Transportation lede image


How we get around influences how we live

The primary factor in midcentury urban planning and subsequent flight to the suburbs involves what was then America’s biggest industrial product: the automobile. Highways shortened commutes, encouraged travel, and carved out new neighborhoods (for better or for worse), while creating traffic patterns that still exist to this day.

Now that residents are considering alternate modes of transportation—for speed, for exercise, for the environment—it’s time for a judicious look at car-dependent cities. In Honolulu, local business owners see a new bike lane as a means for saving sidewalk commerce, while Phoenix struggles to adapt to walking and biking under a steadily-intensifying heat dome.


map of phoenix

It is 109 degrees Fahrenheit when I first step onto Phoenix’s Central Avenue. As I take in the first block of what my phone tells me should be an easy nine-minute walk, I see seemingly infinite lanes of asphalt, vast empty sidewalks, and not a sliver of shade.

A few weeks earlier, a high-pressure system that meteorologists christened a “heat dome” had parked itself over the aptly named Valley of the Sun, producing a string of record-breaking temperatures across the state. It was part of a global trend that would lead climatologists to declare 2016 the hottest year in recorded history.

Soon it will be hotter. According to a study published by Nature Climate Change, Phoenix is one of the U.S. cities that will see an exponential increase in the number of 100-plus degree days by the end of the century. An estimated 162 days per year will see temperatures over 100. That means for almost half of the year, it will not just be dangerous for humans to be outdoors, it will be deadly.

I tried to envision this future while walking south on Central, when I started to have a strange sensation, as if I was treading on gum. It was so hot that I could feel the heat of the street radiating onto the soles of my feet.

Left: The light rail approaching on the sidewalk. Right: A pedestrian walking down the sidewalk.
A light-rail train travels down Central Avenue in Phoenix’s downtown. (left); Canopies that create “engineered shade” over sidewalks have become common in a city with 300 days of sunshine. (right)

It’s right about then that I see the biggest challenge facing Phoenix: How do you foster a walkable urban core when the pavement melts your shoes?

On the distant horizon, the train shimmers into view, so out of place that it’s like a mirage. Incredibly, this city of wide streets and suburban sprawl has also nurtured one of the biggest public transportation success stories in the U.S.

Within a year of Phoenix’s light-rail system opening in 2008, ridership had surpassed predictions by one-third. In April of 2016, the system was serving about 54,000 weekday riders, a figure that planners had not expected to reach until 2020.

Riding the light rail—which is, blissfully, air-conditioned—south into downtown, Phoenix is a blur of blue sky and beige buildings. Central Avenue traces a spine along the length of the Phoenix metropolitan area, running uninterrupted for about 20 miles.

It’s not hard to locate it from anywhere in the valley because it’s pretty much the only street that has consistent density: a sandstone canyon of mid- and high-rise structures, set back from the street, the rippling blacktop of parking lots radiating around them.

It’s a visual reminder that, even for all the city’s transit victories, Phoenicians are still firmly stuck in a car-first mindset. I see this in action when I go to lunch with Grady Gammage, Jr., author of The Future of the Suburban City: Lessons from Sustaining Phoenix and an unapologetic booster of the city.

I meet Gammage at the Central Avenue fixture Durant’s, a flocked-wallpapered 1950s-era bunker that feels like it was erected specifically as an antidote to Phoenix’s relentless sun: dim lighting, cool leather banquettes, iceberg wedge salads.

Passengers waiting at a station for the light rail.
Passengers waiting for the light rail at the Van Buren Station. On the right are buildings for Arizona State University, which began relocating several schools from its nearby Tempe campus to downtown Phoenix in 2006.

Since I’m arriving from the light rail station, I enter using the front door. “It occurs to me that Durant’s is a perfect metaphor for changes in Phoenix,” Gammage says, laughing. “No one has used the door from the street for decades. It’s been the entrance from the parking lot and through the kitchen that mattered. Maybe now, with light rail, that’s changing.”

We ask the hostess how many people use the front door now. She estimates I was the fifth person this year.

I blink in the late afternoon glare as I stare down Central, squinting at what I think is the local bus. Sweat streams down my forehead as I attempt to align my body with the shade of a telephone pole.

The Heat has become a secondary character during my visit, a nefarious meddler mentioned in nearly every conversation. We can’t eat outside due to The Heat. We should wait until The Heat dies down. How are you coping with The Heat? So when I show up on a Monday evening for the weekly walk event Meet Me Downtown and the temperature is still hovering at 102, my expectations for encountering any fellow participants are very, very low.

