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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.

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14 Responses

  1. Randy Kinkel says:

    The wrong-way sidewalk issue is important. it is actually against the law in Tempe, I know because when I had an accident doing it I also got a ticket! Metro needs to step up the design and number of bike racks in the cars, IMO. Good point about the grid system in PHX– people need to know that they can take less busy parallel streets to the main routes. maybe make more of those “Bike Routes” like Alameda in Tempe.

  2. kelBel says:

    “Yes, very rare. Bike crashes only account for 1.5% of all automobile crashes. So it’s very rare.”

    This statement seems kind of auto centric, to borrow a phrase from the article. I fell that cyclists probably represent an overlarge percentage of accidents in comparison to their use of the system. How many crashes are there per cyclist miles? I know that they have this statistic for fatalities versus car miles driven (http://www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/departments/nrd-30/ncsa/STSI/4_AZ/2008/4_AZ_2008.htm), and I would bet that this number is much higher for cyclists. So sure, if you are driving a car it is rare for you to hit a cyclist. The other side of the coin is a little different, however. As a daily cyclist, I have a “close call” almost every day.

    Anyways, I look forward to reading the rest of the conversation and am glad to learn that we have a Bicycle Coordinator at all.

  3. Hi Taz, the bike lane on Washington both runs for a long distance and is a decent width. It even feels like it is physically separate at 24th Street, although I guess cars can still drive there. I think the Light Rail construction was what gave us the Washington bike lane, wasn’t it? I offer thanks to the Light Rail boffins every time I ride that lane.

    Try Central Ave on the weekends. Sunday morning you can usually fly down it with few cars around. Check out a video I took on gorgeous January morning this year, where I wanted to try both street and sidewalk.

    On the City of Phoenix web site earlier this week, I read that “In 2006, there were approximately 1.2 million bike-boardings”, which is incredible, and makes me think there are lot more people out there using bikes to get around than you might think. It’s also incredible that Kerry and Joe are so aware and concerned about the needs of bicyclists. More bike racks, and more “share the road” education to both motorists and cyclists would go a long way, I think. Thanks for this interview!

    • Taz Loomans says:

      John, as always, your optimism is appreciated and your passion for bike riding as well. I love your video!!! Do you mind if I link to it in the next installment of the biking interview?

  4. BB says:

    It sounded to me like its all negative. Rather than here is what we can do. Phoenix autocentric yes we know that all ready.

    Biking in Phoenix is easy. In the core of Phoenix you have a 1/4 mile and .5 mile gird complete for the most part. In north Phoenix you have a huge assortment of bike lanes. Discontinuous yes, but by piecing canals, .5mile , 1/4 mile, and bike lanes its rather easy. The biggest problem is getting people out on the road. I could weeks without seeing anyone on the road. Perception and harassment, sends them to the sidewalk.

    One problem is when you need to buy something. 80% percent of my car free driving was done on secondary roads or canals. This can ring true what they said. In that business want car traffic. The reality is that the shops just moved to where all the car traffic is. Zoning helped. There are spots where you still can see a stores on secondary roads. 12th street and Oak. 40th street and Campbell.

    “We don’t have the population densities in any large areas that are easily connected to commerce areas by bike-able distances. ”

    Completely untrue Camelback and Central.
    Density around 4,000. Downtown and 24th street all easy to bike to on secondary roads. Highland street awesome. 3rd street awesome.

    “Downtown is changing that but the entire city street grid is set up for cars”
    Untrue
    Recently added Hawk at the 7th ave merchants.
    Road diet on 15th ave.
    Speed hump program
    Many places have diversions.
    31st ave and Encanto. Creates a .5 mile road all the way to Dessert sky mall 79th ave.
    3rd street bridge at the Grand Canal. Connects a paved canal path to 40th street and Washington. Links Sunnyslope and Downtown all on secondary roads or canals.
    A few examples.

    “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”
    Untrue
    48th street to baseline, Southern, Union Hills, Washington, South Central, Ray , and Baseline all have bike lanes. Baseline was just added.
    Funding and lack of insight is the problem.

