Why I Don’t Leave my Bike at Home

Today sucked. Well, that’s not true. Today was an inconvenience. An annoyance perhaps. Whether it sucked or not is merely a matter of my state of mind, and it wasn’t too terribly bad at the time, but the icing on the cake just turned it from a day of inconvenience to being just about to my wit’s end with Metro Phoenix.

I had to get some blood drawn at the VA this morning at my “local” clinic. I live near Power and Brown in Mesa, and this clinic is on the ASU Poly campus at Power and Williams Field. It’s actually a pretty convenient bus ride, but I had to mentally prepare myself for the trip from the VA to work in Downtown Phoenix.

I figured I’d just ride my bike in to work after my doctor’s visit and save some time compared to riding the bus. But the “best” bike route through Southeast Gilbert appears to be along Williams Field Road, through Santan Village, and navigating stretches of bottlenecked two-lane road to… Well I wasn’t sure. Horne? Is that a road still in Chandler and does it go through town or does it get cut off by a subdivision? I can certainly look it up, but it’s a rhetorical question that exemplifies some of the obstacles to biking in the suburbs.

My initial thought was to take Consolidated Canal all the way around and back to Country Club and Brown, but I nixed that as I’ve been avoiding Rio Salado since the construction at the Cubs stadium and Marina Heights has forced signage indicating that motorists are to “share the road” which I presume to mean they will not.

Frankly I’m not familiar with bike facilities in South Chandler so I didn’t really see anything on a map that resembled something enjoyable to get to the Western Canal. As you can probably tell, I’ve gotten sick of riding on major arterials. In fact I’ve been avoiding commuting by bike because of how stressful it is to ride these streets, even with bike lanes, for 24 miles. So I decided the bus would be the best option.

Since everywhere I was going today was within a few hundred yards of a bus line I needed I left the bike at home and headed south on the 184 leaving my house at 6:20. I have good veins and was at the doctor’s office a half an hour early, so I finished at about 7:45 and was able to catch the next bus and waited for it to leave for about 10 minutes. As we pulled in to Superstition Springs transit center I noticed we would barely miss connecting to the LINK. I checked the 40 and 45, but they all left at the same time. Three parallel routes that run within half a mile of each other and all stop at the Sycamore light rail station left at the same time. Because giving people options is less important than leaving the transit center on a round number. *sigh* I’m still doing fine at this point as I wait on the LINK bus from 8:10 to 8:30.

The rest of the ride went as planned with a good timing between the LINK arriving and LRT departing, so it was a casual stroll across the street and I arrived at my office by 10.

Tonight I was wrapping up some work and oddly my brain shut off. I thought about pushing through it but looked outside and saw the 535 coming down Washington so I thought if I hurried I could make it! I took the train to Roosevelt and ran from Central to 3rd Street and arrived with car traffic too heavy to cross. As I was standing there on the wrong side of the street I saw my bus drive by and jump on the freeway. *sigh* A 30 minute headway until my next bus arrives. So I’ll have left my office at 5 and, if I catch the bus at Power Road, I’ll be home around 6:35. If I miss the bus*, I’m wearing dress shoes and slacks but may well jog home in about 20 minutes instead of waiting 30 more minutes and taking 20 more minutes after that to get home.

I share this because this is the type of day that makes me want to give up on this city. It’s days like this that make me understand why people own cars in Phoenix, and shade my perspective toward that of Metro Phoenix never being a livable place during my lifetime. These are the things I experience that get me so frustrated by the crumbs our governments leave for improving the transportation options in The Valley.

The truth is the experience is similar in Gresham, Oregon (Portland) and Kent, Washington (Seattle) or any of the other far flung suburbs of other cities. It is not unique to Phoenix but it is magnified by the sheer size of the region. Unfortunately the distinction is there really is no escaping the suburbs in Phoenix. While moving to an urban neighborhood in Portland or Seattle is not only an option, it’s reasonably difficult to avoid, finding an urban neighborhood in Phoenix is literally impossible. There is no grocery store in Downtown Phoenix or Downtown Tempe so that eliminates those places from even consideration as urban, and those are the closest to urban we have.

There is a lot of potential for Phoenix to have a real downtown, and there are a lot of dedicated people working to make that happen. Considering how far downtown has come in the last 10 years, and considering how far away it still is from being a viable urban center, it’s hard to imagine a transplant like me caring enough to stick it out and work for the next 40 years to finally make Phoenix a place I’d want to raise my children. It’s days like today, which occur all too frequently, that take away a little bit of hope for this city and push me closer still to the fastest freeway out of town.

*I missed the bus. I’ll be home around 7 today.

Lower Grand Green Lanes

Grand Avenue is undergoing a transformation between Van Buren and Roosevelt with the replacement of a motor vehicle standard travel lane with a bicycle only travel lane and on-street parking in each direction. The average daily traffic volume on Lower Grand has dropped from over 20,000 per day in the 1980’s to 11,500 per day in 2011.

This is beneficial for bicycle travel because it will slow motor vehicle traffic and provide a designated space for people to travel separated from traffic on their bicycle. As good as it is for bicycle use, it’s even better for people traveling on foot. Parked cars provide an excellent buffer from moving traffic that enhance safety from the occasional wayward vehicle and it provides added distance between moving traffic and the human scale of the street.

