Nothing has done more to wreck American cities than cars. Jane Jacobs was more precise: Planners and road builders "do not know what to do with automobiles in cities because they do not know how to plan for workable and vital cities anyhow — with or without automobiles."
In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, she continued: "The simple needs of automobiles are more easily understood and satisfied than the complex needs of cities... Cities have more intricate economic and social concerns than automobile traffic. How can you know what to try with traffic until you know how the city itself works, and what else it needs to do with its streets? You can't."
This 1961 warning did not stop the ongoing civic vandalism, which was particularly visited on Phoenix with catastrophic consequences.
Old Phoenix, with its 17 square miles and 105,000 people in 1950, was convenient and walkable. Streets were of modest widths — you can still see it on Third and Fifth avenues today. Cars easily co-existed with pedestrians. One fine example was the shady City Beautiful Movement parkways on Moreland and Portland streets. North of McDowell, Central was a two-lane street lined with lush palms.
But the planner elite, with their superstitions about how cities should work, were already undermining it.
World War II had dramatically changed Phoenix with an influx of military personnel and war workers. The population increased by 63 percent. As important, the county grew by more than 78 percent, most of it in unincorporated areas.
The end of the war in 1945 brought the famous "traffic crisis" to a head as gas rationing ended and more people bought automobiles. Downtown Phoenix, as the region's main shopping district, was gridlocked. Merchants tried, mostly unsuccessfully, to build parking garages. Traffic engineers and planners at city hall turned Washington, Jefferson, Third and Fifth avenues into one-way streets to ease the problem.
But they were already pushing for street widening that became an unthinking enterprise that continued for decades.
As significant, the Phoenix Street Railway, which at one time had nearly 34 miles and six lines, was shut down in 1948. The streetcars provided an essential transportation option. But they were falling out of favor nationally — with a push from General Motors, which wanted to sell not only cars but buses. The demise in Phoenix was hastened by a fire at the streetcar barn. But buses were never as popular and faced increasing hostility and funding cuts from city government.
The "solution" implemented was wider streets. Four lanes, five, six — to today's grid of enormously wide highways called "city streets" that run every mile. Major arterials can run an astounding 140 feet wide. One casualty was trees: tens of thousands of shade trees and palms were bulldozed. The loss was far greater than the canopy lost when Salt River Project ripped out trees along the canals. Another was walkable cohesion for commercial streets, as shopping districts on the sidewalks were replaced by malls and retail strips surrounded by often mammoth — and heat generating — parking lots. Planners in the 1960s were adamant about making it easy to get traffic out of downtown — hence, two lanes headed to the central business district and three headed out.
Annexation and the rigid implementation of these very wide arterials was one of the critical reasons that today's Phoenix has lost so much of its unique charm. And all this was baked in the cake before the seminal disasters of the defeat of ValTrans, a visionary transit system, in 1989 and the beginning of major freeway building in the 1990s.
Intentional or not, all this roadbuilding was one of the most important elements in destroying the old city and downtown, while making sprawl more profitable than agriculture or leaving the desert alone. Baseline Road, one of the most magical places in America with the Japanese flower gardens, became just another wide thoroughfare bounded by faux Tuscan-Spanish schlock and chain fast food outlets.
All this has constituted a massive subsidy that continues today. It distorts the economy and shape of the city. It is wildly dangerous, with these wide major "streets" turned into darkened pools at night barely illuminated by streetlights. Vehicle collisions with injuries (962) dominate any hour on the Phoenix Fire regional dispatch Web page. Comparing this with the calls on Seattle Fire's Real Time 911 is instructive. Woe to Phoenix pedestrians.
As we have known since Robert Moses' projects in the 1930s, wider roads and freeways act as traffic generators. Any "relief" is temporary. Phoenicians spend hours driving, spewing CO2 into the atmosphere — ruining the air quality of a supposed resort and adding the climate change.
Destruction of authentic city life is enormous — something that puts Phoenix at a decisive disadvantage in today's "back to the city" movement, attracting young talent, startups and corporate headquarters. The successful cities have narrower streets and quality density. They don't favor cars over humans.
Since the 2000s, some Phoenix officials and activists have pushed to narrow some streets. Light rail (WBIYB) offers, finally, another transportation option — but the Real Estate Industrial Complex short hustle places job centers elsewhere. The metropolitan response to decades of failure? Build the South Mountain Freeway.
Superstitions are hard to break. I remember talking with a bright and well-regarded urban expert who was pleased with the lively, pleasant corner of 40th Street and Campbell. And baffled that it was so much more difficult to replicate this success elsewhere in "the Valley." This person never hit upon the key: 40th and Campbell were both two-lane streets.
The only new thing in the world is the history you don't know. Learn about Phoenix's past on Rogue's history archive.