Changing the Regional Transportation Plan

Have you ever wondered why we build so many freeways? Why our roads are so wide and we’re always building more of them? Of course you haven’t, the answer is too obvious. Lots and lots of people drive here for everything. Going to work? Jump in the car! Going to the grocery store? Jump in the car! Going to the bar? Jump in the car! (hey, that rhymed!) Going to your neighbor’s house next door? Jump in the car! And we have lots and lots of money for building all these new roads, and have spent lots and lots of time planning for these new roads*. And people like to go fast because they hate being in a car. Seriously, think about that. If people loved driving so much, wouldn’t they want to spend as much time in the car as possible? As it is, people can’t wait to get out of the car, so they call for faster roads and fewer stops on those roads.

People often cite trips to work as a record of how much people are driving, and I think that’s because that’s the most frequent and publicly accessible data we have available. It’s very crucial information because the AM and PM peak hours test the capacity of any transportation system and the largest number of the people utilizing that peak capacity is commuters. But it doesn’t tell us anything about other trips. It’s commonly accepted that non-commute trips usually have more than one person in the car, while commute trips far too often have only one person per car, but the American Community Survey (ACS) only covers commute trips in its surveys. Another source of data is the National Household Transportation Survey (NHTS). This was most recently administered in 2001 and again in 2008, and Maricopa Association of Governments (MAG) has validated and weighted the data for the region. Both of these data files are statistically significant but also have margins for error. One such example is on the 2008 NHTS data, 92% of people commuted to work by car, whether alone or with others. The total for the 2011 ACS is 88%. We have to be aware of the margin for error in the original data that exists with anything utilizing a sample size, and recognize that as such there is a greater margin for error in my own calculations below specifically because I’m using multiple data sources.

I touched on this the other day in my LOS post, but our existing transportation system is nowhere near capacity. There are certain times of the day and certain locations that certainly meet or exceed engineered capacity, but the system as a whole is not near capacity. This is especially true during non-peak hours, which only proves to solidify the importance of commute data. So while shifting modes from car to transit, bike, or foot at all times is important, for this exercise it’s most important during peak demand hours since all the congestion mitigation money we spend is going toward increasing that capacity.

The MAG Regional Transportation Plan (RTP) takes a look at broad revenue and expenses on regional transportation programs over the next 20+ years. The draft RTP being released this year has a horizon year of 2035 and takes into account population, employment, and travel projections. One of the things I did not see as I reviewed the 350-page document is a description of what the mode split of the models assumes (I note that it’s 350-pages because I speed read the document and the data may well be in one of the appendices). I’m working under the assumption that the mode split used in the traffic generation models is not significantly different from the NHTS survey.

Over the next 22 years the RTP has funding sources from ADOT which provides a Highway User Revenue Fund (HURF) such as gas tax, license fees, and emissions testing fees, of almost $6 billion, Proposition 400 funds which are dedicated 56.2% to freeways, 10.5% to arterial streets, and 33.3% to public transportation, and federal funding from Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) and the Surface Transportation Program (STP). All told there is up to $13.9 billion dedicated to freeway construction and maintenance (if we assume all ADOT money goes toward freeways, which it doesn’t, but I’m trying to keep things simple), $2.7 billion for arterial roadways, $200 million for bike/ped projects, $7.9 billion for transit, and $187 million for air quality enhancement projects for a total of $24.9 billion. That’s a lot of money!

What I’d like to do is re-allocate that money. Why, you might ask? Because this is a bike blog and I want to see more money spent on biking! Oh, a real reason? Besides the health benefits, high economic return on investment and improved safety of our transportation network? It increases the capacity of our road network to carry people. And for much cheaper than building a bunch of new freeways and widening arterial roadways or building new infrastructure in the desert.

In Portland, 1990 is a year the city chooses to point out as when it began investing significantly in bike infrastructure. At that time the commute mode share for bikes was slightly higher than Phoenix today (0.78%) at around 1% of commute trips, but still dreadfully low. Over the next 18 years the city invested roughly $60 million in bike infrastructure and an additional $7.2 million in a biking promotional campaign through 2012. The 2009 ACS shows the city-wide bicycle mode split at 4.8%. Digging deeper it shows that there are many census tracts within the “close-in” neighborhoods with more than an 8% mode split. The average of census tracts within what is generally considered by locals to be the close-in neighborhoods averages out to a commute split of 13.1% of people commuting by bike. These selected tracts hold approximately 20% of the city’s commuters and shows how targeted infrastructure improvements can increase the number of people utilizing a bicycle for their primary mode of transportation for commuting.

