peaked in 2004 and 2006, respectively, then fell precipitously. By the time the light rail celebrated its grand opening in late 2008, the local housing illness had become a pandemic. Tens of thousands of new homes sat vacant across the greater metro area, their aquamarine pools growing algae and mosquito larvae, their shiny granite countertops a designer playground for the rats that moved in.

It seemed like a terrible time to unveil a huge public infrastructure project, but it helped keep downtown Phoenix afloat as the suburbs were sinking. Last year, the National Association of Realtors found that Phoenix real estate values along the transit-shed performed 37 percent better than they did elsewhere during the downturn, a trend echoed nationwide. And the huge ASU and light rail construction projects kept that industry from collapsing altogether.

Scutari, who was working for the Arizona Department of Transportation when the light rail opened, brought the mayors of Mesa, Tempe and Phoenix together with a representative from the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, which helps fight blight in American cities, to figure out how to use transit to improve things. The result was the Sustainable Communities Collaborative, with Scutari as director and $10 million each from LISC and Raza, a Phoenix-based Hispanic community development fund, to help finance equitable transit-oriented development projects along the light rail. Thus far, projects include a new mixed-use development with 60 housing units just north of downtown Phoenix, a 173-unit apartment complex with 118 affordable units and The Newton, a repurposing of the iconic Beefeaters restaurant into a bookstore, job incubator and bar.

Momentum is building elsewhere. This spring, Tempe voters passed General Plan 2040, shaping the city around light rail, public transit and walk- and bike-ability. Some 20 large construction projects are underway downtown, even as building lags metro-wide, and in August, Tempe issued building permits for 300 housing units, nearly all multi-family structures. Each will use about half the energy and water of a Phoenix-area single-family home.

Scott Smith, the mayor of Mesa from 2008 until this year, led his city from grudgingly tolerating light rail, to embracing it. In 2016, the line will reach the city’s revitalized downtown. After Smith resigned to run for governor this year, pro-light rail candidate John Giles took his place, beating a decidedly suburban candidate who pooh-poohed light rail and higher-density development.

This summer, Phoenix mayor and transit-enthusiast Greg Stanton announced that he’d like to triple the light rail’s current mileage, and began campaigning to extend the 2004 tax for that purpose. The U.S. Department of Transportation responded with a grant to plan a light rail segment reaching into poor neighborhoods south of downtown, where only about half the residents own cars. The metro area is even getting a bike share service this fall.

It’s exciting, says Vera, to see downtown’s empty lots get filled in. “It’s small, entrepreneurial, it’s vibrant, it’s diverse.” It has been a challenge, though, pushing up against the old growth patterns. Most Southwestern cities lack the mechanisms for dealing with this type of infill development. “The existing paradigm, like the houses it creates, is very cookie-cutter. So place-making, doing it well and creatively, is contentious,” says Scutari. And without jobs to accompany the hip new restaurants and apartments, the new developments risk falling into the same category as the old ones: Growth for the sake of growth. There’s not even a real grocery store downtown: The core of the nation’s sixth largest city is officially classified as a food desert.

But, against all odds, Phoenix has a light rail line, and it’s expanding. Since day one, ridership has exceeded expectations, growing from 12.6 million in 2010 to 14 million this year. To celebrate, the acerbic and insightful Seattle Times columnist Jon Talton, who for years lived in and reported on Phoenix, coined a mantra that he proudly invokes: WBIYB, or “We Built It, You Bastards.”

A map for the Denver Tramway system, circa 1933.
Western History/Genealogy Dept. Denver Public Library

It’s only a mile’s walk from my hotel in suburban southeast Denver to the light rail station, but it seems more like 10. I have to cross a gaping boulevard, a freeway on-ramp and off-ramp, neither of which have traffic signals, and navigate a landscape designed for vehicles traveling 40 miles per hour or more. Even the signs for the light rail station are made for drivers, not pedestrians; I struggle to find the entrance.

I’m sweaty and frazzled by the time I board the train. The passengers range from young students with overstuffed backpacks to folks in tidy business attire. It’s busy but not crowded, and as we zip quietly past traffic backed up along the adjacent interstate, it is clear that ridership could and should be higher. Denver’s light rail ranks just 23rd on a trips-per-capita basis, behind Portland, Los Angeles and even Salt Lake City. I wonder if my morning journey explains why.

“Our light rail system is a compromise,” says Gougeon later that morning as we sit in his office in a historic lower downtown building. Now president of the Gates Family Foundation, Gougeon worked in Mayor Peña’s administration, was instrumental in developing the old Stapleton Airport into an urban, mixed-use area and helped spearhead Union Station’s redevelopment. He explains that the light rail manages to avoid most of the neighborhoods that were literally built for transit, the historic areas that grew up around the old streetcar system. Instead, it passes through industrial areas or follows freeways out to the suburbs, with stations plopped down amid streetscapes that are downright hostile to pedestrians. “They have rail service, but the connections are tough because the landscape they serve is not human-scale, not walkable,” says Gougeon.

Therein lies a challenge almost as daunting as getting light rail built in the first place: To retrofit huge deserts of pavement and strip malls in order to make them habitable to those without the internal combustion engine. It requires new zoning and incentives, along with the funding — and the desire — to rejigger all that car-centric infrastructure.

