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Transportation Evolution Brings Opportunity

By Roland Murphy for Arizona Builder’s Exchange

Even though Metro Phoenix is, arguably, second only to Greater Los Angeles as America’s most entrenched “car city,” the area and the state have made major strides in recent years to expand commuters’ options, create alternative-friendly systems and improve safety for drivers, pedestrians and cyclists alike. This has yielded major opportunity for companies that create the infrastructure those changes depend on.

Taking into account only the light rail system, more than $8.2B in development investment took place within a half mile of new and planned lines in the first 10 years of its creation. When other factors, such as design and development to improve walkability, bicycling and other alternative modes of transportation, are taken into account, the investment and development dollars increase even more significantly.

Walkability

In 2015, as part of the Reinvent PHX initiative, the city implemented a Walkable Urban Code as part of its zoning process, focusing on making walking a safer and more attractive option in and near light rail-served districts. Planning and zoning are now required to address issues such as shade, building setbacks, parking and landscaping to accommodate walkers’ needs, and city planning staff has been granted flexibility to review and modify designs for a more transit-oriented environment.

The changes haven’t gone unnoticed. Walk Score rates cities by how easy it is, in general, for people to address their daily needs (shopping, services, entertainment, etc.) without a car, taking into account a given location’s proximity to amenities and access to well-planned walkways, public transit and bicycle-friendliness. Tempe, Tucson and Phoenix top the list in the state.

The Rise of the Bike

Phoenix and other cities have also dedicated significant resources to accommodate cyclists. These include lower speed limits, wider roads and more dedicated bike lines throughout the area.

The Valley is not alone. According to a recent article in Curbed, a publication focused on alternative transportation, 2016 was a year with, “Lots of inspiring moments,” for cities across the country.

One of the foremost areas of improvement was the inclusion of separated infrastructure for cars and bikes in urban planning and infrastructure development. This includes dedicated bike signals, protected intersections, more bike parking and physical separation of car and bicycle traffic lanes.

Show Us the Money

As is often the case, funding for alternative transportation infrastructure has proven key to its successful implementation. In 2015 Phoenix voters passed Proposition 104, a 35-year sales tax to fund light rail expansion, enhance bus service and increase street improvements. The tax serves as the foundation for the city’s $31.5B transportation plan, which is also partly funded by fares and federal grants.

In 2016, according to Curbed, other states and cities across the country followed suit, approving $200B in funding solely for transportation initiatives covering the gamut from expanded light rail and subway service to infrastructure plans specifically targeting biking and walking.

Bike sharing programs are another area in which the Valley is keeping up with or even ahead of the curve. The Grid Bike service, where users reserve and rent a bicycle, use it, and then return it to any of several locations around town for the next rider, was implemented in Phoenix in 2014, expanded to Mesa in 2016 and will launch in Tempe this spring.

Curbed notes these services expanded their coverage all across the county in 2016, and projects the economic development that accompanies the services could save Americans up to $5B per year.

A Proving Ground for the Next Wave

The last cog in meshing together an overview of Arizona’s progress in non-traditional transportation comes with a lot of hype and a lot of concern: Driverless cars.

Once just a “someday” trope of mediocre science fiction, investment in automated vehicles – and the improvements that often accompany heavy backing capital – have expanded geometrically over the past decade.

Google began experimenting with driverless cars in 2009 and gave its first official fully-autonomous, driverless ride in 2012. The company has since spun off it’s driverless vehicle efforts into a subsidiary known as Waymo and has tested extensively in Arizona.

That’s due, in large part, to Governor Doug Ducey’s enthusiastic support for the technology. At a public event in Chandler a few weeks ago, he took a ride in a Waymo vehicle in Chandler to tout both the service and the state’s commitment to the technology’s future.

Ducey has also long-championed ride-share services such as Uber and Lyft, even going so far as to push for an expansion in the traditionally tight permitting system that lets car service companies pick up riders at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. Uber is another leader in pursuing automated vehicles, having invested heavy in the technology as its next wave of service.

The governor’s twin enthusiasms meshed together last year when California revoked the vehicle registration for Uber’s self-driving vehicles. The company almost immediately announced it was expanding its test program in Arizona, even as it continues to work with California to sort out its test program.

Companies’ efforts to push the limits of the evolving technology can expect ongoing support from the state. During the buildup to the Waymo test ride, Ducey said in a statement, “I can think of no better place to push the boundaries and test those limits than right here in Arizona.”

What It All Means

What do all these changes mean for AEC in the Valley and across the state?

Opportunity.

In the realm of transportation alone, advocacy group Arizona Forward projects a total needed investment of $88.9B between 2015 and 2035. Even though the projected actual budget allocations are far less, $26.2B, and the gap is a significant source of concern for planners, that’s still an exceptionally large pie for industry to consider.

When additional opportunities associated with transportation and walkable/bike-able development are factored in, such as specialized design services, multi-component development (mixed-use, live/work/play, etc.), custom building services, technology components and the actual implementation of infrastructure, it becomes apparent that embracing change, in both the industry and the overall culture, can be an important path forward for design and development firms across Arizona.

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