This has resulted in Downtown Portland avoiding traffic gridlock despite targeted economic and population growth. If you’re not familiar with Portland’s geography, the Willamette River bisects the city separating the close-in eastside neighborhoods from downtown. As a result there are five arterial bridges that carry people from the eastern part of the city and suburbs into the downtown core (and two freeway bridges). The Steel Bridge was built in 1912 and has a lower deck for heavy rail and bike/ped traffic, and carries light rail traffic and one general purpose lane in each direction on the upper deck. The Morrison and Burnside Bridges are similar to one another in location and type and are the busiest bridges in the city**, and the Broadway Bridge carries streetcar traffic with mixed vehicles and is anecdotally the most popular bike route into downtown. I’ll just cut and paste the press release linked in the previous paragraph for the money quote:

Between 1990 and 2008 the number of vehicles on these four bridges increased by 12%, which is consistent with both increased population and activity***. However, the entire increase was borne by the bicycle (which are defined as “vehicles” in Oregon). The number of motor vehicles crossing those bridges has stayed essentially constant since 1990. Thus, those bridges work as well for automobiles today as they did in 1990 despite the increased demand for mobility.

A similar bridge about three miles south of the Hawthorne Bridge (the south most downtown bridge) is being built to replace the existing Sellwood Bridge. The current cost estimate is $307.5 million and can be used as a low estimate for adding or replacing the downtown bridges due to the necessity of permitting large vessel maritime traffic via either height or mechanical opening that doesn’t exist at the Sellwood crossing. This is all only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Portland is planning on spending $600 million over the next 20 years with a goal of increasing its bike commute mode split to 20%.

That’s great for Portland, but what does this mean for the Phoenix area? It is an example of how committing to quality infrastructure, just as Phoenix has done for the past 50 years, can guide the transportation choices people make. We’ve invested hundreds of billions of [inflated] dollars to construct one of the best road networks in the country so it’s no wonder people drive. But what would it look like if we shifted some of that money from freeways and high-speed arterials to bike infrastructure? Let’s take a look at what the future could hold. I’ve taken the 2035 data directly from MAG’s RTP and loaded it into excel. The two sections on the right are ones I added, including the per capita amount for each scenario (2011, 2035 RTP, and 2035 No Build). Further right still I added the 2035 ATP (Anthony Transportation Plan) which is an exceedingly simple mid-point between the full RTP build-out and the no-build scenario.

RTP Congestion Findings and Alternative Suggestion

RTP Congestion Findings and Alternative Suggestion

One of the things we see between the build-out and no-build scenario is that the no-build projects fewer vehicle miles traveled but almost all of those miles are taken off freeways, presumably due to congestion. This results in higher congestion on arterial roadways. What I want to focus on, and the reason we’re spending up to $13 billion on new and “improved” freeways over the next 22 years, is the hours of delay. On a per trip basis the delay caused by congestion today is about 5 minutes. Spending all this extra money translates into 8 minutes of delay, which, why would we spend so much money just to get delayed even more? Well, because the models show 12 minutes of delay per trip taken in the no-build scenario. So what we’re really doing is saving everybody 4 minutes of drive time for each commute trip taken throughout the week.

What I’d like to propose… well, what I’d really like to propose is we de-fund all freeways except maintenance of some existing roadways, demolition of some existing freeways, and ITS measures including tolling… but what I’d like to propose for this exercise is a shift in the way we spend our money. As you’ve noticed, we’ve identified almost $25 billion in transportation expenditures over the next 22 years. Twenty-five billion, with a B. Yet, according to the RTP when discussing bicycles and pedestrians (chapter 12), “The cost to reconstruct existing roadways to accommodate the above plan is beyond the reasonable available revenues at this time.” The money is there. $25 billion is a big pie to share, but the reason there isn’t enough money to accommodate the bike/ped portion of the RTP is because it’s not a priority. The only commitment to the regional bike plan is whatever we can get from the federal governments and support that with a 5.7% match from our local municipalities.

There certainly are some restrictions in how we can use that $25 billion. Since the ADOT money comes from the HURF and the Arizona Revised Statutes (A.R.S. 28-6538) and Arizona State Constitution Section IX, article 14 prevents user fees from being used for non-highway uses. I haven’t the legal expertise to work around that to argue that expanded light rail or new commuter rail on freeway corridors would be considered as an appropriate expense because it effectively increases carrying capacity in the corridor. I think it may be because ADOT is running the show on the Passenger Rail Study between Tucson and Phoenix, but I’m not going to spend too much time arguing that HURF money could be used to add bike lanes on state roads like Country Club, or create bikeable shoulders on our rural 2-lane highways.

Prop 400 sets the allocated percentage of funds and distributes those funds between freeways, arterial streets, and transit. The language that I am familiar with on the arterial street element of Prop 400 is it says improvements and new arterial facilities a lot. I’ve been looking for the past several years for the actual legislative document for Prop 400 with no luck, so I stick with the annual reports like this for what knowledge I do have. What I’d like to do is shift some of the money spent specifically to create the opportunity for higher speeds and higher volume of car traffic on our arterial network to increasing the capacity and safety for people to bike.

