Today’s post is by contributing writer, Will Novak, an officer of the Thunderdome Neighborhood Association for Non-Auto Mobility.

The City of Phoenix Streets Department is finalizing a new design for Roosevelt Street in Downtown Phoenix, between Central Ave and 4th Street, with the goal of making it more pedestrian-friendly.  While this ought to be exciting news here in the land of six-lane arterials, the plan the City has shown the community is underwhelming at best.  While hundreds of jurisdictions across the country have adopted “Complete Streets” policies to promote walking and biking, Phoenix is being left in the dust and this project is no exception.

The City’s Plan

The City has received a large federal grant to improve Roosevelt Street for pedestrians and provide wider sidewalks.  These are both admirable goals, but the grant doesn’t specify exactly how wide these “wider” sidewalks must be.  The current conditions on Roosevelt Street show a patchwork of broken sidewalks ranging anywhere from 6 to 10 feet (though 8’ is most common).  While the current sidewalks are too narrow, the City seems intent on creating the opposite problem as they are pushing for overly-wide 20’ sidewalks.  While 20’ sidewalks are appropriate in some high-density urban shopping settings (i.e. Michigan Ave in Chicago) they’ll lead to empty feeling sidewalks on Roosevelt Street.

1. City Plan For Roosevelt

The Streets Dept. Plan: 20’ sidewalks, 5’ bike lanes, 10’ auto lanes, and a 10’ center turn lane.  Notice all the empty sidewalk space.

The biggest problem with the City’s current design is the removal of our existing on-street parking.  While at first it may seem counter intuitive that parked cars are better for pedestrians, when we think about it, they are essential.

The Benefits of Parallel Parking

If you think of your favorite mid-density, urban shopping street anywhere in America, I’m willing to bet it has on-street (usually parallel) parking.  Whether its Newbury Street in Boston, Haight Street in SF, Hawthorne St in Portland, the Miracle Mile in Coral Gables, or Mill Avenue in nearby Tempe, they all have parallel parking. Why is it that the best urban streets have parallel parking?  It’s because parallel parking does many wonderful things:

1.     The Buffer: A row of parallel-parked cars creates a 2,000-lb steel buffer between pedestrians and moving vehicles. 

Cars that might jump the curb and otherwise injure pedestrians or people at sidewalk cafes are much less able to cause a serious injury if they have to plow through another automobile.

When the City of Phoenix was asked “what provides a pedestrian buffer in your plan?” they proudly stated “there’s a bike lane between the sidewalk and auto lane.” The City of Phoenix apparently thinks that cyclists are the speed bumps for out of control vehicles.  There won’t even be trees to protect pedestrians because those are being placed 10’ from the curb.  So removing our parallel parking on Roosevelt will directly expose the sidewalk to moving traffic, similar to McDowell or 7th Street.  Those are not conditions we should be bringing to Roosevelt.

It’s also important to remember that Transportation for America ranks the Phoenix metro as the 8th most dangerous place for pedestrians in the US.  In the last decade nearly 900 pedestrians have been struck and killed in the Phoenix metro.  But it should be noted that none of the pedestrian fatalities in the urban core have happened where we have on street parking.

2.     Friction: Parallel-parked cars create “friction” for moving traffic, slowing it down.

Good urban spaces don’t have fast moving cars.  A row of parallel-parked cars makes drivers wary of cars pulling out or parking, as well as doors swinging open.  Naturally, this slows auto traffic and creates a safer and more pleasant environment for pedestrians, cyclists, and street-side diners.

3.     Turnover and quick trips: Parallel parking helps businesses.

If you’re driving but want to quickly stop in to Song Bird for a coffee, you don’t want to park in garage, go down an elevator, cross a street, etc.  Parallel parking is ideal for people grabbing coffee, take-out, or dropping off a package.  It adds to that great hustle bustle, urban feel that we all want Roosevelt Row to have.  Seeing a row of parked cars in front of a business also gives passers by a visual cue, “There’s something happening here, people are into it, maybe I should check it out.”

4.     On-street parking reduces the need for off-street parking.

One of the biggest hindrances to our downtown is ‘gaps’ in the urban fabric.  Good streets have a continuous wall of storefronts to peer into or at least other visual interests at the pedestrian level.  When we remove on-street parking, that slack must be picked up somewhere else.  That means more shopping mall style surface parking lots, which are the antithesis of urbanity.  More surface lots also means increasing the urban heat island.

2. Gap in fabric

Surface lots are necessary w/ out street parking and create urban “gaps.”

There are other benefits to parallel parking as well.  A recent study shows that parallel parking deflects auto exhaust, decreasing pedestrian exposure to pollutants by around 40%.

Parallel Parking is Great!  So…why aren’t we getting it?

Unfortunately when it comes to on-street parking, the City of Phoenix has an antiquated, suburban policy.  It’s the City’s policy to ask adjacent landowners whether or not they want on-street parking.  While input is great, adjacent landowners should merely be providing feedback, not the final say on our public right-of-way.  After all, the nearby landowners may be restaurateurs, retailers, or artists – it’s not their job to be experts on street design.  The City Streets Department should be leading the way by educating the public on what a complete, urban street looks like and how it functions, instead of conceding design control to landowners who lack the expertise in this critical field and thereby giving the broader community a product that no longer reflects national best practices.