Yet here they are. At 5:00 p.m. on the dot, there are dozens of Phoenicians circling the back bar at Copper Blues, on the corner of Central and Jefferson. Some in Spandex and Nikes, yes, but many in work wear and sensible walking shoes.

“Why wouldn’t people walk in Phoenix?” asks Joseph Perez, the city’s boisterous bike coordinator, who has every reason to be bullish about the city’s potential.

The Phoenix native is helping to fulfill a comprehensive complete streets mandate from Mayor Greg Stanton, laying down the bike and pedestrian infrastructure that will get people out of their cars, and hopefully onto the city’s sidewalks and nascent bike-sharing system, Grid.

“The challenge in Phoenix is the engineered streetscape and connectivity,” he says. “We used to have buildings with canopies. Now we have developers who build rows and rows of single-family homes that make walking to the store or school a lengthy experience. We need to be more mindful of how complementary land uses should connect.”

A view of the city from the desert.
Standing in South Mountain Park, you can see Central Avenue slice through Phoenix and continue uninterrupted to North Mountain Park in the distance.

As we head up Central, he shows me how Phoenix had designed solutions for keeping pedestrians cool for nearly a century. On a handful of the city’s oldest buildings, there are still some covered pedestrian arcades and evidence of awnings that once stretched the width of a sidewalk.

We stop in the lobby of the Hotel San Carlos—the first fully air-conditioned hotel in Phoenix when it was completed in 1926—where a grainy film of Central Avenue (then Center Street) in 1930 plays on a tiny screen: Pedestrians stride across the bustling block, and a streetcar rattles down the middle. By 1948, the streetcar was abandoned.

And in 2016, a summer evening walk in downtown Phoenix means we must incorporate contemporary versions of cooling infrastructure, hopscotching from public plaza splash pad to pool deck with patio misters to a cavernous speakeasy-like bar that is literally underground.

At first, I feel like I’ve signed up for a SoulCycle class held in an industrial furnace when I join a group bike ride later that evening. But of all the transportation methods that are not particularly well-suited to The Heat, a bike seat offers several benefits.

The terrain is mostly flat, which means minimal exertion and a built-in breeze. The city is a grid so it’s easy to navigate. And two-thirds of the year—or so I hear—the weather is absolutely perfect.

Left: Public art above Civic Space Park. Right: Two bicycles at a grid bike station.
Janet Echelman’s Her Secret Is Patience hovers in the sky above Civic Space Park (left); a Grid bike station on Central Avenue (right).

These sentiments, as well as some criticisms, are echoed by my fellow cyclists, like Karen Voyer-Caravona. She started the blog She Rides a Bike after moving from Flagstaff to document her adventures on a Brompton folding bike.

“I’m not ready to categorize Phoenix as a great place to walk or bike,” she says. Not that it’s dangerous, but because the city hasn’t yet made a sweeping gesture to people like her.

“Phoenix needs to go all-in with bike and pedestrian infrastructure,” she says. “We obsess about creating abundant parking but not safe streets. We have very wide roads, carrying lots of cars, at a high rate of speed. Or we have very wide roads, carrying not that many cars.”

As we ride, Central provides the perfect illustration for the problems that Voyer-Caravona outlines. We easily swarm a lane of traffic, the light rail pulling ahead of us like a pace car. The roadway, which is up to six lanes wide at some points, gives cars plenty of room—maybe too much room, I think, as cars careen by. But during much of our ride, Phoenix’s main street is completely empty.

At the northern edge of Phoenix’s downtown, at the center of a large park, Central Avenue reaches a very gradual apex. It’s more like a knoll, and unless you’re pedaling a bike or really paying attention as the light rail rolls over it, you’ll barely notice.

Below this nearly imperceptible rise is the I-10 freeway, which is, for the most part, an unremarkable, very wide interstate. But in 1990, it was tunneled underground for about six blocks here to create Hance Park, preserving cultural institutions, historic neighborhoods, and invaluable green space.

It’s a reminder that Central Avenue has always been a testing ground for transportation innovation. And you can see that best in a revised vision for Phoenix’s transportation future, the T2050 plan. In 2015, voters approved the plan, which includes major transit investments as well as 1,080 miles of bike lanes and 135 miles of sidewalks.

For reference, compare the commuting ratio in Phoenix () to your zip code, .

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It also means an extension of the light rail, which is critical because it will finally connect Phoenix’s most transit-dependent residents to jobs, says Silvia Urrutia, director of housing for the Raza Development Fund, which helps finance developments for Latino and low-income families.