What’s lesser known is these types of projects have historically been beneficial for motorists as well. Speeds are typically slower (this example in Seattle saw average speed drop from 42 to 33 MPH. Posted speed limit is 30…), reduce the number of collisions, and do not reduce traffic flow when appropriately placed. In fact, replacing a four-lane road with one lane each direction and a center turn lane can actually improve traffic flow because drivers turning left no longer impede traffic flow [that isn’t the case here; Grand was two lanes each direction and a center turn lane. The reason it works on Grand is due to the low traffic volumes.].

As of now I haven’t seen or heard of any improvements to connect the new green lanes with other bicycle routes or the Downtown core. This means once one arrives at Van Buren, the rider is forced to join mixed traffic between 7th and 6th Avenues. Fillmore doesn’t have a signal crossing 7th Avenue, so even if you’re able to find Fillmore off Grand Avenue (hint, it’s accessed via 9th or 10th Avenues), good luck crossing 7th during rush hour. Even though it’s not connected yet, the Grand Avenue green lanes are another piece of the puzzle being built to connect Downtown and its adjacent neighborhoods by active transportation modes.
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***UPDATED THURSDAY MORNING AT 8:33. NEW WORDS ARE IN ITALICS, AND “MOTOR VEHICLE” HAS BEEN REPLACED BY “STANDARD” IN THE FIRST PARAGRAPH.

Bikeshed Exercise

I met up with a new acquaintance the other night over coffee to talk about local planning issues, strategies for improving government coordination, and about our personal lives to get to know one another. One of the more concrete ideas brought up was the activation of a bikeshed. Without much discussion, it was agreed upon that a comfortable radius from which a node can attract people to travel by bike is 2.5 miles, and that a node should include all essential services for daily city living. Examples of these services would be a grocer, restaurants, dry cleaner, hardware store, bakery, and some clothing stores.

Phoenix’s history of terrible* land use and transportation policy has put us in a position where walkability is almost non-existent. While acknowledging the limitations of Walkscore, the neighborhood that grades out the best in Phoenix is Central City with a 63 followed by Encanto at 60**. This low walkability is one of the primary reasons why cycling should be the preferred mode of transportation to bridge the gap between automobile dependency today and the day when Phoenix is walkable. Unfortunately, these two neighborhoods also grade out as the highest Bikescores in the city, each scoring 68. In a nutshell, this means for people to walk or bike in even these most “urban” neighborhoods, it takes a very conscious and deliberate mindset to utilize active transportation modes in daily life.

One of the better conceptual ideas in Phoenix planning was to establish villages. These 15 villages are established geographically and by community character. Each of these villages also has what’s been coined a primary hub, and four of the villages have secondary hubs. Another term for these hubs in the planning world is a node. These are supposed to be the commercial and cultural center for each village, and serve the needs of its citizens. I decided to take a look at these village hubs to see what kind of opportunity there is for connectivity using the aforementioned 2.5 mile radius:

2.5 Mile Radius around each Phoenix Village Hub

2.5 Mile Radius around each Phoenix Village Hub

If we’re going strictly by the 2.5-mile standard, you can see there are gaps in the system that create longer distances to hubs, meaning it’s more palatable to drive than it is to ride a bike. So what would the city look like if the number of primary nodes were increased to fill the rest of the city? It would look like ten new primary hubs:

2.5 mile radius filling in the gaps

2.5 mile radius filling in the gaps

Just for funsies, I took one of my favorite walkable cities, Portland, and ran 1/3 mile radii around the hubs that I am familiar with:

1/3 mile radius from nodes in Portland

1/3 mile radius from nodes in Portland

And compared them to the Phoenix hubs I’m familiar with using the same scale and starting from the central city:

1/3 mile radius from nodes in Phoenix

1/3 mile radius from nodes in Phoenix

To be honest, it’s apples and oranges and we can argue about what a hub is or isn’t. But it should be pretty clear there is a difference between the cities. I feel I was pretty generous with Phoenix; For example, I’m not sure that Phoenix Ranch Market on 16th Street and Roosevelt would be considered a node but it does seem to be important to the neighborhood, but it’s primarily a single use whereas the nodes in Portland each provide multiple essential services. I also have no idea what kind of node(s) exist on the 7’s north of I-10 because I avoid those streets due to my mode choice. Likewise in Portland, I selected those nodes based on what I’m familiar with using transit or a bike to get around. All the space between the yellow circles is a result of many factors, but transportation preference and block size are two of the biggest. Those hubs in Phoenix are easy to get to by car, they’re a convenient travel distance by car, and they’re spread out enough where they don’t generate a ton of traffic. The Portland hubs I’ve highlighted have access to high-quality transit, small blocks, narrow streets, and a mix of uses. Parking is difficult to find (except Lloyd District) and there are always lots people walking or biking in those neighborhoods.

I don’t really have a point to make; I just thought it’d be a fun exercise to see what a 2.5-mile radius map would look like in Phoenix.

*Personal opinion based on my worldview of what a city should be, and not exclusive to Phoenix.
**By comparison, New York, San Francisco, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, Seattle, Washington DC, Miami, Minneapolis, and Oakland are among the cities whose composite Walkscore is higher than 63.