Bike Commuting Still a Pain – In Phoenix, Anyway

bike commuting
Phoenix could use more of this – especially if they actually connect. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I decided to give bike commuting another try. That’s because I saw a nice slice of new sidewalk go in next to the canal along Indian School Road just west of Scottsdale Road. It looked like it stretched pretty far. Perhaps far enough to get me close to my office on 24th Street and Camelback.

Bike Commuting Step 1

I got new tires for my still-sweet 1999 Lemond Zurich. I handled that easily enough with a stop at a local bike shop, and a bit of time watching Netflix. The next morning, I started gliding along south Scottsdale’s bike lanes under cloudy skies.

And damn, it was nice! I rode up the canal on 64th Street to Indian School, and found a mile snarl getting across the street.

Then, I was on the new canal path. Ahhh, if bike commuting can be this good, sign me up for more!

Well, that feeling only lasted until just east of 56th Street when the pavement ended. Oh, hey! What a coincidence that this right about the Scottsdale/Phoenix border. Grrr. I just rode the dirt to 56th, took a left and cruised up Lafayette. That’s a decent ride. Not many cars, and a good chance to maintain a nice rhythm.

But the problem comes at 44th Street. Phoenix recognizes this as a bikeway. Yet it provides no safe way for bicyclists to cross 44th Street. Oh, and 44th has no bike lanes. It’s up to us to find a break in traffic, then we have to use the sidewalk (because that’s just not a safe street without bike lanes) to reach Campbell before we turn west. It’s one of my least-favorite parts of today’s ride, and part of why I think bike commuting sucks in Phoenix. It represents so many other half-assed executions of half-assed plans.

I got through unscathed, and it was fairly smooth sailing -- until 32nd Street. The road there is torn up for some task I couldn’t discern. The construction squeezes north/south traffic to one lane each direction, and cars can’t cross from the east or west. Bicycles and pedestrians can -- legally, even.

Once I got across that snarl, I was onto Campbell. That was great until I approached 24th Street. I had to figure out how to enter my building’s parking garage. There is not a single bike lane leading to the building at 24th and Highland. I don’t want to ride in the street along 24th, and people drive like savages on Highland despite the 30-mile-per-hour speed limit. It’s really no place for bike commuting.

I settled onto taking Campbell a few blocks west past 24th, hooking north, crossing Highland and riding down the north sidewalk into the building. Hardly optimum bike commuting, but it’s what I had to work with.

There, I went into our handy locker room where I stashed toiletries and a change of clothes. I was ready to use one of the three shower stalls. I opened the first, and found that the plumbing fixtures were ripped out. Same with the second. The third still had fixtures, but no water flowed. Funny, considering how much money the building management spent on prettying up the entrance from the parking garage to the offices – right down to leather couches and an LCD television that nobody ever watches. The only other showers in the building are locked down, with very few keys available. And I was too early to work to possibly find one.

I just used my towels to clean up as best as I could, threw on some deodorant and headed to upstairs to my office.

That’s a whole lot of crap to go through to bike commute to work. Phoenix and Maricopa County make a lot of pro-alternative transit noise -- but I see so few consistent, measurable advances (Step 1? Fine the shit out of companies that don’t provide adequate locker and shower facilities). Until bike lanes quit disappearing – until they link in a sensible manner – until people can stay safe -- bike commuting in Phoenix will continue to be only for a small fringe of the work force.

I’ll probably do more bike commuting – it’s a great way to get some exercise. But the Phoenix-area bike infrastructure will continue to be my biggest obstacle.

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Why I Won’t Commute by Bike in Phoenix

commute by bike
This is why think Helsinki is a world leader in getting people to commute by bike.

There’s no way I’ll commute by bike in present-day Arizona. A post at the Architecture Travel Writer blog made me think about why it’s not one of my transportation alternatives.

Fellow blogger Nichole talked to Phoenix city planner Joseph Perez about improving bike commuting options. His ideas (bike shares, smartphone apps, consultants and developer input, to name a few) show why Phoenix lags  in the movement to commute by bike.

commute by bike
I don’t expect credible ideas that encourage people to commute by bike to come from Phoenix City Hall.

You’ll notice my lengthier-than-typical comment about an open state of war between motorists and bike commuters. My view comes from my past attempts to commute by bike. Here’s what I faced:

  • Disappearing bike lanes – I’d be in a great lane for a mile or two. And then it would disappear. Transportation alternatives need routes users can count on.
  • Debris-strewn bike lanes – Dirtiness and grit that love puncturing tubes.
  • Openly hostile motorists – I’ve had people throw stuff at me, yell at me, cut in front of me and try to bump me with their mirror. Other cyclists will say the same.
  • Clueless motorists – Some motorists think it’s a good idea to blare their horn as they approach cyclists from behind (hint: we can hear their engines). Then there are others who get to a four-way stop first, hesitate and give the "after you" wave. Guess what? The safest place for cyclists is behind you. Obey the law and the four-way stop protocol – your misguided "politeness" doesn’t help.
  • Other bicyclists – The "don’t give a shit about rules or good sense" variety puttering against traffic, ignoring traffic flow and just general being self-centered jerks. These riders deserve a special place in hell – they make drivers paint all of us with the same brush. They make cycling lose political clout among the transportation alternatives.

Too many near misses put me back in my car. Not the heat, not the lack of bike parking, not the scarcity of showers in most commercial buildings. It was the motorists – the antagonism, or just the casual disregard for a cyclist’s safety over their convenience.

English: Picture shows a bike path or ciclorut...
Phoenix also lags behind Bogota, Columbia, in bicycle infrastructure  En detalle la cicloruta. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What would get me to commute by bike as one of my  transportation alternatives again? Physically separating bike lanes from roadways as much as possible. The canal bike paths are a great start – Step One would be to widen them. Next, get some physically separated connectors to the canal.

The bike infrastructure in Helsinki, Finland, and its below-grade bike superhighways provide the perfect example. The U.S. is decades away from Finland’s harmonious relationship between motorists and cyclists -- but we can at least separate bike lanes.

Apps and consultants are half-measures to make it look like Phoenix city officials take seriously the need to commute by bike. None will make a true difference – and they’re not meant to. Phoenix revolves around car culture and sprawl – and looking like it’s trying to change while not actually doing so. City officials seem to have no clue about one fairly easy change that could make its streets more pedestrian friendly – how can we count on them to be any better with bike commuting if they can’t implement scramble crosswalks? I offer a vote of no confidence on bike commuting to current and past administrations.

I expect naysayers to sputter “but, but, we can’t.” People, this is nothing next to light rail. It would take a fraction of the time and money. It could happen … if we approach it with a “how?” attitude. There’s a way to do it if we can overcome the lack of political will.

If you want to see other interesting ideas to make it more feasible to commute by bike, check out the Copenhagenize blog.

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