I had the pleasure of speaking with Kerry Wilcoxon, the Traffic Engineer in charge of Safety in Neighborhood Traffic and Joe Perez, the Bicycle Coordinator at the City of Phoenix a week and a half ago at Giant Coffee. I asked them why we don’t have the necessary bike infrastructure in place to make biking a viable mode of transportation in Phoenix and what the City is doing about it. In today’s post Kerry and Joe talk about how Phoenix was originally planned around the car and why although this is a very hard thing to change, there is one thing that is already helping to transform the city to being more bike and pedestrian friendly.
In tomorrow’s post they talk about an interesting plan they have to help make biking a recognized mode of transportation in Phoenix, on par with automobiles.
Below is our conversation:
Blooming Rock: What are the top three safety rules that you’d like cyclists to be aware of?
Kerry Wilcoxon: Our number one bike crash mode is bicyclists actually riding on the wrong side of a sidewalk. And they hit or are hit by cars coming out of driveways who are naturally looking at approaching vehicle traffic coming from the other direction. That’s probably the biggest source of crashes. It’s not the biggest source of injuries but the biggest source of crashes.
Joe Perez: And that’s gotta be the number one rule for sure is ride on the right side of the road, ride with traffic. Another is to obey all traffic control devices, red signals, stop signs.
Kerry Wilcoxon: I would say above that, wear a helmet, no matter what. That’s probably the number one thing, wear a helmet.
Joe Perez: But it’s not the law.
Kerry: No, but it is a good idea.
Blooming Rock: It’s not the law? I didn’t know that.
Kerry Wilcoxon: Tucson and Yuma have a law that says anyone under 16 has to wear a helmet, but we don’t have one in Phoenix and we don’t have one in the Maricopa County area. We tried to get it a couple of years ago but there was very little support for it and it just kind of faded away.
Blooming Rock: Speaking of sidewalks, I ride my bike on the sidewalks because I’m scared to ride it on the streets. What’s the law regarding riding your bike on the sidewalk?
Kerry Wilcoxon: The law is that you can ride it in any direction on the sidewalk, but you have to yield to pedestrians.
Blooming Rock: So you can go against traffic?
Kerry Wilcoxon: Yes. It’s not good. I think it’s in recognition of the fact that most people are like you and me, frankly. Most of my bike miles when I ride anywhere of significance, are on sidewalks. I keep track of crash statistics so I am aware of how rare it is for bicyclists to get hit. But I’m still leery of being on certain roads as a bicyclist.
Blooming Rock: Is it rare for a bicyclist to get hit?
Kerry Wilcoxon: Yes, very rare. Bike crashes only account for 1.5% of all automobile crashes. So it’s very rare.
Blooming Rock: But do you think that’s because there aren’t that many bicyclists on the road?
Kerry Wilcoxon: Absolutely. There aren’t many people riding bikes, there’s a lot of fear. There’s not many facilities, there’s not a lot of continuity on bike lanes, and there’s not a lot of places, even a place like this (Giant Coffee), where you can park a bike and lock it up. To me, it’s not a real friendly bike community. But I’m not a bicyclist.
Blooming Rock: What’s the history behind our lack of bike lanes in Phoenix and why do you think we lag so far behind Tempe and Scottsdale?
Kerry Wilcoxon: Distances are spread out more. It wasn’t until recently a real concentrated population of biking people, like you have at ASU, (appeared). We don’t have the population densities in any large areas that are easily connected to commerce areas by bike-able distances. Downtown is changing that but the entire city street grid is set up for cars. And most of the time it was set up for cars exclusive of freeways. So it’s very possible to go from point A to point B and never have to worry about getting on a freeway in Phoenix.
And when you do that, you have to build your streets for large volumes of high-speed traffic and that’s not usually compatible with bike lanes. And you add to that that in most cases in Phoenix, the road system expands to the limits of the right-of-way. So if you go down any north-south, east-west, or other arterial street, a four to six foot wide sidewalk is right up next to the street. And there’s literally no room for pedestrians much less bicyclists. So you just don’t have the room anymore. There was just no comprehensive planning for biking back in the 60s, 70s, and 80s as the city grew.
Blooming Rock: When the Light Rail was being built, why did they not provide for bike lanes?
Kerry Wilcoxon: It was a missed opportunity. It doesn’t appear that there was much consideration given to adding bike lanes. That was probably for a couple of reasons. Most important of which is the fact that you need a certain amount of right-of-way for the train, and you had to take that right-of-way away from cars. And you’re building it (the Light Rail) on arterial streets, so you’re putting it into an area that’s already very densely packed with cars. And they didn’t want to give up another lane of traffic for bikes. It’s a missed opportunity, but I believe that they didn’t have a lot of choices. Even just going down Washington or Jefferson, as a bicyclist, I think the bike lanes on Washington are not very user friendly.