For the remainder of the existing Prop 400 program I’d leave the freeway and transit aspects alone. I’d love to shift some of the funding for those, but politically it may be such a pain that we end up fighting about it until the extension expires at the end of 2024 rendering the entire purpose a wasted opportunity. Ultimately the money collected from Prop 400 and the inevitable Prop 500 are the highway funds I’d like to see used to improve cycling in and around our regional highways. Utilizing Prop 400 money to improve freeway crossings for people on bike, adding bicycle facilities to Country Club/Arizona Avenue, or widening the shoulder on Bush Highway or Rio Verde/Dynamite to improve safety for people driving and riding a bike would be especially helpful in connecting routes and improving access.

For the next 10 years I’d like to guarantee a portion of the arterial funding from Prop 400 to improving the bicycle facilities on arterial roadways. This would include adding protected bike lanes to 7th Street and 7th Avenue in Phoenix, building a cycle track on Thomas or Indian School all the way through Phoenix, placing (at a minimum) bike lanes on the entire length of Scottsdale and Rural Road, and countless other delayed or not-yet-planned projects to connect the region and enhance the cycling experience for many people. When Prop 400 expires and the inevitable Prop 500 goes to ballot, we need to ask for a shift in funding. Instead of wasting spending 56.2% of our funding on freeways, we shift the funds and dedicate a large amount to cycling and increase transit funding. Here is what the current allocation looks like with the assumption that Prop 500 is the same as Prop 400:

Proposition 400 Spending Allocation Through 2035

Proposition 400 Spending Allocation Through 2035

I have modified the allocations and added Bike/Ped to come up with the following table:

Modified Proposition 400 Spending Allocation Through 2035

Modified Proposition 400 Spending Allocation Through 2035

When we add ADOT, STP, and CMAQ funding to the picture, the total funding for projects from 2014 – 2035 looks like this:

Total Original RTP and Revised RTP Funding Through 2035

Total Original RTP and Revised RTP Funding Through 2035

When we compare these numbers to the “ATP” above you’ll notice that I cut new freeway miles and arterial miles in half but funding on freeways and arterial streets by about 15%. By shifting an additional $2 billion to transit and dedicating an extra $600 million in bike/ped we create an opportunity for greater infill development opportunity, thus reducing the need for new roadways. These road funds may be utilized to maintain our existing infrastructure as it begins to reach the end of its original life cycle, re-purpose and calm our arterial roadways, re-stripe arterials to better support mixed-mode transportation, and improve our ITS throughout the city. Eliminating the I-10 reliever and South Mountain Freeway would result in additional funding that could be used to provide grade-separated parallel bike facilities along freeways that turn a 10-mile commute from a slow, stoplight infested journey next to high-speed car traffic to a calm, peaceful, and quick bike commute that people of all skill levels could enjoy.

How much of a mode shift should we actually expect from all this re-allocation of money? Well, let’s take a look at Portland. They spent $60 million dollars over the 18 years beginning in 1990. To compare the cost and effectiveness across a geographic area I chose to take a look at their land area which is 133 square miles meaning they spent approximately $450,000 per square mile of land area in the city. The result of that spending was a 4.8% mode split city-wide. I measured the land area of what I typically consider to be “urbanized Phoenix” which is the area inside the loops, plus I added East Mesa, Apache Junction, Queen Creek, South Gilbert, South Chandler, and Ahwatukee, and ended up with 837 square miles of land. This means if we were to apply straight math with the same results per dollar spent over the entire region we’d have to spend $376,650,000 just to reach 4.5% mode share. But remember, there were some key census tracts that held 20% of the total city population and that mode split was 13.1%, so the money is being spent to strategically build new infrastructure where it is likely to make the biggest effect. So if we focus on the most heavily populated areas we come down to about 571 square miles and $257,950,000 needed. If the new distribution of funding is put into place immediately, and the results Portland has seen are matched, we can have 4.8% mode share by 2025.

My goal when I started this exercise is a 15% bike split by 2035. A lot would have to go right to make that happen; namely land use code would have to be changed and density would have to increase. Improving high capacity transit and making close-in neighborhoods where people want to live and where some density is promoted will do a lot to push toward achieving that goal, and that’s part of the purpose behind shifting $2 billion in freeway money to new transit investment. I would like to focus on building a streetcar network in Phoenix that ties to the light rail line for regional travel while strategically increasing densities along Camelback, 7th Avenue, 24th Street, 44th Street, Baseline, Grand Avenue, and McDowell, all contributing to an urban, vibrant, and diverse downtown core. While 15% mode share is a lofty goal, between the additional $2 billion in transit, the predicted increase in freeway congestion (again, regardless of whether we build hundreds of new lane miles or not), and the $830,000,000 in bike/ped infrastructure, it is an attainable goal. So what does that look like?

