Universities – linked by transit – can play a vital role in reinvigorating our cities

Not so long ago, Arizona State University had a mediocre reputation mainly known as being a top party school.

And then in 2003, Dr. Michael Crowe was tapped to become ASU’s president, and all of that changed.

Today there are a total of nearly 70,000 students on ASU’s four campuses in the Tempe and Phoenix urban area, and Crowe has garnered a national reputation as a transformative leader.

But to the Atlanta delegation that was visiting Phoenix as part of the annual LINK trip put on by the Atlanta Regional Commission, the most important contribution that has occurred under Crowe’s leadership is the relationship between the university and the metro area, particularly downtown Phoenix.

The result is the New American University — a bold declaration designed to make a national splash, according to Grady Gammage, an attorney and an ASU faculty member at the Morrison Institute of Public Policy.

Arizona State University has become a key driver in rebuilding downtown Phoenix

Arizona State University has become a key driver in rebuilding downtown Phoenix

One of Crowe’s provocative statements early on was: “Do you replicate what exists or do you design what you really need?”

Clearly, the answer for Crowe was to design something new. Gammage summarized it this way: “We embed the university in the community. We do research in the community that is relevant to what we need. We increase the size and quality of education. We do that by not excluding students but by bringing them all in and giving them a good education.”

The result? “The level of success is really unbelievable,” Gammage said of ASU’s progress under Crowe.

But even more remarkable is the bond between the city and the university.

A covered walkway between ASU and a downtown shopping area in Phoenix

A covered walkway between ASU and a downtown shopping area in Phoenix

“The linkage between ASU as a new institution and the City of Phoenix as a new pay is part of the DNA,” Gammage said. “We are trying to invent a city and an educational system hand-in-hand, at the same time.”

Integral to this connection is the new light rail line that connects downtown Phoenix with downtown Tempe, the largest and oldest of ASU’s campuses.

“Light rail is succeeding because of ASU students,” Gammage said.

Light rail line in downtown Phoenix

Light rail line in downtown Phoenix

But it’s also true that the downtown areas of Tempe and Phoenix are being revived because of light rail.

Currently, there are 20 miles of light rail in the Greater Phoenix area, according to Bryan Jungwirth, chief of staff for Valley Metro Transit and president of the Arizona Transit Association. The public transit system has been so successful that another 37 miles are under development.

“Light rail is doing well beyond its estimates,” Jungwirth said, adding that actual usage of the light rail system is 34 percent higher than what had been projected. And weekend ridership is as high as weekday travel on light rail, proving the popularity of the system.

The Central Station of the Phoenix light rail system, steps away from ASU campus

The Central Station of the Phoenix light rail system, steps away from ASU campus

The inter-relationship between the university, the downtown areas and light rail shows a formula for success that could easily be transplanted in metro Atlanta.

ASU's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism in downtown Phoenix

ASU's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism in downtown Phoenix

In fact, despite all the fanfare that ASU is receiving, it still is not considered to be among the top 50 universities in the country. However, it has improved its rankings, from being above 100 before Crowe, to about No. 60 today.

But compared to Atlanta, and its universities, ASU does not look nearly as good, Gammage said.

“You have got us beat on every turn,” he said. “We talk a good game… But we would kill for the quality of institutions that you have…. The good thing (for us) is that you have many and we have one.”

Wole Ralph, vice chairman of the Clayton Commission, confers with Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed during LINK trip

Wole Ralph, vice chairman of the Clayton Commission, confers with Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed during LINK trip

Gammage went on to say that in national rankings Georgia Tech, Emory University, University of Georgia and Georgia State University overshadow ASU.

To the Atlanta delegation, it was clear that ASU, its president and Arizona in general had done a better job to leverage the university as an economic development tool than Georgia has been able to do in selling its universities.

It also showed that Georgia’s institutions would be well served to coordinate and collaborate as a way to enhance each other and the entire state.

Woodruff Arts Center President Joe Bankoff chat with Georgia DOT Commissioner Vance Smith during LINK reception

Woodruff Arts Center President Joe Bankoff chat with Georgia DOT Commissioner Vance Smith during LINK reception

The trip also reinforced the power of transit as a way to build those connections. A streetcar linking GSU, Georgia Tech and the Atlanta University campus would enhance our reputation as a college town/university city.

And it’s not just light rail. It showed that the vision to connect UGA, Emory, Georgia Tech and GSU by a commuter rail would really create a brain train in the state.

LINK delegation visits the Tempe Center for Cultural Arts

LINK delegation visits the Tempe Center for Cultural Arts

Atlanta delegates also learned of ASU’s commitment to reinvigorating downtown Phoenix and becoming a resource for public policy issues in the region. If GSU President Mark Becker had been on the trip, he would have been able to witness the role that the Andrew Young School of Public Policy could play in the Atlanta region and the state.

Unfortunately, no top academic leader from the Atlanta region was on the trip to seize on that idea and bring it home to Georgia.

But ideas have a way of percolating. The 100 Atlanta leaders who did go to Phoenix outlined a series of initiatives that they could carry home. High on that list was leveraging our universities to improve our cities.