Joe Perez: What I remember was that the City promised to put the roads back as close to original as possible. Central did not have a bike lane to begin with, so they were going to put it back together without a bike lane. Because Washington and Jefferson had bike lanes, they put the bike lanes back in, and also because the Coalition of Arizona Bicyclists was present during the public hearings and demanded that bike lanes be returned.
Blooming Rock: Are there any plans for adding bike lanes on Central?
Joe Perez: I don’t think we’re going to add a bike lane on Central.
Blooming Rock: Why was it important to people not to have a bike lane on Central?
Kerry Wilcoxon: As Joe mentioned, there weren’t bike lanes there before. Central is an important arterial into Downtown. In order to put a bike lane on it you have to remove a traffic lane, and if you do that, a couple of things happen. First, your capacity decreases on Central. Second, the capacity of your traffic signals, the number of cars you can get through a traffic cycle, because you have one fewer lane, drops. And as a result, backups occur at the signals. But then along with that, you have businesses that are on Central, who are used to a certain density of cars, and who are used to a certain amount of left-turning opportunities. When you screw around with traffic volumes, either capacity or delay, you start affecting the businesses. That means fewer cars ultimately come across that business’s front door and (that leads to) less exposure and potentially less business.
Blooming Rock: But that’s the car-centric model. People on bikes have money and they could go to shops.
Kerry Wilcoxon: Sure, absolutely. Unfortunately, when the planning is done, we have very good ways to count the number of cars on the street. We have very poor ways of counting bikes. A businessman knows that he gets 20,000 cars per day on Central going by his shop because he can look vehicle traffic volume up online, but he doesn’t have any idea how many pedestrians or bicyclists go by his shop because no one is counting bicyclists and pedestrians. He just knows he gets 20,000 vehicles that go by, and of those 20,000, he gets 20, 30, or 40 to stop by his shop and spend money. He doesn’t know how many bicyclists of pedestrians do that. All he knows is what’s associated with the cars.
When you start talking about taking x percent of cars away, he or she can relate that to customers. The thinking may go that: if you remove 20% of the vehicles from the road, I can expect 20% fewer visits. Whether that’s right or wrong, that’s the only way he has of measuring business and associating it with traffic volume. It IS auto-centric, but at this point our measurement techniques and many people’s business models are based around the car.
Most of the businesses on Central are all set up as car-centric. They all have parking lots right in front of them. They all have x number of parking spaces per square foot, and they are advertising to people who are in the car, on the road. They’re not advertising to the people on the bikes. It doesn’t mean it’s right or wrong, but when you start talking about changing the street, you affect this person who’s spent their life savings to open up a coffee shop or a bookstore who chose that location based on exposure. And the exposure numbers they have are only car-based. And so when you say we’re going to cut 20% of your automobile exposure,that really cuts into somebody’s life.
I’m not saying that it’s right or wrong, but that’s the model we have and that’s how Phoenix has been built.
Blooming Rock: So it’s going to be very hard to shift that.
Kerry Wilcoxon: There is one way you can shift it and you’re seeing the shift with Metro (the Light Rail). In a few years, you’ll start to see all the dilapidated properties along Camelback and Washington and Central Avenue fill up with people who are going to be using Metro as a primary mode of transportation. So you’re going to start to see businesses and homes and offices built up that are populated by people who are taking the Metro, walking or biking. Once that changes, you’ll start to see increased bike loads, you’ll start to see increased bike demand, and you’ll start to see more businesses that are bike and pedestrian friendly open up along Metro.
If you ride Metro, you can already see how it’s affecting the bike psyche. I live out East and I catch the Metro on Priest and Washington, when I first started taking it last year, I had no problem finding a bike rack, there’s only 4 per car. It was very rare that I could not find a bike rack. Nowadays, whenever I get on there, I can’t find a bike rack. They’re usually taken up and I’m forced to stand in the aisle with my bike, that means that you’re already starting to see more people using bikes who wouldn’t otherwise. I wouldn’t ride my bike to work if I didn’t have Metro. I think that’s going to change and hopefully Metro picks up on that and expands its bike facilities on the car, but I think right now they think they can’t. So far, they’ve been pretty agreeable to letting people like me stand in the aisle with their bikes.
Stay tuned for more of our conversation tomorrow!
Photo Credit: Photo of the bike racks at Lux Coffeebar. Photo by Taz Loomans.