You've lived in Phoenix for so long that you still jump when you see one of the long, silver light-rail cars coming toward you in traffic. You've had rainbow sunsets and prairie dogs and Ladmo, but you've never had real public transportation before — certainly not the kind that comes right down the six-lane surface road you use to get to work. You're not sure what to make of it.
But you want to be a sport. And so, a year and a half after its launch, you're about to ride light rail for the first time. You're not going anywhere in particular, but you want to know what it's like to be inside one of the cars that have startled you so and that frankly look out of place in your vision of this cowtown where you've lived your whole life. You're hoping that riding light rail will reveal to you that Phoenix has, at last, turned into the metropolis it keeps claiming it's about to become. Being on public transportation — possibly even standing up, holding onto a leather strap attached to the ceiling! — will feel very Big City to you, and you'll at last be transported from a sprawling and badly planned Western town to a big, shiny city full of blasé corporate types impatiently taking business calls or staring straight ahead, acting aloof, which you consider very cosmopolitan.
You buy a ticket printed with a jaunty cactus from a kiosk in what used to be the median at Central Avenue and Lynwood Street, and then stare at the waist-high dead weeds in the vacant lot next to the library until a shiny train comes whooshing into the station. As you step onto the half-empty car, you can't help being a little excited that you now live in a city where a shiny train comes whooshing into a station.
The first thing you notice is that the inside of the light-rail car is nice and cool; next, you notice that the floor is sticky. Someone has spilled soda pop or iced tea, and a puddle of the brown liquid moves from one side of the car to the next as the train begins its journey up Central.
No one asks you for your ticket. You watch people get off at each of the half-mile stops, and no one asks them for a ticket, either. You make a mental note not to bother buying a $3.50 fare next time you feel like playing Big City; apparently, they're not necessary.
You sit down across from a large brown man who's fast asleep. In front of him, a girl with rows of tiny silver hoops piercing her eyebrows holds an infant. You realize you were expecting more briefcases and suits and fewer backpacks and cargo shorts. A real city would have a light rail full of businesspeople on their way back to the office after a harried lunch meeting uptown. Probably they would be reading the Wall Street Journal or maybe Virginia Woolf. Here, everyone is either texting or sleeping. It's unclear where they're going in their slogan T-shirts and their flip-flops. Not back to any corporate setting, that's for sure. Where are all the women in power suits and sneakers, their pumps stashed in their chic bag? You saw that all the time when you used to work in D.C.
You are looking out the window at the same old businesses flashing by. Why did you think they'd look different as seen from light rail? And where will you end up if you just stay on until the car stops heading north? The pamphlet you picked up at the station says that only 20 of light rail's proposed 57 miles are being serviced now. Eventually, you read, you'll be able to travel south into Tempe; northeast into Paradise Valley; even connect with the West Valley via a new route that will utilize an expanded I-10. Today, you can mostly just go from downtown to midtown and back again. If you want to take light rail to the airport, you have to get off at 44th Street and take a shuttle — at least until Sky Harbor completes its elevated train system in another three years. Bummer.
You have a lot of light-rail questions. Like, Why are the seats upholstered? Wouldn't it be cheaper to install seats that can be wiped down, rather than unhygenically fabric-covered? And where are the ceiling straps for smartly dressed commuters to hang onto? And why is it called light rail? Is it because it offers all the transportation and half the calories?
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("Actually," you are told later, when you telephone a woman named Hillary Foose, who's paid by the city to answer questions about public transportation, "it's called that because there's also a mode of high-capacity transit called heavy rail, which doesn't share its track with traffic. This is the lighter version of that." Oh.)
You decide that you'll feel more Big City if you get off at Central Avenue and Camelback and walk over to that antique mall next to A.J.'s, then across the street to that nice new bistro for a late lunch. But when you step off the car and onto the light-rail platform, you're blasted with hot air and remember that walking anywhere, even across the street — it's 114 degrees today, according to your wristwatch — is out of the question.
And so you cross the tracks to the side that will take you back to your car, which you've left parked at a restaurant on Lynwood Street. While you wait for the southbound light-rail car, you perspire. A lot. You remember reading about the time and effort put into designing the train stations to make them as comfortable as possible, with solar-reflective paints and seats that are resistant to heat absorption. But this is the desert; only the surface of the sun (and, occasionally, Blythe) is hotter in July. And you know about the recent service cuts made to light rail, which takes 75 percent of its funding from sales tax revenue, and how the lousy economy has caused light rail to trim its peak service hours and its every-10-minutes pickup times to every 12 minutes. Suddenly, in this heat, those extra two minutes matter.
And it suddenly occurs to you that you're outside in Phoenix in July, which is something that Phoenicians rarely do willingly. And you understand why there are so few businesspeople using light rail to get to work: We are desert rats. If we arrived here from some other, more temperate place, we long ago got out of the habit of getting anywhere by any method other than our nicely air-conditioned automobiles. We don't run around in three-digit temperatures in our business suits, grabbing public transportation at stations that are blocks (or even miles) from our destination. And you wonder: Will we learn to use light rail seasonally, like air-conditioning and windshield screens? Or is it too late for us to change? Will we remain a city full of people who admire light rail as it crawls past us in traffic, waiting for it to wow us with something bigger than a 20-mile, up-and-around path through select parts of town?