    “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,”

    Central had a 16feet lane. So why no bicycle lane an easy lane to share. I do believe they were 3 lanes in each direction.
    Camelback added an eastbound lane. Due to right of way they demolished businesses on the south side of Camelback. So rather than a bike lane we got another car lane and ripped a whole bunch of businesses out.

    “As Joe mentioned, there weren’t bike lanes there before. Central is an important arterial into Downtown. ”

    Keep in mind you have 7th ave and 7th street are .5 mile away. Both of those streets handle 30,000 cars a day. During construction autos used both of those streets mainly. Do we really need another mega arterial road?

    “When you screw around with traffic volumes, either capacity or delay, you start affecting the businesses.”
    Keep in mind Central is T.O.D.> development, so that is nice we keep focusing on cars.

    “So far, they’ve been pretty agreeable to letting people like me stand in the aisle with their bikes.”

    Because when they built the light rail their train bike racks were built for smaller Jappanese bikes.

    “I wouldn’t ride my bike to work if I didn’t have Metro”
    That’s the spirit.

    I really think they have an uphill battle.
    I lived in Phoneix 2004 to 2007 with out a car. The density and sprawl make it hard to realize you can put your life in a 10 mile circle. Its just easier not to.
    Phoenix IMO is one of the best places to be car free and bike everywhere. Transit is useless. The metro is a great addition, but it really just replaced the redline with out going to the airport.

    I often cited Phoenix as being the last refuge camp for autos. As more and more cities get it. Phoenix carries on with its mantra choke, fumes, congested lanes, and sprawl.

    Its nice to see they have a coordinator again. Things have gotten much better since 2008. I found South Scottsdale much better if you don’t need transit ever.

  5. No I don’t mind at all, please link it. Feel free to link, or use my photos anytime, please attribute the content to me and my blog. -JRA

  6. Will Novak says:

    Wow, its really frustrating to continually here people from all area of the City’s departments say things that are just flat out incorrect.

    “To add a bike lane to Central you need to remove a lane of traffic”? Really? Bikes are as wide as cars now? Traffic lanes in Phoenix (including Central) are much wider than in most cities, they could be narrowed to allow for a bike lane. Additionally the sidewalks and planter strips could be re-worked.

    If and when we eventually kill the anti urban Suicide lanes on the 7s, hopefully better, safer bike lanes will be a part of the replacements.

    And enough of this “Phoenix has always been built for the car” lie. Early Phoenix (that includes where most the historic hoods are) was built for the streetcar. “Ride a mile and smile the while” and all of that. With modern streetcar, Light Rail, neighborhood circulator buses (like Tempe’s terrific Orbit system) and bike lanes, we could get back to that.

    Sadly, the answer when anyone presents anything visionary or thoughtful to the City the City generally answers with a fancy way of saying “that sounds hard/expensive and we’re lazy, sorry.” Its maddening.

    • Taz Loomans says:

      I agree that if they had committed to it, they could have added bike lanes to Central without losing very much car capacity. I get the feeling there is a big car-lobby in this city, hence the widespread support of the suicide lanes among the councilmen.

  7. Will Novak says:

    Widespread support among Councilmen for the suicide lanes? Maybe Im misremembering but haven’t both Simplot and Nowakoski said they don’t like them? I seem to recall hearing (at least some of) the council members saying they don’t like them and that studies should be done, etc. but then never really coming up with a good idea of how to get rid of the lanes, what to replace them with and how to fund that transition.

  8. […] the biking community to get together and be heard. I commend the organizers – City of Phoenix bicycle coordinator Joseph Perez and traffic engineer Kerry Wilcoxon for making a concerted effort to listen to what the bikers of Phoenix need and […]

  9. […] that there was no way I could do it by myself, I recruited City of Phoenix bicycle coordinator Joe Perez to help me organize it. And boy am I glad I did! Joe was able to map a route through the coops that […]

  10. […] are some images put together by City of Phoenix traffic engineer Kerry Wilcoxon with details of the road diet so we’ll know what to […]

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