Phoenix is the ultimate car dependent sprawl city, yet as it offers almost year-round sunshine it has consistently attracted more and more incomers, and has thus become even more sprawling as a result. We still have to start with the assumption that most visitors to Phoenix know that it is heavily reliant on the private car, so is there any reason to consider visiting the city without one?
Driving in Phoenix
- Driving city! Phoenix is thoroughly suburban in nature, with wide roads and residential neighbourhoods which are all geared around the car.
- Public transport is poor. Despite recent investments in the Valley Metro, the system still only has a very limited mileage, given the vast size of Phoenix.
- In a city like Phoenix, bus passengers are very much made to feel like third class citizens.
- It’s hot — we need not state the obvious, but Arizona can get ridiculously hot, and this, combined with the traffic and general lack of decent sidewalks can make it very unpleasant to get around either on your own two feet.
- No railway station — Phoenix must be one of the biggest cities in the Western world at least not to have any kind of railway station within its boundaries. The closest station is in Maricopa, about 20 miles south of downtown Phoenix.
- Taliesin West — situated right on the edge of Scottsdale,Taliesin West is one of the most famous Frank Lloyd Wright houses, and is open for tours. However, getting a nearby bus, and then walking the final stretch in the Arizona heat isn’t much fun. Also worth a visit is the Arizona Biltmore Hotel, designed very much in the Frank Lloyd Wright style.]
Beyond the City
- Great outdoors — you name it – golf, fishing, camping, hunting; Arizona offers all of this and more, but as there is little by way of fixed public transport infrastructure, you’ll need a car for most of this.
- Verde Canyon railway — this is a great experience for anyone who loves trains or who just wants to enjoy this fantastic canyon. The trains themselves are hauled by historic diesels rather than by steam, but the open top carriages more than make up for any lack of such traction. The only problem is that this railway is not connected to any passenger networks, so you’ll still be much better off getting there in a hire car.
- Grand Canyon — Arizona is the Grand Canyon State, and this world-famous landmark is perhaps the single best known natural wonder anywhere in the Americas. Naturally, having a hire car is going to be the easiest option for getting up to Flagstaff and then into the Grand Canyon National Park. Allow around five hours for the drive from Phoenix to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.
- Monument Valley — Monument Valley might not be as well visited the Grand Canyon, but it has certainly appeared in enough films to etch outlines of mesas and buttes onto the back of many a retina. Whereas you can reach the Grand Canyon by public transport (see below), you will certainly need a rental car to reach Monument Valley. Allow a good eight hours to reach this region.
- Sedona — sitting pretty below the stunning Cathedral Rock, Sedona is a new age liberal enclave in a conservative state. You will still be best off using a car to get there.
- Other great scenic locations — it doesn’t really matter which direction you head out of Phoenix, once you get beyond the sprawl, you will be in superbly scenic areas very quickly.
- Lake Havasu City — rumour has it that developers thought they were buying London’s famous Tower Bridge, but they ended up with the less dramatic London Bridge, which was still disassembled brick by brick and then reassembled on site at Lake Havasu city. If you happen to be heading through the eastern reaches of Arizona, it is certainly worthy of a brief detour.
- One-way rentals — the most obvious one-way drive to do from Phoenix is to take your car via Sedona and the Grand Canyon and then on to Las Vegas. Combining a visit to Arizona with California is another popular option. If you stay within the South Western states, you should be able to get a one-way car hire deal without having to pay extra fees, although this does vary from one operator to the next. In terms of open jaw flights, getting to Phoenix from anywhere within the USA or Canada shouldn’t be a problem at all. The only European airline offering direct non-stop flights to Phoenix is British Airways, who are also the only airline to offer flights to Denver or San Diego from London. However, with other airline networks, you should be able to easily find open jaw options from most major European airports, without having to change more than once in each direction.
There are very few reasons to suggest visiting Phoenix without a hire car, but here goes:
- City centre — although the area around Phoenix seems like endless sprawl, most of the major places of interest, such as the Heard Museum, Phoenix Art Museum and the Arizona State Capitol are all within a few blocks of each other in the downtown area.