Because the light rail first opened at the height of the recession, there was little to no speculative development tied to transit. “We were the only people building,” says Urrutia.

Which was good for affordable housing, but bad for the overall density the corridor needs. Now Urrutia has the ability to plan ahead—she’s working on an 82-acre former brownfield on Central near the Salt River which will become Plaza de las Culturas, a sustainable mixed-use development with schools, housing, and small businesses that will provide a physical hub for the community.

The question that keeps the project focused: “How can we connect what we’re doing with the rail?”

On its very hottest days, the desert acts like a vacuum, sucking in humid air from the coast. This is called “monsoonal moisture,” and can manifest as extreme weather events, like brief torrential rainstorms called microbursts.

When I see the dark curtains descend upon the city, I tilt my face up, expecting the first drops of liquid refreshment from the sky. Instead my cheeks are slapped with sand. This is a haboob, Phoenix’s version of a dust storm, where swirling walls of dirt preface the sheets of water.

Incongruously, about half of Phoenix’s annual rainfall falls during its warmest months, but because it falls so fast, most of it disappears as urban runoff (the kind that meanders into dry washes and can cause flash floods). On many streets there are several inches of standing water, spraying high arcs onto the sidewalk as I ride my Grid bike over the steamy asphalt.

The best place to see how a swatch of green changes everything is at the corner of Central and Taylor. Civic Space Park acts as a giant rain garden, allowing water to slowly percolate back into the ground.

It’s also one of the few spots on Central you’ll see inviting grass and feathery trees as well as an aggressive shade program: a series of contemporary pergolas cover the sidewalks, Grid bike kiosks, and Arizona State University’s main light-rail station.

Trees providing shade at downtown's Taylor Mall.
The native trees and shady sidewalks of downtown’s Taylor Mall provide a vision for how Central could be reimagined.

This type of “engineered shade” is a big topic in town, and no one thinks about it more than the city’s arborist, Richard Adkins. He thinks Central represents the biggest opportunity in Phoenix.

Although parts of the street are well-shaded, most of Central is lined in ornamental palm trees—some of which are historically protected—that are too tall to provide much relief. But the solution isn’t simply to fill in the gaps with more trees, says Adkins. What Central needs is a true desert canopy.

To maximize the shading effect as well as the sparse resources, Adkins envisions Central’s shade being clustered into what he calls “plant guilds.” Plant guilds are better for conservation—watering several plants at once makes far more sense than dispersing it across a quickly evaporating atmosphere—and for budget-strapped maintenance.

But it’s also about permaculture: orchestrating specific, customized ecosystems that help each species thrive. “It’s oases,” he says. “That’s how deserts work.”

On my way back to Central, I recognize a velvet mesquite, the city’s most common tree, from an illustration in Adkins’ office. The tree looks scruffy, but standing beneath it, the air is unmistakably cooler.

I pause, just long enough to imagine this version of Central. Medians as wildlife habitats. Intersections as planted parkways. Transit stops as microforests. Refreshed, I continue my journey.

Alissa Walker is the urbanism editor at Curbed. She lives in Los Angeles where she loves to take the train, ride bikes, and walk. Follow her at @awalkerinLA.


map of honolulu

To the uninitiated, Hawaii and its capital city don’t conjure a vision of automobile exhaust. But the narrow core of Honolulu, squeezed between an impassable mountain range and the Pacific Ocean, boasts one of the highest-priced housing markets in the country, and with it, an ever-growing population of drivers.

At almost 400,000 residents, Hawaii’s most populous city—which seems to sprout new, high-end condos overnight—relies heavily on South King Street, a nearly laser straight, one-way high-speed conduit from Iolani Palace, former seat of government for the Kingdom of Hawaii, to the University of Hawaii.

A view down King Street towards a couple of new condo buildings.
Looking south toward King Street from Piikoi Street in Honolulu. The glassy towers of the luxury Moana Pacific condo development rise in the distance.

When the five lanes of King Street are taken with the five lanes of its opposing sister street, South Beretania, this primary transit corridor has more lanes than the H-1 interstate, the busiest of the island’s three freeways.

Nonetheless, South King Street is the birthplace of enduring Hawaiian icons, ground zero for battles over transportation and access, and current player of a pivotal role in the future of community in Honolulu.

The 21st century in the Islands has, and is, seeing an explosion of development, with ocean-view luxury megastructures sprouting up faster than tropical weeds, and desirable units getting snapped up overnight. Concrete and glass towers line the world-famous coastlines, while hopeful homeowners engage in bidding wars over multi-million-dollar mountain rainforest residences.

