When I asked Mayor Phil Gordon at a community breakfast a year ago about the lack of bike lanes in Phoenix, he told me bikers should use the canals.  Really Mayor?  That’s your answer to why we have almost no infrastructure in place for bikes in this city?  What if bikers want to use the roads, like everyone else?  What if the canals don’t take people where they need to go?

Biking has been flagrantly dismissed as a viable mode of transportation by our city ever since its modernization.  Finally there’s an event in town that takes a stand against this dismissal, that gives voice to the struggling city cyclists of Phoenix and coalesces them into a group that says: we’re here to stay and we demand your acknowledgment!

This event is Critical Mass Phoenix and it’s held on the last Friday of every month, rain or shine, sweltering or cool, starting at Steele Indian School Park at 6 or 7pm.  Critical Mass is a world-wide event held in hundreds of cities.  The first Critical Mass bike ride was held in San Francisco in September of 1992.  The event happens in each city on the last Friday of every month in the evening, creating a deeper sense of connection to the rest of the world, at least once you realize that people all over the planet are riding their bikes in support of cycling in their city.

So, the international implications of Critical Mass are pretty amazing.  But the local implications for Phoenix are even more important.  Here are some of the major problems that local bikers are up against and that Critical Mass tries to raise awareness of:

1.  There aren’t sufficient bike lanes in our city.  And in the streets that do have them, few are contiguous.  Most bike lanes stop a few yards in front of an intersection and start up some yards after.  This makes for unclear, unmarked territory for bikes, thereby increasing the chances for accidents around intersections.

But those are the few streets that even have bike lanes.  Most major streets in Phoenix DO NOT have one.  This is the city’s way of saying to bikers: you don’t exist, get a car, and then we’ll talk.  A few brave cyclists still ride on the streets alongside cars, even when there is no bike lane, but I fear for their safety.  For the most part, I ride on the sidewalks.  Sadly, even the sidewalks are a poor haven for bikers, because even sidewalks end abruptly at times, and at others, were never put in in the first place.

2.  Most drivers are unaware of bikes, they don’t stop at intersections to look for them, usually rolling around the corner, looking for oncoming traffic to the left, completely unaware of bikers or pedestrians just inches from them to their right.  This is a symptom of the fact that bikes are essentially not wanted on the streets, as established by point no. 1, so people aren’t used to sharing the road with them.

3.  There are pitifully few bike racks around town, both a symptom and a cause of low bike ridership.

As you can see, there are some basic amenities for bikers that are conspicuously missing on our streets, and that’s probably the number one reason to come out and participate in Critical Mass Phoenix.  Another is that it’s a great way to get together with other people, to spend a couple of hours with them, out on the open road.  The group looks out for each other’s safety, comes together to form an entity making its way through the city, negotiating with traffic lights, waiving to people on the patios of restaurants and bars and gladly receiving the honks of supportive drivers.  For a city biker who usually feels like an exposed slow-moving speck in a world of fast-moving giants, this event is a place where she can feel as if she’s not alone, as if she belongs on the streets as much as cars do.

So if you’re a frustrated cyclist in Phoenix, or you know of one and you sympathize with her, please come out and join the Mass in support of biking on the streets of Phoenix.  You can find details about the next event here.

Photo Credit:  Critical Mass Phoenix in January 2010, photo by Taz Loomans

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3 Responses

  1. Phoenix has a lot of linear miles of bike lanes and paths–over 500 miles, according to the city web site–but since the valley is so sprawled out, we actually lack bike lane density. Bike lanes generally stop before stop signs, and then start up again on the other side, because it’s safer that way. When there’s only one lane at the stop sign, with no turning lanes, the only safe way to be clear about who has the right of way, about who should go next, is to go one at a time. If you cycle up to a single lane stop sign and stay over to the right, you are at risk for people turning right in front of you (cars as well as bikes), as well as for people passing on your left and taking your turn. Even worse if there’s a right turn lane: do not stay right unless you are turning right. When the bike lane ends before a stop sign, it’s an indication for a cyclist to safely merge into the lane, come to a complete stop at the line,and share the intersection in turn with others. I do it four times a day on my commute, and have fewer problems on my bike than I do in my car. We have to share the streets because when one street crosses another, bikes and cars have to interact. Bike boxes are another approach to this fact, but we only have a few of them so far in Phoenix. Also, I don’t have that much trouble with drivers being unaware of me. Arizona has a three foot passing law for cars passing bicycles, and while it’s not like you see the police running out of tickets because they’re handing out 3-foot violations left and right, as long as I ride predictably in traffic, and obey the laws, I experience high compliance with that law. If cars are passing too close on your left, it may be because you are riding in a lane where there isn’t room for a car to pass safely. In that case, you are allowed to ride in the lane yourself. Of course I sometimes feel vulnerable. I think I would like to join a Critical Mass ride for just the reasons you suggest. But I also suggest that anyone who cycles regularly should read a book like Arizona Bicycling Street Smarts, which is available free online at http://www.azbikeped.org/azbss.htm, and / or take a course oriented toward practical and safe street cycling. You need a lot of tools in your bag to be safe out there. Car drivers can sense commitment and predictability, and tend to react in kind to it. If people honk and cut me off, I wave and smile, leaving them with the thought “Dang that guy looked happy anyway” instead of something negative about cyclists, which is probably their standard response.

  2. Taz Loomans says:

    John, thanks for your thoughtful comment. I will be sure to check out that azbikeped document. Plus I checked out your blog and it’s EXCELLENT!

    I hope you join us at Critical Mass, it would be great to have an educated bike advocate like yourself.

    I didn’t know that about why bike lanes end early at intersections. Perhaps another challenge besides the inferior bike infrastructure is to educate bicyclists and auto drivers on the rules of the road regarding bikes.

  3. […] visiting Phoenix for about a year or so from the UK as a researcher at ASU.  I first met Sarah at Critical Mass and we exchanged a few friendly words while trying to ride two abreast and to avoid the nearby […]

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