It’s quite clear. There’s a powerful link between universities, transit and cities. And this is one area where metro Atlanta can learn from Phoenix.

A picture of LINK banner hanging over group during closing exercises

A picture of LINK banner hanging over group during closing exercises

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

16 replies
  1. Tiger Woods + Jesse James = SuperBAD meets SuperEVIL in "SUPERUGLY!" says:

    I don’t like these LINK trips, because they give our area leaders too many “ideas”! Like that transit thing that you keep talking about Maria, I don’t like it one bit! I say that we here in North Georgia shouldn’t build anymore infrastructure, not one new transit line, sidewalk, bike lane, road, lane or even shoulder ever again unless it involves something really constructive like paving over forests, open spaces and historical development for parking lots.

    I say pave over the entire state of Georgia north of the Gnat Line so that we can have a little extra parking when I go to Wal-Mart. When viewed from space, North Georgia should just appear on aerial photographs as one big newly paved parking lot with endless parking space patterns. Even better, just replace traffic patterns on all local major highways with parking space lines and patterns, you know, to send a message to the commuting public about how we’re going to approach transportation planning from here on out.

    Come to think of it, who needs extravagant luxuries like education, transportation and jobs from industry, anyway? Why not just exact a plan to rid the State of Georgia of meaningless nettlesome extras like education, transportation, jobs and industry and the Quality of Life that comes with it for good and replace them the world’s largest continuous parking lot that covers every square inch of available land in North Georgia? Take every house, school, college, library, business, park, forest, etc through Eniment Domain and knock them down so that we can build what really counts and that is endless free parking because we all know, people don’t matter, cars do! We may not be able spell P-A-R-K or count to six, but we will have enough free parking and endless blacktop to accommodate every six-mile-per-gallon fuel-efficient SUV on the planet.

    How’s that for a real interactive plan that effectively interlinks education and transportation? Who needs a Brain Train when you can have a lot more fun with a Brain Drain?Report

    Reply
  2. Tiger Woods + Jesse James = SuperBAD meets SuperEVIL in "SUPERUGLY!" says:

    Tim: Why would you think that I was being pessimistic? I meant every word that I said. You must not understand just how large my gas-gussling SUV is! (Hint: large enough to fit my monster-sized ego) I’m glad that I’ve inspired you to feel your own personal brain drain which is a reaction that I’m hoping to eventually get from all of Georgia. Why is everyone always so obsessed with trying to improve towards being number one? Especially when it’s so much easier to just let everything languish away to number 50 (out of 50)!Report

    Reply
  3. Smell the Coffee says:

    It is amazing to me that our elected/appointed leaders keep talking trips to learn what a benefit transit, commuter rail, regional governance, etc. is to communities that are competeing with us for jobs and economic vitality. It is not so much the trip that is amazing it is that NOTHING happens – oh that’s not true -after waiting three years, in two more years we get to vote on whether we should levee a 1 cent sales tax that may yield returns to our region by 2014.
    Ladies and gentlemen – it’s called effective leadership – we need some!!Report

    Reply
  4. Montana says:

    Why was there no university official on the recent LINK trip — especially since higher education is so often showcased as one of our region’s great strengths? Atlanta is something like no. 5 o 6 in higher ed nationwide. It would seem that our universities can also play a greater role in solving all of our other problems, too.Report

    Reply
  5. Tiger Woods + Jesse James = SuperBAD meets SuperEVIL in "SUPERUGLY!" says:

    “TW+JJ, you don’t appear to have anything very valuable to add to the conversation” Comment by Yr1215 — May 4, 2010 @ 1:25 pm

    Exactly! Kinda makes me a perfect candidate to run for public office, doesn’t it?Report

    Reply
  6. Jock Ellis says:

    TW+JJ: Dude, I feel an appointment for you as a DOT commissioner coming on. That is exactly what the highway interests want., except they want all that double decked.Report

    Reply
  7. Tiger Woods + Jesse James = SuperBAD meets SuperEVIL in "SUPERUGLY!" says:

    TW+JJ: “Dude, I feel an appointment for you as a DOT commissioner coming on. That is exactly what the highway interests want., except they want all that double decked.”
    Comment by Jock Ellis — May 5, 2010 @ 12:40 am

    I would take that appointment to the DOT Commissioner spot, but that would be so one-sided of me because I don’t just represent wealthy roadbuilder interests, I represent wealthy roadbuilder AND developer interests. What better way to represent those interests (and get the largest amount of lobbyist money and gifts available, of course) than to run for Governor of Georgia? Everybody in Georgia knows that rapid transit will never work here in Georgia! I have no actual research to prove that’s a fact, I just say that because my wealthy roadbuilding overdevelopment campaign contributor buddies tell me to say it and say it with “conviction”, no pun intended, while giving me big money, gifts, ridiculously overpriced dinners and daily top pick of my favorite female lobbyist from the famous “Babe Alley” corridor outside of the House Speaker’s office at the State Capitol.

