I love dedicated bicycle facilities. I think they’re great, and when implemented correctly enhance both perceived and real life safety. I also feel they’re required on streets that are engineered 1st, 2nd, and 3rd for the transport of motor vehicles, as most of the streets in Phoenix are. They’re beneficial in an environment completely separated from car traffic as a low-stress route for transportation or recreation. And hey, anything that gets more and more people on bikes, the better off we all are.
Enter complete streets. Complete streets is a recently coined catchphrase like “going green” or “low fat” that has morphed from something good into something anybody will tag on anything to enhance its marketability. Hey Chevy, your Hybrid Tahoe isn’t “eco-friendly” no matter how much you claim it is. So when I hear complete streets from a city anymore I’m instantly skeptical. I envision most cities carrying out a complete streets policy in much the same way new arterials are built in the Phoenix area. With 3 general purpose lanes each direction, 2 left turn lanes at each major arterial/arterial intersection, a median, but wait, it’s a complete street because it has a 4-foot bike lane that’s 1-foot in the gutter, and a 6-foot sidewalk. I don’t know what’s pedestrian friendly about crossing 108 feet of rubberized asphalt when it’s 115 degrees outside, but that seems to be the standard.
So when I see 1st Street actually getting a complete street design, I’m very excited. What you’ll notice about this design, taken from the city’s 1st Street Streetscape Study page 27, is there are no bike lanes. The new streetscape design is 1st Street between Van Buren and Moreland and has enhanced sidewalks, on-street parking, two general purpose lanes, and the occasional left turn lane. If there is no dedicated facility for bicycle travel, how can it be a complete street? Let’s take a look at why bike lanes should not be included on 1st Street.
This seems counter-intuitive because what could be more dangerous than riding in the same lane as car traffic? Meeting a bear, walking a tightrope across the Grand Canyon, and eating undercooked ground beef are all probably more dangerous for most people. That’s not helpful because those are high bars of scary to meet. What’s potentially dangerous about putting a bike lane on this cross-section is how close that puts people on bikes to parked cars. Most of us would agree that on-street parking is a great pedestrian amenity as it separates people walking from people driving by a fixed object. It also adds “hazards” in the mind of a driver, so it slows motorists down. While it’s a great pedestrian amenity, it’s not the best cycling amenity.
On this street there are two types of on-street parking; pull-in angled and parallel. I’d rather see back-in angled parking specifically because it’s safer, but I’m not going to belabor that point as it’ll probably scare the bejeebers out of Phoeniecians, though maybe we should raise a stink about something so simple to implement. With the pull-in angled parking, the problem you get is not the people pulling into a space, it’s backing out. Imagine having your [insert small car model here] parked to the left of a [insert massive gas guzzler owned by some guy clearly overcompensating for something]. Now imagine backing out of that space. When are you typically able to see out your rear passenger window into oncoming traffic to know if it’s safe to pull all the way out? If you’re driving anything with trunk space, that’s how far into the travel lane you are. The lanes, as designed on 1st Street, are 14-feet wide. Let’s imagine we have a 5-foot trunk on our car; that puts us 5-feet into a 14-foot wide travel lane. Where do you think the bike lane would be in that scenario? Jackpot, right where the car’s trunk is. The bike lane would take up the right 4 feet of our 14-foot road, so if you’re traveling along 1st Street with someone driving a car in the general purpose lane and they pass you right as I back my car out of the space, to put it lightly: you’re effed. Going the other way along parallel parking, we’re worried about the bike lane taking up the door zone which is just as dangerous.
Bike traffic can serve a very useful purpose for our complete streets. By their nature of being human powered, the capability of traveling at the same speed as a combustion engine driven vehicle is just not there. We’ve all been in neighborhoods in Phoenix with posted speed limits of 25 miles per hour where people drive 40. Signs don’t mean anything to some people. But we’ve introduced on-street parking to our new 1st Street, so drivers have to slow down to 30 because they have less reaction time and more possible hazards. With a safer environment for people on foot, and metered on-street parking for car storage, the opportunity presents itself for business opportunities. Because it’s no longer possible to park in front of one business, get in the car and drive ¼ mile to park at the next destination, more people are walking along and across 1st Street, slowing traffic further.
Ultimately what will happen is traffic will no longer flow uninterrupted at high speeds. With car traffic creeping through 1st Street, waiting for cars backing out of parking spaces or waiting as people cross the street, there is a danger of people riding bikes faster than traffic and not being prepared to stop for those same hazards. Even more importantly, bike riders travel slowly. With more human-scale development and more people walking around, being behind the wheel of a car feels more and more… wrong. What I mean is, those same people that will honk and curse at someone taking the lane on Central Avenue know that the car is no longer king on this street, but rather an equal part of the street. The animosity level towards bike riders is much lower on streets where drivers expect to drive slowly than they are on streets where cyclists are “intruders.”
Which are awesome. Seriously, have you ridden or driven down it lately? They jump out at you and let people know bicycles are a welcome form of transportation. So why are bike lanes on Grand Avenue a good idea but they’re not on 1st Street? Because the type of car traffic that uses that road is difference. There are issues with these lanes as I don’t think it’s separated enough from parked cars to provide safety from the door zone, but I’m interested to see if the green paint pushes drivers toward the middle of the road leaving the left side of the bike lane free to roam.
If the city were to build speed tables, stop signs every eighth of a mile, and shrink the lanes to 9 feet, people would still drive on Lower Grand instead of heading up 7th Avenue and turning west. If for no other reason than there are no left turns allowed during rush hour still and driving down Roosevelt doesn’t offer a different cut through alternative. Some people will go down to 15th or 19th Avenues to catch Grand, but I’m convinced Lower Grand will always have a purpose for people getting out of downtown [at least during our lifetimes. Who knows what purpose it will serve in 200 years. Maybe it’ll be a chimp sanctuary or a futbol pitch or an ocean. I bet it’s an ocean]. Because of the volume and, more importantly, the attitude of people driving this street it is beneficial to have separated facilities.
1st Street stops at Hance Park/Moreland Street. It’s not a through street out of downtown, and as such it will naturally lend itself to more calm traffic patterns as people are arriving there as a destination to get to rather than a corridor to get through. The psychology of wanting to beat traffic on Grand is trumped by the psychology of going slow enough to find a parking space on 1st.
In the long-term, we are all better off no matter what mode of transportation we choose on any given day when we have compassion toward each other and co-exist instead of compete. Seeing people driving cars and riding bikes down the same street at the same speed puts us all on equal ground and gives all users the opportunity to see the people in the car or on a bike as the people we are: brothers, sisters, parents, grandparents, volunteers, accountants, athletes, sons and daughters. We all have many identities and many facets of our personality that get lost when we turn a large part of our day into “cars vs. bikes.” Slowing traffic to bike speed makes the street safe for people of all ages and abilities to ride in. Creating environments where people can interact safely will go a long way to spreading that attitude all over our city and getting the right infrastructure in the right places. 1st Street is being designed correctly (mostly… I’m starting to get more and more hung-up on the pull-in angled parking and the wide turning radii at intersections bother me as well), and instead of instinctively battling for inches of separate, designated roadway and turning to our default mode of not trusting Phoenix Streets Department, shouldn’t we instead be applauding the yards of shared, bike-friendly roadway we are getting and pushing for this design to be refined and implemented across the city?
Pictures in this post are taken from the 1st Street Streetscape Study linked above and available to the public at http://phoenix.gov/streets/reference/index.html