How Can Phoenix Get on the Bicycle-Friendly Map?

By: Taz Loomans

Taking advantage of these cooler 90-something degree days in August, I’ve begun to ride my bike more again. Today, riding down to my office at the Funk Lab on Grand Avenue, I spied a handful of other cyclists on 15th avenue, which is one of the few roads in Central Phoenix with bike lanes. We all nodded to each other in a mixture of pride and commiseration at having to bike in such a bicycle-unfriendly city.

Not too long ago, I had the epiphany that it might be better to ride on the street rather than the sidewalk. Yes, even here in Phoenix, where it seems darn scary to do so. My first experience riding on Central Avenue from Downtown to Clarendon, was not a pleasant one. Admittedly, this is partly because I was doing it wrong and kept hugging the sidewalk. But it was also because drivers in Phoenix are not very bike-friendly. I realized this every time a car would honk at me to get off the road, as if I didn’t belong there, which happens almost every time I ride on Central.

Phoenix’s general mindset is so unfriendly towards bikes that when plans to put in the Light Rail were in the works, bike lanes were not included because there was no political will to decrease traffic flow more than what was already being impeded by the Light Rail itself. This decision was made at the cost of bicycle connectivity to the Light Rail, decreasing the effectiveness of the Light Rail to help mitigate automobile use.

Yes, I’m a little bitter when it comes to bicycle-friendliness in Phoenix because I like to get around on my bike and it ain’t easy. There are few bike lanes, even less bike lane connectivity, and bloated roads designed solely to move automobiles, in large volumes, really fast. We are a city that claims sustainability as a top priority, yet improvements in bicycle infrastructure are few and far between and slow to come. I blame this sad state of bicycle affairs on our outlook that we are an automobile-oriented city and will never be bicycle friendly, so why try? If you want to be a bicycle commuter, you hippie you, Phoenix seems to say – move to Portland – this place is not for you.

But I have news for us – Gen Y and Millennials aren’t so much into the automobile-centric identity that we in Phoenix so proudly clutch on to. Nicolas Meilhan, an automotive analyst with the firm Frost & Sullivan in Paris, says that “owning a car is thought to be very stupid by Generation Y.” And according to Time’s Moneyland, “by and large, millennials prefer living in urban settings with stores and things to do in walking distance, so the big shift back from the ‘burbs is a trend that’s likely to continue.” The car-culture upon which Phoenix is built – with wide roads, zero bicycle lanes, poor sidewalks and sidewalk connectivity – is becoming “uncool” real fast. If we want to attract young people to Phoenix, we need to shake ourselves awake from dreams of our automobile-past and latch on to a new trend towards bicycle-friendliness, much like cities like Cleveland, Long Beach and Miami have done.

In 2008, Miami was named one of the worst cities for bicycling by Bicycling.com. This dubious distinction woke Miami up and since then, their City Commission approved a Bicycle Master Plan which outlines bike projects – lanes, greenways, bike boulevards—on a detailed 20-year timeline. And they have instituted Bike Miami Days where they shut down 10-mile stretches of roads offering bike rentals and bike check-ups for free to encourage people to get on their bikes. They have also added 11.5 miles of bike lanes, greenways and shared use lanes since 2008 and hope to finish an additional 108 miles of bikeways by 2015. Now this is a city that is taking their bicycle reputation seriously.

Phoenix? We added bike lanes to 1 mile – yes 1 mile – on Central Avenue between Camelback and Bethany Home last year. Yes, it’s a good start, but it’s not nearly enough. Now there are plans to extend it to the Arizona Canal, which is fantastic, but what about south of Camelback? Oh yea, the City opted not to put bike lanes in conjunction with the Light Rail in fear of making drivers mad. In total, Phoenix has put in a little more than 8 miles this fiscal year, much of which is not in the central core but in more recreational areas like South Mountain. Making recreational biking easier is one thing, but it does nothing to help bicycle commuters inside the city.

I’m not knocking the valiant efforts of the City of Phoenix’s Bicycle Coordinator Joe Perez to make Phoenix a more bicycle-friendly city. But there is only so much Joe can do by himself. He needs the full, vocal, unconditional support of the Mayor and Council for us to become a bicycle-friendly city. They need to push Joe to put Phoenix on the bicycle-friendly map, instead Joe pushing them from below. The excuse given to nixing bicycle infrastructure projects is that they cost too much. But that’s a bunch of hooey. It’s all a matter of priority. If bicycling commuting is low on the priority list, than of course it’s going to seem expensive.

Contrary to popular belief, bicycle-friendliness is not just a strategy to appease yuppies and hipsters. It is an economic development strategy. It is a way to attract young talent to live here and stay here, which in turn will attract companies to headquarter or have offices here. We simply will not become the sustainable, attractive city we want to become unless we stop letting traffic volume dictate our quality of life issues. To date, quality of life in Phoenix to many has meant – how fast can I get out of Downtown to my home in the burbs? It has certainly not meant slowing down traffic to create more walkable, more bicycle-friendly streets. But this ethos belongs to previous generations, not to the future ones. And so the question becomes to the City Manager, the City Council and the Mayor –  can Phoenix afford not to seriously improve its bicycle infrastructure?

Photo Credit: At the April Valley Metro Architectural Bike Tour – our stop at the Westward Ho. Photo by Haley Tilden Ritter.

2 Responses

  1. Jonce says:

    Excellent piece as usual. There certainly needs to be more done to improve bikability in Phoenix. However, I am optimistic that finally we may have some of the correct political leadership to make some big changes. They just need to do it now! The reason why places like Portland, Miami, and even Long Beach are great places to ride a bike is because they simply made that decision. And now Phoenix must do the same. Or as pointed out so spot on in this article, the Millenials will go else where fast.

  2. You raise good issues, although I believe your assessment is too negative. As with the recent post about parks, the focus is on Central Phoenix, mainly Downtown and Midtown, where I agree that bicycles are not as welcome as they should be. It’s not that way everywhere, however. Look at Maryland Avenue with its bike lanes, its traffic calming roundabouts, its tunnel under SR51, and its bridge over I-17. Look at Lafayette Boulevard and the calm ride it offers from 44th Street through Arcadia to the Scottsdale border.

    The problem, then, is a more specific one. Phoenix is actually a better-than-average city in terms of overall bicycling infrastructure. The challenge, as with the parks, is that Phoenix needs to take the benefits already provided to its low density residential neighborhoods and extend them to its neglected urban core.

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