In the middle of all of this, South King Street, through a combination of zoning, restrictions, and family and community ownership, has, on the surface, remained largely unchanged.

Long before someone even thought up the idea of an interstate, King Street was the main thoroughfare in the city. This is the road down which, in 1899, the first two cars in Hawaii were test-driven at a speed of eight miles an hour. The Hawaii Gazette was pleased to note that the automobiles “appeared to excite no undue attention from horses.”

A tree in front of the exterior of Precision Radio, which closed earlier this year and the building is now for sale.
Precision Radio opened shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor and moved into this building on King Street in 1955. But after a drop in sales, the business closed earlier this year. The building is currently for sale.

1901 shook King Street up with the introduction of electric streetcars, a futuristic contraption that created an uproar of protests among the horse taxi drivers. The streetcars would end their service less than six months before the attack on Pearl Harbor, when the U.S. entered WWII.

But, for a period, the avenue was a quintessentially multimodal corridor, one that would make any modern-day creative urbanite swoon: a bustling artery brimming with horse-drawn taxis, electric automobiles, sparking streetcars, trundling bicycles and dapper pedestrians. In what today would be called transit-oriented development, mom-n-pop shops, homes, and community nodes sprung up along both sides of the street.

Then something changed. In the new millennium, restaurant and shop closures read like obituaries in regular intervals on the front page. What happened?

A path snakes through the museum-like vacuum cleaner showroom. An example of the first vacuum ever made hangs on the wall above an elderly gentleman quietly dozing in the corner, while the shop owner looks up with a greeting from the disassembled motor on his counter.

Barry Schneider’s repair shop, Filter Queen of Hawaii, has sat on the corner of King and Pensacola since his father, the gentleman sleeping against the wall, set up shop in 1953, one year after he was discharged from the military.

The exterior of Filter Queen of Hawai‘i, from the sidewalk.
The exterior of Filter Queen of Hawai‘i, which has been on King Street since it opened in 1953.

Barry started working, officially, for his father Norman in 1977, but he’s been haunting the nooks and crannies between vacuum parts all his life. Barry can draw a map from memory of all of the locally-owned shops and restaurants that lined King Street a good 30 years ago: Wisteria Restaurant with its fresh green sea turtle steaks, or the iconic Washington Saimin, which closed in 2003 after losing a battle against fast-food chain restaurants.

To the Schneiders and their employees, King Street has always been a family neighborhood. In the old days, some of the staff lived nearby, and would walk the few short blocks from boarding houses. Even today, most of the shop’s loyal customers are from the surrounding area and the Schneiders, in turn, make an effort to patronize neighboring local businesses.

It’s a small community in this age of King-Street-as-automobile-corridor, but it’s one in whose character the Schneiders are invested in preserving. In fact, when a nearby restaurant attempted to get a liquor license, the family signed a petition to block it. They didn’t want the street to turn into “another Ke‘eaumoku,” a street known for bars, strip clubs, and sporadic violence.

Still, Bruce Onouye, a long time employee of Filter Queen of Hawai‘i, fears that the sense of community will continue to decline, despite their efforts and petitions. “There’s no more “aloha” anymore,” he bemoans, adding that the whole culture and climate of the neighborhood has shifted to suit the modern rat race. “People gotta make a living, working two jobs to live in Hawaii.”

The median home price for this area of Honolulu is over $600,000, meaning that even with a 30-year mortgage, a family would face a minimum payment of around $3,000 a month.

In this area of Honolulu (zip code ), the median home price is . With an average family income of , the prospect of a family spending over half their monthly take-home on housing becomes very real. (Compare to your zip code, , which has a median home price of and a medium household income of .)

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“People are in too much of a rush to get where they’re going,” agrees Schneider. “When people have more leisure time, they’re more relaxed.” Words to consider from a content shop owner, who takes a five-minute commute to a job he’s passionate about.

The Schneiders may be enjoying a picturesque sense of community, reminiscent of the Street’s glory days of yore—but for the 54 percent of the population that has to face the daily, near hour-long commute through some of the worst traffic in the nation, things look considerably less rosy.

A view from the street of The Punahou Auto Service, the exterior is blue steel scraps that were initially salvaged from Pearl Harbor.
The Punahou Auto Service shop at Punahou and King Street. When World War II ended, Koon Hoy Ho built Punahou Auto Service with steel scraps he salvaged from Pearl Harbor, where he had worked as a mechanic during the war.

From the neighboring Punahou Auto Service, a corrugated steel structure that sits on the corner of Punahou and King Street, fellow business owner Malcolm Ho has seen firsthand the economic and social changes to King Street’s community.