    Say, if you guys all love transit as much as you guys claim, why don’t I ever see any of you so called transit-advocates (most of the boys around the Capitol and State Government refer to you guys as “transit geeks”, mainly because when you do show up, you all want something for nothing) around the Capitol and at the big pricey campaign dinners and fundraisers more often? Maybe if you transit people forked a few dollars our way (okay, more like alot of dollars), then maybe you might get at least some of what you want. What? Do you guys think that we’re just supposed to be responsive to you and serve you all just because your citizens of Georgia? What a laugh!

    I’ll tell you what. When all you transit “advocates” decide to stop showing up to the Capitol with your hands out and actually come to the door of my office at the Capitol with something that might help to “move policy” like, oh, lets say, Falcons’ tickets (to a Georgia Dome luxury suite), UGA Bulldogs’ Football tickets (preferably or to a Sanford Stadium luxury suite also, because I don’t want to get beer spilled on me or get thrown up on by a bunch of drunken and rowdy Bulldog fans down where the “commoners” sit), Atlanta Hawks basketball tickets (you know it, to a luxury suite at Phillips Arena), a hot date with at least one, but preferably more than one, attractive young female lobbyist willing to do “anything” to get the legislation in question passed, reservations for me and the attractive young female lobbyist or lobbyists to a no less than five-star restaurant in the city for a meal that is no less than $100-per-person, tickets to a series of country music and rock-and-roll during the summer at Chastain Park, Alpharetta and maybe even Lakewood Park and reservations for a “night-cap” with said lobbyist or lobbyists at any of the city’s four-star, but preferably five-star hotels, with transport to and from each venue and event by private chauffeured vehicle, then maybe, just maybe, we can talk about improving transit through state legislation. Heck, give me enough money and gifts and demonstrate a way that my rich (over)developer buddies could make tons more money off of your little transit plans and I might even become your most hard-core spokesman for transit here at the Capitol, but until you can show me more money and gifts than my roadbuilding cronies, I won’t even bother to give you the time of day!Report

    Reply
  8. professional skeptic says:

    Tiger Woods…SUPERUGLY!:
    I’m afraid you’ve hit the nail on the head.

    Yr1215: No doubt it’s pithy sarcasm, but it’s the truth here in Georgia.Report

    Reply
  9. Yr1215 says:

    The state is no more beholden to the normal political garbage than the city of Atlanta has historically been, or MARTA is previously or now. They’re messy ugly political animals, and I’m not a huge fan of any of them in aggregate. Look at the city of Atlanta’s incompetent city council.Report

    Reply
  10. Tiger Woods + Jesse James = SuperBAD meets SuperEVIL in "SUPERUGLY!" says:

    “The state is no more beholden to the normal political garbage than the city of Atlanta has historically been, or MARTA is previously or now. They’re messy ugly political animals, and I’m not a huge fan of any of them in aggregate. Look at the city of Atlanta’s incompetent city council.”
    Comment by Yr1215 — May 7, 2010 @ 3:30 pm

    Yr 1215, we know because it’s more than obvious (the Maynard Jackson Administration, the Bill Campbell Administration, Nathan Ford’s curious management of MARTA funds, etc), but if I’m a self-serving politico thinking of enriching himself by running for public office, I might still choose to run for state government because there just seems to be more money in it, depending on what position you’re after, because the policymaking is on a larger scale. Besides, everybody knows that city government is just for small-time chumps that can’t make their hustle work on a higher level (like state or federal government).

    In all seriousness, I wonder if the Atlanta Region as a whole would fare any better if the five core counties of the metro area (Fulton, DeKalb, Clayton, Cobb, Gwinnett) were to be incorporated into a greater version of the city of Atlanta and all the citizens in both currently incorporated and unincorporated parts of the five-county area would be able to vote for Mayor and City Council offices? I wonder if the metro area could gain the political clout to get things done more quickly at the state level if there was a cohesive regional government that were incorporated and all in the affected area had a say (at the ballot box) in how that government was run?

    One of the biggest problems with the Atlanta Region is that government is extremely decentralized with dozens of county governments and hundreds of city governments all with differing interests of some kind. With so many governments it seems that coming to a timely consensus on big issues like education, water and especially, transportation is exceedingly difficult. Why not consider granting all residents in the five-county area the ability to vote for Mayor of Atlanta while keeping existing local government representation in various forms (like local city and county governments, local zoning controls, local public safety departments, local school systems, etc)?

    Not everybody would be happy with the political makeup of the regional government, meaning conservatives may not like not having total control of the government like they do with their outlying local governments and liberals may not like not having total control of government like they do in Fulton and DeKalb Counties, but the metro area as a whole would gain a helluva lot more clout to get much-needed, but long- dormant critical infrastructure projects finally started like the “Brain-Train”, regional light-rail, regional commuter-rail, etc. It’s time for this town to grow up and start acting like the big-city that it is and consider acquiring a nuanced, 21st Century approach to governance. Yr 1215, others, what do you think?Report

    Reply
  11. Burroughston Broch says:

    Maria, I understand the value of public transportation in Phoenix in moving students between four ASU campuses. I don’t understand the value of connecting Tech, GSU, Emory and UGA since they are different universities and the need to move back and forth between them on a regular basis is minimal. I think that you are stretching things a bit. By the way, a light rail trip from Atlanta to Athens would take a long time.Report

    Reply

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