It’s not surprising that some landowners may want overly wide sidewalks and no street parking.  They’re concerned that they need huge sidewalks to handle First Friday crowds.  Unfortunately, that sort of short-term thinking means comfortably wide sidewalks one day a month, and an empty auditorium feeling for the other 29 days.  There’s a myriad of other creative solutions that can be applied to First Fridays – the easiest being to simply bag and barricade the street parking for one night each month to accommodate the exceptional pedestrian traffic (which is what we do today).

Some landowners want extremely wide sidewalks to provide space for very generous street-side dining.  With eight months of great weather, Phoenix is an ideal place for street-side dining.  However, many cities have street-side dining without overly-wide 20’ sidewalks.  Luckily, creative folks have also developed the idea of “parklets.”  These temporary boardwalk type structures drop into a parallel parking stall and create wider pedestrian and dining options where needed.  This is a versatile solution, instead of following the current “one sidewalk fits all” plan.

3. parklet

Imagine eating a sandwich from Carly’s on a parklet some lovely March day.

A Better Plan

Unfortunately, to change the City’s current design and gain (or should I say, keep) the benefits of on street parking on Roosevelt, we must act very fast.  The City will submit its final design for the federal grant on March 15th.  Luckily, the City does have a plan that includes parallel parking, and says they will revert back to it if that’s what the community wants.

Below you can see a better plan: 12’ sidewalks (with trees and structured shade), 8’ parking lanes, 5’ bike lanes, 10’ auto lanes, and a 10’ center turn lane.

4. Woodia's streetscape rendering

Rendering by Woodia Yu

This plan creates a true “complete street”.  It has enough room for pedestrians, even on busy First Fridays.  It preserves parallel parking and all its benefits, but also allows for parklets and street-side dining.  There are the same allowances for bike lanes and automobiles, too.  It isn’t the perfect design (that would require removing the center turn lane and separating the bike lanes), but this plan is by far the most versatile and the most urban that we can hope to realize.

We hope you agree that a “complete street” with parallel parking is best for Roosevelt Row.  If you do, we encourage you to contact the City of Phoenix Streets department and let them hear from you.  They can be reached at:

Gail Brinkmann, Project lead: Gail.Brinkmann@Phoenix.Gov

Ray Dovalina, Assistant Director of Streets: Ray.Dovalina@Phoenix.Gov

Streets Dept Phone: 602 262 6284

Remember, the City only has until March 15th to decide whether or not to include parallel parking, so please let your voice be heard immediately. Roosevelt Street may be our best hope for a quality, urban, walkable street in the next 10 years – and will likely serve as a template for other downtown streets – so let’s make sure to get this right.

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8 Responses

  1. Nicole says:

    I am curious to know if any proposals can be included where the bike lane does not share the lane with a moving vehicle or some sort of buffer is included to separate the cars from the bikes? (see example in this link: http://streetswiki.wikispaces.com/file/view/complete-streets1.jpg/127761495/complete-streets1.jpg)

    I live downtown, but ride Mill Avenue in Tempe every day to work. While I appreciate the slower traffic on this street, and a lane for my bike, the driver’s door in the parallel parking opens into the bike lane, causing a danger to cyclists, as well as drivers cutting into the bike lane to make right hand turns, or simply drifting in the lane from not paying attention. Having a buffer, or perhaps one-way street or even a closed, non-motorist block downtown would create a haven for people to freely move in this area and provide safety to cyclists.

  2. Lisa says:

    I agree. The bike lane should be inside the parallel parking lane.

  3. Will Novak says:

    We all agree that the bike lane should be on the other side. However, this is an option the City refuses to look into. They’re at the 90% of complete design phase, so basically our options are go with whats more or less a Mill Ave type solution (like I outlined above) or accept the City plan which is 20′ wide super sidewalks and no buffer of parallel parking.

    In an ideal world the bike lanes would be as you described, but we’d also get a planted media w/ cut outs for turns at intersections (also like Mill Ave).

  4. KarenVC says:

    Arizona seems to have an obession with center turn lanes. I wish they 86 that and keep the street parking. That would slow traffic down. Roosevelt is a drag way.

    • crazybaldhead says:

      I agree. If we wish to create a pedestrian and bike friendly corridor, at some level discouraging vehicular traffic makes sense. Allow it, but make it secondary (since its primary in 99.999% of other areas). Perhaps 3rd st, 3rd ave, and Roosevelt could be a start?

  5. Lisa says:

    Since lack of on street parking is a business killer, it’s no wonder that this street is not bustling with more shops and restaurants. I don’t see much pedestrian activity right now (except for a couple nights each month) and the lack of parallel parking just reinforces that fact. Pedestrians like to feel comfortable in a space; they like it to be defined by borders. A huge expanse of sidewalk and no cars to form a buffer with not make these blocks feel pedestrian scaled. Sidewalk cafes will help with that, but they won’t be lining this entire stretch of street. Besides, sidewalk seating is still entirely possible with a more pedestrian scaled street and parallel parking.

  6. BAM
    (just add the center turn lane)


  7. Brian in MD says:

    These are great design standards (in the photo above) . not only for Phoenix but for any suburban/urban mix where ped flows and ped LOS (per HCM) is not too great.
    Vehicles do make great buffers provided opening doors do not intrude into sidewalk (bike lane intrusion by parked auto doors usually cannot be helped).

    Unfortunately, on the Least Coast property (right of way) costs so much and most often already has land uses.

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