Working off the above scenario I’ve projected 45% single-occupancy vehicle (SOV) use, 12.5% carpool use, 15% public transportation use, 5% walking, 17.5% taxicab, bicycle, or other means, and 5.5% working from home in 2035. There are only six major cities in the country with an SOV rate below 50% for commuting, so I’m aware that this is ambitious… but it’s possible. And this is an exercise in potential, so I’m sticking with it. What does that future look like?

Actual, Projected, and Revised Projected Commute Mode Splits

Actual, Projected, and Revised Projected Commute Mode Splits

If we are able to successfully invest in other modes and make them more attractive to people and get them out of driving alone we end up with fewer SOV’s [read: cars] on the road. If we assume a current carpool rate of 2.2 people per car and assume a future carpool rate of 2.7 people per car (to account for an increase in parking costs in the urban core, increase in fuel cost, and ITS measures to promote higher occupancy), the net gain of people using cars to commute daily will increase by 10,578 by 2035. By strategically placing the 372 new lane miles I suggested earlier, we can pinpoint bottlenecks and improve traffic flow where congestion occurs instead of just laying down expensive mile after expensive mile of exurban freeway.

At the end of this exercise, we’re spending the same amount of money on the transportation system whether we implement the RTP or the ATP. We still get a few new lane miles of freeway, add some new arterials in the exurban areas to allow for new development in the already platted subdivisions, but we could continue to allow everybody to have the freedom to drive their own car if we implement the full RTP, right? I’d be remiss if we didn’t take the opportunity to look at the economic benefits of freeing people from needing to own their own car. In fact, if we take the 2011 ACS data table B08141 which identifies the number of cars in a household by mode taken to commute and project that data into our 2035 assumptions we can see that implementing the ATP could reduce personal vehicle ownership by 665,837.

2035 RTP Car Ownership and Modified RTP Car Ownership Projections

2035 RTP Car Ownership and Modified RTP Car Ownership Projections

AAA estimates the annual cost of owning a standard-sized sedan is $9,122 in 2013. Sources vary, but two numbers I found indicate that between 16% and 23% of funds spent on personal automobiles stays in the local economy. For this exercise I’ll use 23%. If we take these numbers and inflate auto ownership expenses at 3% per year, we see that households in the MAG region spend $11.6 billion less on car expenses with the ATP scenario than the RTP scenario. With $9 billion of that money being spent on cars leaving the local economy, by reducing our automobile dependence we keep those dollars flowing to local businesses (while simultaneously improving personal finances due to lower debt and greater opportunity for savings). At an average sales tax rate of 8.5% that means $762 hundred million of that spending is returned to cities and the state in the form of sales tax revenues every year. While not all of that tax revenue is a direct return from enhanced cycling infrastructure (as much of it is a return from transit investment), the sales tax revenue gained from this scenario is enough on its own to pay for all the cycling infrastructure improvements and then some.

Going beyond the sheer economics of being able to get rid of a car we get options. Look at the first table again. We can spend all this money on all these roads to try to speed up traffic, to get people places faster, but we still end up with more congestion than we have today. We literally cannot keep up with demand. By neglecting non-automobile modes of transit, we’re forcing our citizens to sit in traffic jams for an extra 8-12 minutes per trip. We’re promoting longer commutes and generally deteriorating the quality of life as 45-minute commutes turn to 60-minute commutes or longer. While the ATP doesn’t eliminate this congestion, it gives people options and maintains investment in the road network necessary to move goods. New light rail and streetcars promote strategic density and give more people an option to live in desirable neighborhoods closer to employment centers. Street calming and bike facilities make neighborhoods more habitable for families, slow traffic speeds, and generally make our existing urban centers more enjoyable to live and travel in. In either scenario people are free to sit in freeway traffic to and from work if they so choose. Only in a scenario where we shift the priority from moving cars to moving people can we honestly say we have transportation options. Why should we spend so much time and money building things that only make people unhappy when we could be improving people’s daily lives on a massive scale? It’s time for something drastically different, and it starts with changing our priorities and how we spend our money.

*Proposition 300 passed in 1984 and its extension Prop 400 passed in 2004 and dedicated a 1/2 cent sales tax to building the freeway loop system, major arterials, and eventually Metro Light Rail (among other things). South Mountain Freeway has been in the planning stages for over 30 years(!) as it was approved in both Prop 300 and Prop 400 and land use has been predicated on that freeway being built, making it very important in the models to “reduce congestion” which is why there are so many people committed to forcing that $1.9 BILLION project on us.