- Skyharbor airport — some cities grow out towards their airports, some cities end up building new airports well out of town, but in Phoenix, the city has simply engulfed the airport and grown in all directions around it. Phoenix Skyharbor airport is just 4 miles away from downtown Phoenix. There is no need to get a rental car just to travel by the downtown Phoenix, or to nearby Scottsdale or Tempe, as these can all be easily reached by taxi.
- Airport connections — The airport is constructing a people mover which will connect the terminals together and then provide a link to the “Metro Rail” tram service into the downtown area. This will include a dramatic bridge over the north-south taxi way, the first place in the world where passengers will be able to take a train over moving aircraft. However, the first phase of this is not due to open until 2013.
- Arizona Canal — if you want to see a sign within the city that cyclists, walkers and joggers do at least get a bit of their own continuous space, then head for the trail along the Arizona Canal. Numerous other individual walking trails are available within the mountain areas that overlook Phoenix, including the South Mountains and the “Phoenix mountains” to the north.
- Hiking and cycling country — naturally, given the vast open landscapes that Arizona has to offer, together with slightly less intimidating forests and mountainous areas, there are plenty of opportunities for hiking and for cycling, including mountain biking as well as road cycling.
However, Phoenix is not the kind of city where it is a pleasant experience just to ride out of your hotel and continue straight out into scenic areas. You will either need to hire a car to transport your bikes to individual cycling trails or you will need to find a tour provider who will do this for you. If you are venturing out on any of the public roads, make sure you have a good map to avoid having to ride on dangerously busy highways, and of course take all the usual outdoor precautions to deal with the harsh climate.
- Shuttle buses and coaches — just because public transport in Phoenix is less than ideal, it doesn’t mean that services don’t exist. As well as scheduled bus and coach services either within Phoenix itself or to and from other cities in Arizona, a number of private shuttle services operate to and from Phoenix Skyharbor airport.
For example, if you were visiting Sedona, you might take an airport shuttle from and to Phoenix Skyharbor, and then use local bus services to get around. In a smaller destination like Sedona, there are plenty of hiking and cycling trails which are easily accessible without needing a hire car.
Within the Phoenix area, buses are branded as “Valley Metro”. Whereas in Europe, buses tend to feed local train and underground services, in Phoenix, the buses cover three roles, from local to express to the faster “RAPID” commuter buses.
- Raft or hike the Grand Canyon — I’ll have to admit that when I visited the Grand Canyon in 1996, I took the coach excursion from Flagstaff, so I only ever got to see the area around the South Rim. I’d love to go back and hike right the way down to the Colorado River, but to do this you need to plan carefully, and it is not safe to try and do such an excursion in just one day.
Even more exhilarating is to go white water rafting on the Colorado River. If you are going to spend two or three days in the Grand Canyon area, then the chances are that all a hire car would do is bake in the heat. You can at least expect local transport to be provided if you go white water rafting.
- Grand Canyon Railway — take a step back in time and ride the steam train that runs from Williams, Arizona to the Grand Canyon South Rim. You can also take an Amtrak Thruway bus from either Flagstaff or Williams through to the South Rim, and this connects with Southwest Chief trains that run through Arizona on their way between Los Angeles and Chicago. Other coach services are available to connect between Phoenix and Flagstaff.
- Multicity tours — Phoenix doesn’t lend itself particularly well to visiting multiple cities in the same trip, unless you go by air. However, you can still take the train to Los Angeles from Maricopa to make a two city trip. Alternatively, you could travel between different locations in Arizona by bus to make a multi-city tour, especially if you based yourself in Phoenix first, and then headed up to Sedona and on to Flagstaff for the Grand Canyon.
Summary – although Phoenix has made some effort in recent years to make itself more accessible for people who either don’t have, or don’t want to rent, a car, it is still by far the most car dependent city featured on Car Or No Car.com. Even if you wouldn’t do so in other places, should you rent a car in Phoenix? Absolutely! Even though there are some great activities to do which don’t require a car in themselves, including mountain biking and canyon railway trips, you still need a hire car to get to the start point in the first place.
For these reasons, Phoenix is a firm yes