A Fond Farewell

A brief history: The last time I posted regularly was in November, ironically around the 1-year anniversary of my bike crash on Rio Salado Parkway as I was crossing under the 101 Freeway. There were a couple notable events that I made sure to share, but a combination of a brief depression, a tumultuous time at work, and frustration at writing about “bad bike news” in Phoenix limited my desire and ability to write effectively. My goal when I began this was to produce quality writing that went beyond simply reporting on bike events and policies, and arm my readers with facts and information that allowed them to deliver better arguments in favor of improved bike ability and walkability in and around Phoenix. I do hope you all found that I, to some extent, achieved those goals while I was active.

I am not a Phoenix native. Furthermore, I embodied the nature that has been built in Phoenix over the past few decades: I lived in Mesa, went to school in Tempe, and worked in Phoenix. I have commuted by car, by bus, and by bike. I had a conversation about four years ago with a friend that I was struggling on whether I needed to stay in Metro Phoenix and help to generate an improvement in urbanism and walkability throughout the region, or the need to evacuate to a location that already had the improved infrastructure, and more importantly, a transformed mentality that embraced and emphasized active transportation. As I grew older, got married, and have started contemplating adding children to our family, I had to evaluate where Phoenix was as a region. The values I looked at were almost exclusively related to how likely I felt my children would be to grow up in a city where it was safe, comfortable, and stimulating to autonomously transport themselves if we stayed in Phoenix.

Starting with current infrastructure, the suburbs of Phoenix are actually quite advanced as measured by the League of American Cyclists. Scottsdale is a Gold Bicycle Friendly City, Tempe is silver, Chandler, Gilbert, and Mesa are all bronze. There are important pathways such as the Indian Bend Wash, the Canal Trails, hundreds of miles of on-street bike lanes. These are calculated in the qualifications of whether a city is ranked or not, and are very helpful. However, I remained convinced, especially as it relates to on-street bike lanes in these suburbs, that these infrastructure are but a platitude in an attempt to quiet the voices calling for safer streets. We know that speed kills, that at 30 miles per hour 45% of all collisions with pedestrians result in death, and at 40 miles per hour 85% of these collisions result in death. All our arterials have 45 MPH speed limits with design speeds between 50 and 60 MPH, which drivers continually test. Then 4-foot bike lanes are haphazardly placed on these roads, obstructed by sewer grates, gutter pans, and debris. This is one example of the compromise that is typically made not just in Phoenix but across the country. Simply put, it’s bike washing. It’s creating the illusion of bike ability without actually creating transportation options, and it’s especially prevalent across Phoenix.

This can be changed, but when I was let go from my job I had to make a decision on whether to stay in Phoenix long-term or move. I was absolutely determined to move from my home in East Mesa this summer. Tempe’s most walkable community is the Maple-Ash neighborhood with a Walkscore of 69. The Phoenix Central City neighborhood has a walkscore of 60. (These are indicators, not the end all, be all). The lack of connectivity combined with the perceived mentality I have of politics and how difficult it is to make any positive changes to the land use and transportation convinced me that there is no place in the Valley that I will feel comfortable raising a family. A 5-10 year plan to remove one lane from each of the 7’s in Downtown Phoenix, the intense opposition and watering down of the University Streetscape Repair in Tempe, the 1-mile “fix” of Broadway are all examples of half baked, haphazard, and disconnected bike infrastructure that is common in these cities. I fear that even considering the best efforts of the community will result in at least 20 years, likely 40-60 years before there are affordable neighborhoods that allow for walkable, safe streets. As a result, we have decided to move to Denver.

We actually left Mesa permanently on June 23, and will be renting an apartment in the Capitol Hill neighborhood. I think it is important to note that Denver is very similar to Phoenix in many ways, and from a bike/ped posture it was in a similar situation in 1990 as Phoenix is in today. That is encouraging to see that an auto-centric, multi-nodal metropolis can evolve and adjust to a higher quality of life, and with groups like Tempe Bicycle Action Group and Phoenix Spokespeople Phoenix is on the right track. I highly encourage each of you to get involved with TBAG and Spokespeople in as many ways as you can. The bigger the organization, the more weight it pulls on our political leaders and the more you can get done collectively. There is a bright future for Phoenix, and cities like Denver and Portland provide great blueprints for how to make effective change in auto-centric cities with a strong downtown street grid in place. The dedicated leadership is in place, now it just takes persistence for those of you with a strong passion for the city, who deeply love Phoenix, to make a difference. I wish you all the best today and in the future, and I’ll have my eye on Phoenix; I’m excited to read about the great changes in store!

Sincerely,

Anthony A. Avery

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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:

 

LOS

 

Control Delay per vehicle (seconds per vehicle)

 

A

 

<= 5

 

B

 

> 5-15

 

C

 

> 15-25

 

D

 

> 25-40

 

E

 

> 40-60

 

F

 

> 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.

LOS

 

Control Delay per vehicle (seconds per vehicle)

 

A

 

<= 10

 

B

 

> 10-20

 

C

 

> 20-35

 

D

 

> 35-55

 

E

 

> 55-80

 

F

 

> 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.

Head to CityScape During Your Lunch Today

Valley Metro is celebrating the start of Rideshare Month today with a celebration at CityScape. Baxter and the Phoenix Suns Gorilla will be on hand at 11:30, the new bikeshare bike will be there for you to check out, and Valley Metro’s resident bicycling expert Suzanne Day will be on hand to answer any questions you may have. It’s a great opportunity to find the best way to plan your bike commute if you have been thinking about getting on your two wheeled friend.