Phoenix Light Rail Commute: Drawbacks Make it a Tough Choice for Some

The problems begin with the bike ride to the platform at 3rd Street and Mill Avenue. Though that part of the commute only took six minutes, the prep work involved can't be underestimated. Even a short bike ride requires a few steps: Backpack, shoes (to replace biking cleated shoes once at work), leg cuff banded to prevent black grease on dress pants, MP3 player charged and earbuds in.

The wait at the platform was a brief four minutes. But the bicycle racks in the car we got into was already full. It's a hassle for other people with the bicycle not a in rack, so we decide to get off at the next stop and move up a car, hoping to find a free rack. The doors of trains close too quickly, however -- we missed the train.

While waiting at Center and Washington, we noticed that the platform clocks were set to different times -- one was off by a few minutes. It reminded us of a speed-of-light thought experiment: If the train pulled away from one end of the station faster than the speed of light, it would arrive at the far end before it even began. You have time to ponder such things while waiting for a train.

The next car was packed with Christian schoolgirls ranging in age from about 8 to teen years, many of whom chose to ignore the few empty seats and spread out on the floor and near the bike rack area. With all the chatting and giggling, the ambience was less business class and more party bus. One of the moms told us the group was on its way to a citizenship ceremony in downtown Phoenix, where they were planning to watch a Brazilian teacher from the school become naturalized.

We were 15 feet from the bike rack when the doors closed, but it's a dicey situation maneuvering the bike past the other riders and onto the rack while the train is moving. We're forced to ask a woman sitting on the flat surface under the bike rack to relocate -- she says she didn't know she was in the bike area. (That flat spot isn't the best seat because it attracts grease from the suspended bicycles).

It's best to wait for a stop to put a bike in the rack -- it's a two-handed operation that's nearly impossible if the train is jerking to and fro. A small hook holds up the bike from its front rim as both wheels rest on a vertical strip of aluminum. Getting off with the bike requires staying alert. If you don't have your hands on the bike, ready to pull it off the rack just as the train arrives at your stop, there's a good chance you aren't going to make it out before the doors close. As we exited the car, we noticed a young man who had also just emerged sit down and put on a pair of roller skates. We're not the only ones, it seems, for whom walking to and from a light rail station takes too much time.

Altogether, the amount of time the commute took from door-to-door, including the bike ride and waiting at the station (not including our brief screw-up in missing a train) was reasonable. The light rail travels up to 40 mph with fewer interruptions at stoplights than a motor vehicle. However, it's still much slower than commuting by vehicle when you take all factors into account, even though our car route to work is virtually identical to the light rail route. A major difference is that the light rail doesn't cut through the airport like we do most days.

For a busy parent, even one who lives and works close to the light rail line, the lost time in messing around with the light rail is an unacceptable sacrifice.

Surprisingly, at $2.50 for an all-day pass the light rail also costs more than it does to drive our SUV, which gets horrendous mileage. That will remain a fact as long as gas stays below last year's prices. At $4.50 a gallon, light rail fare would look pretty good. But an expected hike in light rail fares coming down the tracks might double the cost of an all-day pass, making the SUV the cheaper alternative again.

Our experience was highly subjective -- for some, light rail is the perfect transit choice. For instance, one of our former journalism professors lives in a condo right next to a station, and his workplace is also next to a station. A train trip takes much less time with no secondary leg of the commute, like a bike ride or significant walk. Naturally, the light rail is a godsend if you don't have a car.

Other problems or advantages may come into play for your light rail experience. We'll try it a few more times -- until the summer heat sets in, anyway. 

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.