And even when it falls into place, there are problems. Denver’s light rail passes through some of the poorest neighborhoods in the city and even the state, and not all of the changes in store are welcome. “We can think of this as the Portland/Austin model of higher-density hipster development,” says Andrew Kirby, an ASU professor and editor of Current Research on Cities. “It looks great, but it is expensive and displaces blue-collar and minority populations.”

It’s a quandary: Urban revitalization is supposed to improve a neighborhood. But that inevitably increases property values, which leads to gentrification and homogenization, which goes against the community-building efforts’ primary goal. In an effort to have both revitalization and diversity, Denver implemented an ordinance, which was recently upgraded, requiring that a percentage of any new development be affordable. And the Urban Land Conservancy created the Denver Transit Oriented Development Fund to purchase land for affordable housing along the light rail. Scutari’s organization’s raison d’être is to create “equitable” housing, and the city’s Reinvent Phoenix land-use plan strives to rejuvenate neighborhoods while retaining ethnic and income diversity. Yet there’s only so much they can do: In Denver, the millennials who make too much to qualify for low-income housing, but too little to afford luxury condos, have a tough time finding a place to live downtown.

And the suburbs aren’t that cheap, either. A study during the housing boom found that households on the Phoenix fringe spent as much as 70 percent of their income on mortgage plus the gasoline, car payments, insurance and maintenance required to get from their homes to work. Homeowners became “overwhelmed and underwater,” says Scutari. Many lost their homes as a result, some ending up renting single-family homes on nearby cul-de-sacs, their landlords huge investment groups that have bought up thousands of Phoenix homes since the bust.

Glaring brake lights keep time to the start-and-stop rhythm of mid-day traffic on the main drag of Surprise, a west-side Phoenix suburb. I pass giant car dealerships, commercial buildings that have never been occupied, older folks piling into golf carts. A single forlorn pedestrian, a runner, waits at a traffic crossing, gazing sadly out at the sea of cars and exhaust.

I need to get through Surprise to get to Buckeye, because Buckeye, I have heard, is the future.

But when I finally pass the boundary between the two cities, and onto an uncannily un-trafficked, four-lane highway that slices through the desert, I find only the tattered remains of dreams long past.

In 1985, a developer named Robert Burns hatched a plan to build a “community” of 300,000 people out here, some 40 miles west of downtown Phoenix. He’d call it Sun Valley. He convinced the then-small community of Buckeye to annex his tract, and Maricopa County to build the Sun Valley Parkway to access the new city. Then Burns’ vision evaporated into the recession of the 1980s, bankruptcy, foreclosures and lawsuits, and the parkway was re-dubbed the Road to Nowhere. Over the years, more developers followed with their own oversized dreams, and by 2008, Buckeye had approved enough master-planned communities along the Parkway to house hundreds of thousands. In 2006, New York Times columnist David Brooks gazed upon this desert and the developers’ visions for it, and hailed it as the future.

In early 2014, I drive along the still fresh-seeming asphalt of that same road, surrounded by a landscape that looks much as it did 30 years ago. As I listen to a local DJ rave about Phoenix — its perfect weather, cheap housing and low taxes — I spy an island of red-tile roofs in an ocean of mesquite and cacti. It’s Festival Foothills, the only community that got going out here before the bust. Plans called for 24,000 homes; it’s about 23,000 short of that. The gently curving streets are empty, and just a few bikes sit outside the school. A vast lot intended for a grocery store and other businesses is still bare dirt. Brooks’ future remains a mirage.

It’s tempting to see Buckeye’s failure as a sign of a permanent shift, a product of the recession. When the market fell apart, Adele Peters says in Fast Company magazine, “the city learned its lesson and committed to moving in the other direction — walkable neighborhoods connected by public transit.” It’s not a simple either/or proposition, though. The current changes were afoot prior to the recession, and the inclination to sprawl, in both Phoenix and Denver, is still very much alive.

“At the same time that we see urban growth, we’re also seeing low-density, exurban sprawl,” says Goetz. “It’s a contradictory picture.” The number of building permits issued in Buckeye is increasing again, though it’s nowhere near the levels of 2005. Between 2012 and 2013, the fastest-growing places in the U.S. were suburban, not urban, including South Jordan and Lehi, Utah, and Goodyear, Arizona, a suburb of Phoenix. “(Sprawl) is a machine,” says Scutari. “There’s still people who want to live like that. It’s not going to stop.”

Still, the world has changed, and a new Phoenix, and Denver, are rising from the ashes of the recession. People have more choices about how and where they want to live. Not that long ago, they were stuck with a single-family home on some placeless cul-de-sac, or maybe an exurban house with an agonizing commute. Thanks in part to light rail and transit-oriented development, an alternative has emerged, one that, in Scutari’s words, is a bit more “interesting” than nice weather and low taxes.

The question is whether that alternative will draw enough people in, or ripple outward far enough, to affect entire metro areas, not just the urban core. Just try strolling to the grocery store in suburban Denver or anywhere in Phoenix, and you’ll see how high the hurdles remain: The car is still king, the road its kingdom and the parking lot its castle. The pedestrian, meanwhile, is the lowly peasant, and sometimes feels expendable.

Maybe that’s changing, albeit slowly. And Gougeon, for one, has faith.

“In the 1980s, the world ended in Union Station,” he says. “Now it’s the epicenter of the region. That tells me, that in those timeframes, those other places will change, too.”

HCN senior editor Jonathan Thompson writes from Durango, Colorado. Follow him @jonnypeace.

This story was funded with reader donations to the High Country News Research Fund.

This story was originally titled "Transportation Transformation" in the print edition.


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