As a tentative agreement is reached to end the bus strike, is it the longest in Phoenix history? No — the record goes to a ruinous 56-day walkout in 1962. Tucson went through a 42-day strike last year, where Sun Tran drivers were particularly concerned about improvements to their safety. Once again, the strike was against Transdev, the multinational company that also operates many of Phoenix's routes (another operator is First Transit, which handles Valley Metro routes mostly in the suburbs).
Let's hope the drivers — who hardly make princely wages — get clean, safe restroom stops. That's not too much to ask.
The Republic has done a good job of laying out the issues and maintaining daily coverage. So I'll try to piece together some added context, questions, and thoughts.
The strike appears confusing because it affects 34 routes that carry 80,000 daily boarders. This has taken out almost all of the routes in the city and those that run east-west, except for the busy McDowell, Thomas and Indian School buses. With scabs, Transdev is operating some on reduced schedules. But according to the now-always-accurate Wikipedia, Valley Metro has 101 routes.
Part of the confusion may stem from Valley Metro merely being a brand for the city of Phoenix and the Regional Public Transportation Authority, an amalgamation created in 1993 from the old Phoenix Transit (Tico!) and other operations in Mesa, Tempe and Scottsdale. Most of the actual organizational expertise comes from the City of Phoenix Public Transit Department. Throw in the private-sector contract operators and light rail (WBIYB) and things get even more confusing.
And people complain in Seattle because there's King Metro (buses in the county) and Sound Transit (operation of light rail, commuter rail, and longer bus lines, along with construction). These at least are straight forward. As far as I know, neither contracts with a third-party private sector company.
According to the American Public Transportation Association, Phoenix ranked 36th in passenger trips and 45th in passenger miles in 2013, the most recent year studied in the group's most recent fact book. This puts the metro area's transit behind even Las Vegas, much less Seattle, Denver, San Diego, Dallas, Salt Lake City, San Antonio, and Portland.
The data do show more intense use of transit in Phoenix than those first numbers. Phoenix also ranks 20th in daily ridership, according to fourth-quarter APTA data. But overall, this is another area where being sixth most populous city doesn't translate into similar high ranks worth bragging over.
This can be traced to a history of neglect. For much of Phoenix's post-World War II boom, the emphasis was on more and wider roads. City Hall and many civic leaders were actively hostile to transit and for years the bus system was on life support.
In 1976, I could catch an every-30-minute Phoenix Transit bus by my apartment at 36th Street and Campbell that would let me off next to the main ambulance station on Roosevelt and Sixth Street — sweet-ish, except for the frequency. But forget getting to, say, ASU without a car. It was almost impossible. I remember trying to catch a city bus at Camelback that would take me to Scottsdale Road where (I believe it was a Tanner Lines bus — gold and black) ran down Rural Road. No making class that day.
Improvement has come very slowly, through the approval of sales taxes and federal transit grants, always competing against and being co-opted by the building of more roads and freeways. Sprawl is of course a problem, but LA and Dallas have shown that you can have strong transit systems even with spread out, road warrior metros.
In any event, the bus system is far better than it once was, but not nearly as good as it must get to attract and retain riders. Increased frequency and longer operating hours are critical. But it's also a political game, where suburbs (and even Phoenix council districts) must get "their share" even if they produce few riders on many local routes (Tempe is a big exception). Meanwhile, the working poor must wait for oversubscribed buses in Phoenix. Rapid routes to affluent suburbs have been successful.
As for Transdev, I will set aside my natural suspicion of a private-sector operator. It must meet City of Phoenix standards and supervision, and it operates at least some of the bus systems in Denver and San Diego. However, taking away health-insurance coverage from legally striking employees of a recognized bargaining unit (and their families) is shameful and should receive a hard look at the National Labor Relations Board.
One light-rail vehicle or five buses take 200 cars off the street.
Read more about cities, urban issues, and transit on Rogue's City Desk page.