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The Shaping of a ‘20-Minute City’

Aiming to build an efficient, sustainable and multi-modal transportation system, Tempe, Ariz., is taking a particularly comprehensive approach.

A bus in Tempe, Ariz.
(Flickr/Laguna Beach Bikini)
Over the last century, most American cities have been designed and built out around the car as the primary mode of transportation. For many decades, until its own growth began clogging roads and intruding too heavily on neighborhoods, the individually owned automobile was a robust solution. Today, escalating traffic congestion is making our cities less livable. Residents' demands for greater mobility are making this issue a priority for mayors across the county.

Due to varying population densities, economic resources, weather and legacy infrastructure, no two communities will take the same approach. One that is tackling the problem head-on is Tempe, Ariz. As this interview with Mayor Mark Mitchell and the city's sustainability program manager, Braden Kay, shows, Tempe is using a variety of approaches. It's pursuing regional transit coordination, serving as a testbed for new technologies and focusing on long-range mobility solutions.

Tempe has a goal of becoming what's known in transportation and planning circles as a "20-minute city" -- one with a vibrant mix of commercial, recreational, civic and residential establishments that for most residents are within a one-mile walking distance, a four-mile bicycle ride or a 20-minute transit trip. Yet getting people out of their cars when it's over 100 degrees outside, as is so frequently the case in the Phoenix region, will make this a real challenge. Time, of course, will tell whether Tempe's approach is successful. But as a statement of work in progress, it's clear that Tempe's leaders are willing to break new ground. Moreover, their results may eventually serve as a model of how to plan and build a comprehensive, multi-modal transportation system.

Mark Mitchell is a third-generation Arizonan with deep roots in the Tempe community. Before being elected mayor in 2012, he served three four-year terms on the city council. He is on the board of directors of the Greater Phoenix Economic Council and serves as Tempe's representative on the regional council of the Maricopa Association of Governments (MAG).

As Tempe's sustainability program manager, Braden Kay works with city departments on reaching sustainability targets in energy, transportation, waste, water, land use, local food, housing and social issues. He holds a Ph.D. from Arizona State University's School of Sustainability and served previously as the sustainability manager for Orlando, Fla.

Here, edited for length and clarity, are excerpts from the interview:

Would you give an overview of Tempe's current transportation environment?

Mark Mitchell: We're very fortunate to work on a regional public policy transportation basis with the Maricopa Association of Governments, our local municipal planning organization. I'm on the executive committee, and we do all of our public transportation planning through this regional cooperative. From this has evolved a truly multi-modal system for the center of the Phoenix metro area of the valley, between Mesa, Tempe and Phoenix.

For example, we have a neighborhood circulator [bus system] that is free to our residents, all powered by natural gas as part of a sales tax that the residents passed in 1996 that does not sunset. We look at the quality of life of our community in terms of mobility and a transportation network with bike lanes. It's a true combination and working regionally to help all the communities because we're all interconnected. It's really been efficient.

Another example: In Tempe we offer free bus passes and transit passes to our youth so that we can help educate the next generation to understand what public transportation is. I think, to date, we're the only city in the valley doing this but we're starting to see it take root in other cities as well.

It's not going to happen overnight. The Phoenix metro area is like a mini L.A. in terms of freeway systems and cars.

So do you feel you're future-proofing your transportation system by these actions?

Mitchell: I don't know if we're future-proofing it but I think everything we do helps. We always look at all the options, always look at what's going to happen ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty years down the road, and as an elected official that's what I have to do because we have to have it sustainable for the next generation. We think regionally, because providing connectivity via transit also helps with economic development. It brings everybody closer together.

Businesses want to be where transit is. Tempe is physically located at the center of the valley, the metropolitan area. We're the only city surrounded by five freeways. We have truly border-to-border light rail, that goes from east to west. We're in the process of getting a streetcar and we have the neighborhood circulator.

That reminds me of 2015's National League of Cities report on transportation planning. Among its findings, it stated that cities were not taking into account the potential impacts of new mobility solutions like car- and ride-sharing, as well as autonomous vehicles. Are you taking this into account? How are you planning to deal with these types of impacts?

Braden Kay: There is an ASU professor, Thad Miller, who is going to be doing a course this fall just on the potential impact of autonomous vehicles in Tempe. He's going to be working with MAG, city planners and our elected officials to make sure that we are future-proofing for autonomous vehicles.

Mitchell: We're definitely taking a lead on these new technologies, including serving as a testing site for autonomous vehicles. Governor [Doug] Ducey said to Uber, "We'll take you in Arizona." They now have an office in Tempe and then next thing you know Google -- Waymo cars -- are also driving all throughout the city and valley.

Kay: We also are doing a new urban core plan to make sure we're doing transit-oriented urban development, and we're making sure autonomous vehicles are being considered in that planning. So we're still at the beginning of figuring what autonomous vehicles are going to do in our city, but it's definitely on the mayor's radar and is part of the way we're thinking about our future investments.

What do you see relative to re-use of parking spaces in your community when autonomous vehicles arrive? Do you have any thoughts, plans about that?

Mitchell: We have a transportation overlay district around certain transit areas where we try to reduce the number of parking spaces. As part of the project, we're encouraging people to use multi-modal transportation. But, like I mentioned earlier, we're the land of many, many freeways, so it's going to take education. With the heat in Arizona, there are also some challenges in terms of making sure we have enough shade structures and walkability so that people are able to use transportation other than vehicles

That's very interesting about the local conditions that you have to overcome. It's not rain, it's heat, and if you're going to get people out of their cars, they have to be willing to be out in the environment for some period of time. Waiting, transferring, that type of thing. And so you're even taking that into account.

Kay: You have to. Valley Metro [the regional transportation agency] has been putting a lot of resources into shade structures and figuring out how to make cooling stations at every streetcar stop. We're making sure that artists are engaged in trying to figure out how you make those stations feel cooler. There's been a few different attempts to figure out how to do more of that.

Fascinating. Any other thoughts you want to share?

Mitchell: You know, we're very innovative as a city and as a region. I think that the more you look for opportunities the more resilient you'll be. So this is an opportunity. You don't know until you try.

Associate director of the Governing Institute and a co-founder of Governing's parent organization, e.Republic
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