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Can Phoenix Ever be Walkable? I don’t think so. Bike-able? Maybe.

By: Taz Loomans

Walkability is when you can walk from your home to the clinic for a check up. Walkability is when you can walk from your home to the grocery store when you realize you’re out of cat food at 9 o’clock at night. Walkability is when you can walk to the theater from your home to catch a flick. Walkability is when you have tons of restaurants within walking distance to your home when you have a hankering to eat out.

Walkability is not when you drive to a location from your home, park, and then walk to various destinations. That is the closest that Greater Phoenix gets to being walkable, examples being the Scottsdale Waterfront, Old Scottsdale, Kierland Commons, Desert Ridge Mall or Downtown Gilbert.

I never experienced real walkability on an everyday basis until I moved to the Hawthorne neighborhood of Portland, Oregon – the kind of walkability that starts from your home and ends at your final destination, with no cars or parking lots as middlemen.

Why Phoenix will Never be a Walkable City:

When I lived in Phoenix, it never even occurred to me that I could conduct my life easily just on foot. I always thought that a car-free lifestyle had to include bicycling. And for good reason, because in Phoenix, it must include bicycling because you can’t realistically walk anywhere. Why is that?

  1. Amenities, entertainment, restaurants tend to be just too far to walk to from your home. The only place where this is in question is the Coronado neighborhood in Central Phoenix, where you can walk to the neighborhood corner store, the neighborhood park and various neighborhood restaurants. But in almost every other part of Phoenix, things are just too far away to reasonably walk to them on a daily basis.
  2. Even if something is within walking distance, say within a quarter mile, the experience of walking that quarter mile, anywhere in Phoenix, is normally so banal and desolate that you simply wouldn’t want to do it because it just feels far. There is nothing of interest for a pedestrian to see, smell, touch, or hear because the city is built to the scale of a car. Billboards instead of storefronts populate the streets in Phoenix for a reason, and that’s because the city is built for motorists not for pedestrians.

Why Phoenix CAN be a Bikeable City:

When I lived in Phoenix, I lived in midtown, near Indian School and 7th Avenue. I biked to the Light Rail, which connected me to Downtown Phoenix, Mesa and Tempe. I biked to my favorite coffee shop, Lux Coffebar, almost every day. I biked to the grocery store down the street from me. I biked to Downtown Phoenix for various community events. I biked to my doctor for check ups at St. Joseph’s. I biked to Steele Indian School Park and Encanto Park for recreation. I biked to lots of restaurants. I biked to yoga. I biked to the gym.

In other words, I was able to conduct my life on my bike, without having to use my car. Biking addresses the two things that make Phoenix completely unwalkable.

  1. While amenities, entertainment and restaurants are just a bit too far to walk from neighborhoods, they are just the right distance to bike to.
  2. Because biking is a faster mode of transportation than walking, the automobile-scale of Phoenix is less onerous on a bike. Plus, just the heightened difficulty of urban biking brings a certain thrill and interest to the experience, keeping it from getting boring.

Another thing I’ve come to appreciate about Phoenix now that I live in hilly Portland, is the flatness of the Valley. Phoenix is on such flat terrain, it’s perfect for biking. No huffing and puffing as you climb up hills and no bracing for your life as you hurdle down them.

What Phoenix can do to become a Bikeable City:

Phoenix is not a bike-able city. Yet.

Just because you can physically bike to places doesn’t mean most people want to. Cyclists still feel unwelcome and unsafe on the roads of Phoenix, where motorists are still king and aren’t used to sharing the road. Here are the things that are missing:

  1. Bike lanes that connect neighborhoods to popular destinations. –  According to the City of Phoenix website, “You’ll find more than 500 miles of dedicated on- and off-street bike lanes, routes and paths.” The problem is that these bike lanes, routes and paths don’t often connect in ways that are meaningful to people trying to get around town. What good does it do when there is a bike lane on Osborn east of 16th street, but then it disappears west of 16th Street? This kind of discontinuity stops people from wanting to ride their bikes and should be the first thing to be rectified if Phoenix is to become a bikeable city.
  2. Bike parking at those popular destinations. – Here in Portland, there are bicycle corrals, in some cases, covered bicycle corrals, on every major intersection on commercial corridors. This not only helps with where to put your bike, but it makes cyclists feel acknowledged, cared for and that they are an important part of the city.
  3. Bicyclists – More bicyclists on the roads would go a long way in raising awareness of bikes and revealing the contingent of people in Phoenix who want to bike. But it’s a chicken or the egg dilemma. Will better bicycle infrastructure attract more bicyclists? Or will more bicyclists attract better bicycle infrastructure?

A unique and hitherto untapped opportunity to make Phoenix realize its full bikeability potential involves the canals. The canals are great connectors, away from the hazards of automobile traffic and perfect for bikes. They are virtually linear parkways that connect the city and could very easily become bicycle corridors. They could serve both recreational biking as well as bike commuting. Canals not only connect different locations within cities, but they connect different cities to each other. The Grand Canal, for example, connects Phoenix with Tempe. And the Consolidated Canal connects Mesa with Chandler and Gilbert. So why not utilize these existing amenities as more than waterways and turn them into bikeways as well?

With some of these things in place – bike lanes, bike parking, and enhanced canal biking – Phoenix could become one of the most bike-able cities in the country and begin to shed it’s reputation for being a smoggy, automobile-addicted city.

Image Credit: Original artwork by Derek Welte of HalfmanHalfmachine.

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