** Non-freeway division. They’re busier than the I-405 bridge, and since nobody really considers I-5 as being a bridge because the entire length of the freeway is a viaduct, they’re often considered the busiest bridges in the city by traffic volume

***Mr. Geller, the author of that paper, was referring to the four bridges with bike facilities. At the time those were Broadway, Steel, Burnside, and Hawthorne. In 2009 a protected bike lane was added on the Morrison Bridge giving all five bridges on the street network bicycle facilities.

Disclaimer: I interned at MAG in 2009-2010 in the transportation modeling division and have used all publically available data and sourced any data I received from MAG to their public site as well as data from the 2011 5-year ACS from the US Census. I have contributed work on some of this data previously, and am a contributing author on the Analysis of Add-on 2008 National Household Travel Survey. I have no current affiliation with MAG as an entity and all analysis and opinions contained in this post are my own. This is not an academic paper, and is not designed to withstand academic rigor; it is an exercise in potential and possibility. I have pulled a lot of data from a lot of sources, but some of the sources are disjointed and I am missing some data and have had to make some assumptions. For example, the NHTS data I used was from 2008 and the ACS data I used was from 2011; there was much that changed between those years, but it’s the best I have readily available. This was put together with about 20 hours of work over three weeks (and this is what I love to do and why I don’t blog very often, because this is the kind of content I like to put out). The actual Regional Transportation Plan is put together by MAG with thousands of worker hours over years of maintaining and creating new data sources. Many of the people working on it have multiple PhD’s and are using vast and complex models to project into the future. The work I put into this is in no way meant to discredit the work those people have done, it is merely a suggestive glimpse into something different. They are much smarter than I am, and I have learned a lot from people who have put the official RTP together. I would love nothing more than to perform a comprehensive analysis to determine the feasibility of this plan, but I certainly can’t do it from a volunteer position by myself before the data becomes completely obsolete.


Phoenix Car Culture: Level-of-Service

Phoenix is a car city. Are you shocked yet? There are many reasons why Phoenicians utilize the personal automobile as their primary mode of transport. Many cite the heat but weather doesn’t stop cold winter cities like New York, Seattle, or Chicago from having low(er) car usage, so I don’t buy that argument. It’s more likely a combination of land use and transportation infrastructure. I was reading through the Downtown Phoenix Plan because that’s just what I do, and there were a few things that stood out to me that are worth noting. In Chapter 5, the Circulation and Parking Plan, page 5-4 explains what is expected of future traffic conditions. First, from the leading paragraph on that page:

“…The major congestion points will continue to be located along the access routes to the freeways and on the north-south arterials (7th Avenue and 7th Street).”

 Followed by the paragraph entitled “Future Traffic Conditions”:

“…Comparison of the estimated roadway capacity with the projected traffic volumes shows that existing congestion will likely increase with new areas of congestion developing. Roadways where congestion is likely to increase include 7th Street and 7th Avenue, Roosevelt and McDowell Streets. Roadways where existing capacity is expected to exceed projected future demand include 1st Street and 2nd Street between I-10 and Fillmore Street.”

There is clearly disconnect here between what is or isn’t an acceptable level of inconvenience for drivers. The planning document indicates there is an unacceptable level of congestion on the 7’s, Van Buren, and Roosevelt as-is, and further development will increase that congestion. A 2010 Level-of-Service (LOS) study conducted by the Maricopa Association of Governments (MAG) shows morning delay at 7th Avenue and Van Buren as “LOS-E”, 7th Avenue and both I-10 and Washington as “LOS-D”, and all other downtown intersections surveyed as “LOS-C” or better. The following chart shows the LOS thresholds in this survey:




Control Delay per vehicle (seconds per vehicle)




<= 5




> 5-15




> 15-25




> 25-40




> 40-60




> 60


 The evening peak hour shows a similar picture with the same LOS-C and LOS-E locations, but Central and Van Buren deteriorated from LOS-A to LOS-E. Of the eight intersections surveyed during peak periods, none received failing grades.

 The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) references the Highway Capacity Manual defining LOS as “the additional travel time experienced by a driver, passenger, or pedestrian.” This includes time spent decelerating, in queue, and accelerating when compared to free flow traffic conditions. Now compare the MAG threshold with the FHWA’s Signalized Intersections Informational Guide.



Control Delay per vehicle (seconds per vehicle)




<= 10




> 10-20




> 20-35




> 35-55




> 55-80




> 80


It’s indicative of the culture that persists here in Phoenix that not only are our roads designed for high speed (50-60 MPH design speeds), high-volume (mostly 3-lane major arterials) travel, the amount of delay at which an intersection is considered inadequate is lower than the federal standards. The roadways that are designed for high-efficiency travel have not been effectively designed for safe or comfortable travel by any other mode than an automobile, relegating active mode users to the side streets and increased travel delay.