Physically, Ho says King Street looks much the same as it did decades ago, when he took over from his father in 1983. Ho believes that modern building regulations, while generally considered positive for place-making, are to blame for the stagnation, in this case.

According to Ho, any changes to these old buildings would void grandfather clauses that exempt the owners from requirements, such as 15-feet of green space setback, or an increased number of parking stalls. While the street and structures haven’t changed, the people and sense of community have.

Currently, the street itself is zoned industrial, but in a teeny city like Honolulu, industrial and residential neighborhoods with culturally distinct boundaries often stand shoulder to shoulder, a few steps away from each other.

A cyclist riding on the bike lane on King Street.
A cyclist using the bike lanes on King Street.

Two-story walk-ups and war-era single-family homes border the road on parallel streets a block to the North and South. The Ho family lived on King Street themselves with Ho’s early memories involving foraging for fruits and exploring culverts under the road by torchlight.

The two-mile-long King Street Protected Bicycle Lane, which opened in 2014, has been a point of contention with its removal of one lane of vehicle traffic and the, occasionally literal, friction between people on bicycles and people in cars.

Daniel Alexander, Advocacy, Planning, and Communication Director for the Hawaii Bicycling League, explains that King Street is intended to be the central spine of a future “minimum grid” of bicycle infrastructure that connects people to places, while fostering interactions.

“People need to have a paradigm shift where they no longer see their commute as wasted dead space,” says Alexander. For those traveling by bicycle, there are opportunities to engage: to stop and talk to friends on the route, perhaps. Or, even to discover small hidden treasures, like a bagpipe group that’s been practicing in a neighborhood parking garage for the past 30 years.

For Alexander, “[The bike lane] is one of the lowest-stress riding environments in Honolulu. I noticed, without me thinking about it, that my speed drops when I get onto King. I don’t feel the need to race to maintain speed with the cars tailing me.”

McCully Bicycle and Sporting Goods was started in 1923 by Giyei Takayesu, and it has been serving the King Street community since 1971. The shop grew out of a gas station that sold fishing poles and repaired bikes near a sugar plantation in Waipahu, and business expanded steadily after World War II, with each generation of the Takayesu family working in the shop. The current location is the third incarnation of the store.

Ryan Takayesu, Giyei’s great grandson, grew up around the shop and is now the manager. In an era of big box stores with liberal return policies and online retailers with one-click free shipping, it’s difficult for a brick-and-mortar shop to survive.

He talks of the street’s supportive community, in which “some people would buy local no matter what—but we want to earn it.” Their family business has managed to outlast the Sports Authority several blocks to the west, which closed, along with all of the retailer’s Hawaii stores in 2016.

Given the new bike lane, it’s important for the Hawaii Bicycling League to win over business owners. “There is tension between the big transportation corridor view and the reality of the vibrant small business community,” says Alexander. “You can get almost anything you’d ever want on King Street, but a lot of shops are so small that you only notice them if you’re trying.”

With a bicycle, a small amount of input energy yields a multiplied output. Seeing families biking together within the concrete barriers of the bright green lane, one can’t help but wonder if some paint and concrete could, likewise, really be the catalyst that reverses the perceived decline of this community.

The corner of King Street, Punahou Auto Service with modern buildings behind it.
Malcolm Ho, owner of the Punahou Auto Service, believes modern building regulations are to blame for stagnation along King Street.

“One thing’s for sure,” says Barry Schneider, “the bike lane has allowed us to meet a lot of eccentric characters.”

It’s difficult to talk about King Street and focus on only one aspect. Lines of community, transportation, development and economics weave through the business dynasties of the past, and new business owners who have yet to become moms and pops themselves.

Decades from now, a new generation will come to the owners of King Street, full of questions about life here at the turn of the century and about what they see for the future of transportation and society.

What does the future hold? Will the King Street Protected Bike Lane be the savior or destroyer of its host community?

The verdict is still out, but Malcolm Ho seems to greet it all with a shrug. “I don’t think it’s going to change much,” he says of King Street, as he heads to the gate to close up for the day. Beyond him, Honoluluians pass by in cars, on bicycles and by foot, winding their way through the city. “People are adaptable,” he says, as he locks his door.

Natalie Schack is a fashion- and film-obsessed Oahu girl who spends her time writing, eating, crafting, and scheming her way through the island’s mountains, gardens, and city streets. Taylor Ellis is the Transportation Alternatives Program Manager for the Oahu Metropolitan Planning Organization whose hobby is navigating difficult and dangerous places.

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