Global travel. On local public transportation.

Phoenix: In the desert, no-one can hear you take the tram

July 5, 2011 Markus Seppälä

Phoenix: In the desert, no-one can hear you take the tram

When I mentioned I’d be heading for Phoenix, Arizona, the first thing they said was “bring a car”. Now this one I’d heard before. Often from Americans, often from Australians. But everywhere I’ve ever been, I’ve managed just fine without a driver’s license (and consequently, without a car). Had I finally met my match in Phoenix?

When arriving at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, I was looking for one thing. Sleep. The LAX-PHX flight I just stepped off was only the last sector of a my flight from Queenstown, New Zealand via Auckland. SuperShuttle to the rescue for a USD 13 ride to the motel.

Hot, empty streets – what’s the connection?

Two things hit me next day. One was the heat. The other was the emptiness. Yes, Phoenix in summer is hot. But 100°F in early April, now that was a little much. It was the earliest 100°F ever, they said on the news.

Speaking of heat, here are a few scenes from the desert around the Desert Botanical Garden:

And maybe the heat explains the second observation: there were no people around. Not on Friday. Not on Saturday. Not on Sunday – downtown Phoenix was completely deserted. And it wasn’t even vacation time. I do know the downtown areas of many American cities are kind of quiet in the weekend. But this, this was something entirely new to me.

The friendly folks at the Phoenix Convention Center were not as surprised as me though. I learned that the number one driver for traffic in downtown is conventions, and there were none going on at the time.

Follow the tram to the people…

Now, it is true that Phoenix is very car-friendly. In fact, it’s the most car-centric city I’ve visited to date. This doesn’t mean that you have to have a car, but there is no doubt it would help if you’re going anywhere off the beaten track.

However, chances are that you’ll do just fine with the brand-new Valley Metro Light Rail. It connects Phoenix to two of the other cities that make up the Phoenix metropolitan area, namely Tempe and Mesa. It’s air-conditioned, clean, quiet, and runs frequently. At USD 1.75 for a single ride, it’s also a bargain.

This one rail line is also the answer to where all the people are: Downtown Tempe is clearly the place to go in the weekends. Here’s where the restaurants, the bars, and the frozen-yoghurt-by-the-ounce places are. And they’re packed.

… and all the way to the gate

The best thing about the light rail is that is stops at the Sky Harbor airport station. From here, shuttle buses run to the terminals all the time. As I was only about five blocks from the light rail stop, this is how I got the airport on my last day. The low floor on the tram made bringing my 27-kg suitcase extra easy.

Can everybody travel?

I wasn’t able to leave Phoenix without a bit of a culture clash, right at the very end. I was telling the shuttle bus driver about my trip. How I had just come from Australia and New Zealand, and how I was on my way to Sweden. He asks me: “How can you afford this kind of travel? Are you independently wealthy or something?” I was taken aback. World travel is hardly uncommon for people in economically developed counties, and for a guy who works at the airport, I’m sure I wasn’t his first overseas passenger. I suppose the difference is that while a guy driving a bus in Sweden can save up for a round-the-world trip, by the sounds of it, a guy doing the same job here perhaps cannot. The Arizona minimum wage is USD 7.35 an hour.

, , , Canon PowerShot G12, North America, Tram

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