I’m often one to scoff when a one minute delay through a corridor is what compels DOT’s to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to add a new freeway traffic lane, it’s an obscene amount of money to spend to save people one minute per day. But being as I utilize a bike for my primary mode of transport, and largely being relegated to high-stop thoroughfares such as 1st Street or Fillmore, I can understand how being delayed 30 seconds per intersection can become frustrating over long distances because every person riding a bike does it every day if we choose to avoid high-volume arterials*.

There’s much consternation about whether congestion is a good thing or a bad thing. Some people argue some congestion is good like Emily Badger in this Atlantic Cities piece. Paul Grover of the London Telegraph is one of the many people who prefers to focus on the downside of congestion (and to be clear, London’s congestion delays drivers more than the threshold mentioned in Badger’s article), so which is it? I think Matthias Sweet hits the nail on the head in the Badger article when he says: “Sometimes the cost of alleviating congestion is higher than the cost of the congestion itself.” We don’t always have to have free flow traffic to have a thriving economy. Some congestion slows people driving, which makes walking safer and biking more appealing, which moves more people at a lower cost, which creates lively streets where people want to live and spend money, which boosts the economy. And when more people are walking and biking, more cars are taken off the road (which we know are later replaced by induced demand), but the capacity of the roadway has increased significantly by the measure of moving people.

While this is anything but scientifically conclusive, my point is simply that LOS is not an adequate way to engineer our roads. The 7’s, Washington, Van Buren, and Jefferson are all much, much too wide and fast to be a part of any downtown, let alone one working to become more accessible by foot and by bike. If we continue to maintain an LOS E or higher on every intersection, it’s likely to involve widening roads or creating new travel lanes, fewer stops for traffic (and similarly fewer places for people on foot or bike to cross those major streets), and we’ll be less inclined to make changes to move more people faster even if it’s at the expense of moving fewer cars slower. We can and should be expecting a greater return on our investment of public infrastructure, because the amount of congestion savings we’re getting from the money we’ve put in to our wide roads and extensive freeways isn’t worth the decay and desolation of our urban cores.

*And even when I do ride on arterials, the timing doesn’t suit bike speeds very well. I’ll commute both directions on Brown Road through Mesa and if I ride right about 20 MPH between Gilbert and Recker Roads I can hit every green light, but any <10 MPH deviation either faster or slower and I will hit every red light (what I mean is, if I go 30 between intersections I can make the next light, or if I go 10 between intersections I can catch every light, but going 22 or 18 – no dice!).

UPDATED: This article was originally published on November 1, 2013 and updated on November 6, 2013. I added two before the last paragraph because I really didn’t feel like I concluded my thought. Hopefully this makes a little more sense now.

Central and 1st Avenue Should Get a Bikelift

Jeff Speck prefers cities turn their one-way streets into two-way streets in his massively popular book, Walkable City (if you haven’t read it, do so immediately. I couldn’t put it down), and he makes a convincing argument to do so based on the economic response in Savannah and the safety record in Minneapolis. Here in Phoenix we have only a few one way streets unlike, say, Seattle or Portland. But unlike those cities, the one-way streets we do have are massive and fast, which makes them prime contenders for shifting to two-way designation. Of course I’m talking about Washington, Jefferson, Central, and 1st Avenues, the four main streets that intersect the very core of our city. Jefferson and Central each have five lanes of traffic in some places and would be perfect candidates to re-purpose. Central Avenue north of Roosevelt is a two-way street with two general purpose lanes in each direction bisected by the light rail line. South of Roosevelt it is split into 1st Avenue and Central Avenue. Central has two lanes and a center access lane between Roosevelt and Van Buren, and is three northbound lanes south of Van Buren. 1st Avenue is three southbound lanes between Roosevelt and Lincoln.

I’ve been kicking around this idea for a couple days now as part of a larger preparation for the next two weeks bike master plan meetings where we remove one of the lanes of general purpose traffic from each of Central and 1st Avenues, and turn the right lane into a Bus/Bike/Right Turn Only lane. The idea reinforced itself as I was headed back to work today after going outside for a walk and I took this picture:

Looking south on Central Avenue at 3:30 PM on a Monday

Looking south on Central Avenue at 3:30 PM on a Monday

That’s 3:30 in the afternoon on Monday looking south from Central and Washington. Crickets. Not a car in sight except that one parked outside the left lane just south of Jefferson. During rush hour the right lane is jam packed with express and local busses, so nobody really even drives in that lane unless they’re making a right turn anyhow. During mid-day it’s obviously a ghost town. This is what I envision this section of street looking like:

Central Avenue painted for a bike/bus lane only

Central Avenue painted for a bike/bus lane only

What you have is a solid white line separating general traffic from a bike/bus only lane. Approaching intersections where a right turn is allowed, the solid white line will turn to a dashed white line and a sign indicating right turns are permitted will be present. At the intersections there will be a green bike box and “Bikes Only” lettering in the box. No right turn on red shall be permitted and cars are required to stop behind this bike box at all times, and people driving cars must turn right from this lane; they cannot continue straight. If this becomes an issue with drivers getting in the right lane to jump a queue, bollards may be placed at the far end of the intersection with a generous clearance for bicycles but provide a deterrent for drivers to try to squeeze through the intersection ahead of general traffic. Furthermore if general traffic attempts to utilize this lane, traffic bollards may be installed for a small additional cost where traffic is not allowed to merge.

SB 1st Avenue painted at an intersection for bike/bus lane

SB 1st Avenue painted at an intersection for bike/bus lane

On Central Avenue north of Van Buren where the road shrinks to two lanes, I’d propose to continue the bike-lane aspect in the access road to the left of the light rail tracks. At Van Buren, this would include utilizing a queue jump signal priority for bikes and busses to allow a clear, worry-free crossing from the right lane to the far left lane. In the event a bike rider reaches Van Buren during a green light signal, they may perform a “Copenhagen Left” maneuver by crossing to the far side of the intersection and waiting in the bike box in the right westbound lane on Van Buren, and proceed to cross to the left side of Central Avenue once the Van Buren light turns green. This is an atypical utilization of the Copenhagen Left, but allows the rider to cross the two through traffic lanes safely and with minimal stress.

NB Central at Van Buren bike/bus lane shifting to access road

NB Central at Van Buren bike/bus lane shifting to access road

To the north of Van Buren, the initial left turn lane remains a bike/bus lane for busses accessing Central Station, and north of Polk remains an access road but serves as the primary cycling route on Central until Roosevelt. I’m open to suggestions to the type of surface to be installed on this access road, but my initial thought was to place pavers here. The shortcomings of that, of course, are skinny-tire bikes would be just as uncomfortable to ride here as cars would be to drive, but the goal with this is to implement a speed limit of 15 MPH so as to allow people driving full left-turn and business access and let drivers know this space is for bicycle travel and walking, first and foremost, and taking a car here is to acknowledge it is a shared space. At Roosevelt, bike traffic would be allowed to turn left or right; signalization, signage, or other design elements should be implemented to minimize the probability of people turning right onto Roosevelt across train or car traffic moving northbound.

Central Avenue access road re-paved for bike access

Central Avenue access road re-paved for bike access

This is one idea I have for making Downtown more bike-friendly. Anecdotally I don’t feel that traffic would be hindered hardly at all based on my observations of traffic behavior along these streets as well as based on the right lane of 1st Avenue being closed during the YMCA/SRC expansion/construction. So what do you think of this idea? So crazy it might actually work? Carmaggedon waiting to happen? Or maybe you can improve on the idea to make an even better solution to moving people north and south through Downtown by bike.

Where are the 1st Street Bike Lanes?

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.

1st Street Streetscape between Fillmore and Garfield.

1st Street Streetscape between Fillmore and Garfield.

Potentially Dangerous

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.

Typical cross-section of 1st Street Streetscape

Typical cross-section of 1st Street Streetscape

Slower Traffic

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.”

Grand Avenue Has Green Lanes

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

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.




Phoenix Capital Improvement Program

Much is made, and rightfully so, about transportation departments relative lack of funding for facilities to improve cycling and walking. It’s a bit of a tricky balancing act to look at funding and apply broad-brush assumptions to any budget. Drainage and re-surfacing projects positively impact cycling by maintaining a safe and smooth riding surface. Included in the construction of [most] new streets anymore are standard AASHTO bike lanes and sidewalks.

At the same time it’s important to pay attention to how those facilities are integrated. A re-surfacing project that only paves fog line to fog line creates a dangerous ledge that people riding bikes can crash on. A bike lane along a 45 MPH arterial designed for 60 MPH is better than nothing, but still keeps interested but concerned people off their bikes and reinforces sprawled out land use. Even as money is spent on a new road, some of that money is [usually] spent for the additional right-of-way required to install a bike lane and the construction materials for sidewalks. I don’t put a huge emphasis on monetary budgets because culture change and best practices are a more sustainable change, but money spent cannot be nor should it be neglected.

It’s a reflection of culture change when instead of transportation departments saying they don’t have enough room or money to add bike lanes to a $20 million, six-lane arterial widening project [generic, stereotypical example], the street is re-designed to allow people to safely navigate by bike before proceeding with the project. It’s a reflection of culture change when money budgeted for a road with projected volume of 35,000 in 15 years but no demand today is re-allocated to design and construct safe cycling and walking facilities on important existing roadways such as Thomas and McDowell. Money’s not an end-all, be-all, but it is a useful tool we can use to improve bicycle options on key arterial corridors.

