Phoenix faces long road to complete bicycle infrastructure

By Connor Radnovich

Bicyclists in Phoenix

Phoenix residents have largely viewed the Valley Metro light rail as a success, but bicyclists say the city still has work to do in order to create an effective system of urban transportation. (Alexis Macklin/DD)

Phoenix may be the sixth largest city in the country, but in terms of urban transportation, it’s still young.

Despite Phoenix’s rapid growth over the last several decades, its transportation infrastructure is catching up to the city’s size. In the downtown area’s quest to develop a truly urban transportation system, at least one project has been a rousing success, while other goals have fallen by the wayside.

The Valley Metro light rail has garnered constant praise since its opening in December 2008. Daily ridership has increased steadily, jumping 5-6 percent per year over the past three years, according to Valley Metro statistics.

The city’s bicycling infrastructure, however, is still pieced together haphazardly, with riders complaining about a lack of continuity in the downtown area’s bike lanes.

Hillary Foose, director of communication and marketing for Valley Metro, which operates the transit system in the Phoenix metropolitan area, said the city has a lot more growth to do.

“We are a young transit town,” Foose said at the Downtown Devil Discussion series in September. “We’re not New York. We’ll never be New York unless we drastically change our land use and our density.”

Community advocate Sean Sweat, who earned a master’s degree in transportation from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and heads the Thunderdome Association for Non-Auto Mobility, said the trouble with bicycling in Phoenix is largely due to the city’s attitude.

“It’s not a widely accepted mode of transportation in Phoenix society yet,” Sweat said. “Until that day comes, cyclists will continue to be short-changed in infrastructure and disrespected by drivers.”

Much of the discussion among residents has been about beefing up infrastructure, including separate bike lanes and bike racks, so riders can feel safe while riding. Arizona ranked sixth nationally in 2010 in cyclist fatalities per million residents, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The silver lining for downtown residents is that in terms of bicycling safety, the downtown area has an advantage compared to the rest of the city. Kerry Wilcoxon, traffic engineer with the city of Phoenix, said the majority of collisions involving bicycles and cars happen outside of downtown, where drivers tend to move faster. The benefit to biking around downtown is that cars are moving slower, though there are more vehicles, Wilcoxon said.

“The hope is that, as there are more bikers, drivers will expect to see bikers,” he said. “They will expect to see bicyclists like they expect to see motorcyclists.”

Community members say the situation tends to devolve into a chicken-and-egg predicament: There need to be more bikers downtown to show the city that biking infrastructure is important, but there needs to be a solid and safe infrastructure before people will travel regularly by bike.

“Be the trailblazer; be the leader,” Sweat said. “By each one of us getting out there on our bikes, we are making it safer for each other and telling our city that we’re looking for a new transportation paradigm in Phoenix.”

Sweat said fixing the city’s attitude about bicycling needs to start at City Hall.

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Sean Sweat, who has advocated for better urban transportation in Phoenix, said bicycling needs to become a more regular part of Phoenix’s culture before better infrastructure will be put in place. (Thomas Berry/DD)

“The first thing we need are politicians and government workers that don’t just talk the talk, but also ride the bike,” Sweat said. “We need people in those positions that understand how aggressive we need to be at improving our bicycling infrastructure.”

Additionally, Sweat continued, bike and pedestrian infrastructure need to be priorities for funding, instead of highway projects.

One of the recent improvements to bike infrastructure downtown is the green-painted, shared bike lane on Fillmore Street. Wilcoxon said most of the calls he has received regarding the lanes have been positive, and that drivers seem to know how to drive around the lane and what to do when a biker is using it.

The shared lane is part of the city of Phoenix’s efforts to connect the city’s fragmented biking system, which includes a 4.6-mile bike boulevard connecting Phoenix to Tempe and eventually extending to Peoria.

Wilcoxon said shared lanes are an option, even though they are not ideal, if separate bike lanes won’t work for a project, usually because the street is not wide enough.

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There are several projects planned for the upcoming year to help tie the city together, including a shared lane on 15th Avenue between Northern and Dunlap avenues. Wilcoxon said that project is expected to be completed around April.

Nicole Underwood, co-founder of Sidewalk Phoenix, a pedestrianism advocacy group, echoed Wilcoxon. She said it’s fairly easy to get around downtown Phoenix and Tempe using public transportation and biking, because that’s where the density is highest.

But trying to use buses and the light rail to get around the Valley, especially the far east and west sides, can be difficult and intimidating.

It takes planning and coordinating to make those trips work, which most people just don’t have time for, Underwood said.

“For me it’s easy because I’ve focused and rearranged my life to go around public transportation, but I rarely go places that aren’t on public transit,” she said.

But the car-free lifestyle is starting to catch on.

Underwood has seen events — from various bicycle tours to Pedal Craft, a community and art event celebrating bicycling in Phoenix — bring the bike community together with other downtown groups and public officials, all helping to bring attention to biking and public transit.

People who come downtown for concerts, sporting events or other major attractions have seen how much easier taking the light rail is than driving and are starting to use it more.

“Even a year ago there was a stigma (to using public transportation). But now it’s becoming much more attractive,” Underwood said. “A lot of local people support that mentality, so it comes with the culture.”

Contact the reporter at connor.radnovich@asu.edu