Now that I’ve wasted all that time setting the stage, the Phoenix Street Transportation and Drainage Capital Improvements Plan for 2014-2018 was provided to me via the website (actually, the Phoenix Streets Twitter handle sent me the 2013-2017, so I’m editing this post on the fly), and I’ve got notes! The total 5-year program cost of $565,039,198 UPDATE WITH 14-18 FIGURE: $581,931,335 which is divided into general categories such as ADA compliance ($718,813 or 0.1% of the total budget), Street Modernization ($13,719,168 or 2.4%), and Major Street, Bridge, Pedestrian and Bikeway Construction ($336,970,613 or 57.91% of the total program). It’s difficult to get a good feel for what is included in these budget categories because everything is an improvement or modernization or rehabilitation. Traffic Calming Improvements likely mean adding traffic-calming infrastructure, but if there is a low LOS because of an existing traffic calming measure, removing this would also be considered an improvement in engineer-speak. The Highway Enahcement for Safety Project at 32nd Street and McDowell (ST89320023) is $2.5 million of $10 million 5-year program budget for traffic calming, but without any design plans we can’t tell how the project improves traffic.

It’s a little lot misleading to entitle a $337 million category with “pedestrian and bikeway” in the name. Within that category is a $29.2 million budget for on and off ramps for Black Canyon Boulevard to SR-51 and $59.8 million to construct a section of Rio Salado Parkway. Every project in that category to improve bicycle or walking facilities totals $13,268,335, or 3.9% of the Major Street, Bridge, Pedestrian, and Bikeway Construction total. Unfortunately, and this is something Phoenix is getting pretty good at, a good chunk of it is being spent on a project that does more to appease calls for active transportation equity than make meaningful change. In year five of the program, $6.1 million is designated to build a pedestrian bridge across 7th Street between the Science Center and the Children’s Museum. It is a grand example of what appears to be the mentality among many of our municipalities that people are simply an obstruction to be eliminated instead of making meaningful change and actually making our streets safer on which to drive or ride a bike, cross, or walk along.

I think the people making these budgets mean well to put something like this together, but it’s ultimately a failed attempt to appease a group of people pleading for safety and human-scale improvements rather than having any interest in making any meaningful change to the status quo.

I went in to this document expecting to see $50,000 of bike funding buried in this budget somewhere and came away pleasantly surprised that almost 3.9% of the new construction budget is slated to be spent improving walking and cycling facilities and another 1.6% of the total program is spent on traffic calming. Unfortunately, this is not enough. The amount of harm being done with the money spent to widen, straighten, and otherwise increase traffic volume and speed does much to negate every dollar spent on actual street improvements. Whether too much or not enough money is spent directly improving bicycling and walking infrastructure need not be the focal point of our voices.

3.9% of the budget isn’t enough because there is so much to catch up on, but we can make significant headway by changing the way we build our streets. If we can leverage the money currently spent on roads in general to slow the streets, integrate bike lanes and on-street parking, reduce the amount of right-of-way dedicated to moving vehicles, and other traffic calming methods we can essentially turn the budget for biking and walking from 3.9% of the budget to a much, much higher percentage while simultaneously improving conditions for people in cars. We need to focus on updating our engineering and design standards to promote active transport modes in every project, and instantly the budget for cycling and walking shoots to the moon.

Tempe to Close Travel Lane on Broadway

The City of Tempe is running a simluation to get an idea of what to expect when Broadway Road is re-positioned between Rural Road and Mill Avenue. Between September 16 and September 30 the outside eastbound lane will be barricaded off and the city will conduct traffic counts on Rural, Mill, and Broadway, as well as traffic counts and speeds on Alameda, Encanto, Dateland and College. According to the department’s Public Information Officer, Sue Taaffe, the city will conduct similar counts September 10 through 12 to establish a baseline data set. She also said that in instances when a traffic lane is barricaded off, such as this, bicycles are not technically allowed in the lane.

Broadway Redesign

This is all in preparation to expand Broadway Road from five through lanes of traffic to six. The re-design will replace the existing design of three eastbound, two westbound, and one center turn lane for motor vehicle use. The new design will include two lanes of through motor vehicle traffic in each direction, one lane of bicycle traffic in each direction, and a landscaped center median. The project will also enhance existing facilities for walking traffic along the corridor.

Upon conclusion of the simulation the existing lane will re-open to traffic and the city will host a public meeting to discuss the results on October 17 from 6:00 to 7:30 PM at Community Christian Church, located at 1701 South College Avenue. Citizens are also encouraged to submit comments and concerns online at through October 28.