Cycling rises like a Phoenix in the Sun City

Phoenix Metro Area improving for bike commuters

In many parts of the United States cycling remains a seasonal activity, but for the sun-drenched residents of Phoenix, Arizona, cycling is year round. While the city and its metro area hasn’t always been bicycle friendly, recent projects are making it easier for bikes to be used as transportation.

One of the biggest initiatives has been the new light rail system, which provides on-train bike racks for commuters. This has increased bicycle commuting along the entire 20-mile route. The sprawling Phoenix Metro Area doesn’t have traditional commuting patterns, where residents travel to just one central downtown area, so giving bikes easier access to the trains has made a measurable impact along the light rail corridor.

“In my own case, I live in south Scottsdale about 15 miles from the office, but only three miles from the metro station,” says Kerry Wilcoxon, Traffic Engineer III for the Street Transportation Department at the City of Phoenix. He says that the ability to ride to the train has changed the way he commutes.

“Before the light rail opened, I tried biking to city hall once in my entire five years of working at the city,” he says “The journey was fraught with difficulty and because there was no direct route in downtown Phoenix it took quite a long time to complete.”

Other efforts by the city to encourage cycling include the creation of 38 miles of new bike paths – a mix of paved and unpaved – along its vast canal system. The canal path in South Phoenix was resurfaced just last year, says Bob Beane, president of the Coalition of Arizona Bicyclists, who adds that the current budgetary and political climate could mean tough roads ahead.

Phoenix's canals provide many possibilities for new bike paths

“We're making limited progress in Phoenix proper,” says Beane, “but have had much more progress in recent years in the East Valley of communities of Scottsdale, Tempe, Mesa, Chandler and Gilbert.”

Satellite improvements

In the communities outside the heart of Phoenix there's a lot in the works for riders. In Tempe, commuters have access to the Bike Cellar, which was founded in August 2008 by John Romero and Joseph Perez as a state-of-the-art bicycle commuting support station. It’s located in the Tempe Transportation Center, making it a central destination near the Arizona State University campus.

The Bike Cellar provides safe haven for commuters' bikes

“We’re literally 50ft from the bus lanes and train station,” says Romero, who adds that in addition to providing a place for longer distance bike commuters to change, it's also a safe location to stash a bike. “Bike theft is really a problem in the valley, and we provide a way for people to safely store the bikes during the day," he says. "This gives a peace of mind for riders.”

The Bike Cellar has a lot of dedicated members who ride rain or shine, says Romero, noting that the sun usually shines in the Phoenix area. The Bike Cellar was set up with help from the City of Tempe and guidance from a California-based company called Bike Station. In addition to the aforementioned services, it also has a bike shop.

The monthly and annual membership is now in excess of 100 riders. Romero says many do a 15-mile or greater reverse commute from Phoenix. The location was chosen due to its proximity to other modes of transportation. “Studies have shown that people who live within a half a mile of public transportation are more likely to use it,” says Romero, “but when you a bike to the mix, which can be used with the buses and trains in the area, it increases that distance to three to five miles.”

Striving for new goals

Nearby Scottsdale has also seen improvement; the city is listed as silver by the League of American Bicyclists and officials are striving for the gold level. “We’re working hard to do the basics,” says Reed Kempton, principal transportation planner for trails, bikeways and sidewalk program for the City of Scottsdale. “The major streets are friendlier, and we’re trying to make every street like that.”

One effort underway in Scottsdale could serve as a model for the rest of the country, whereby every new road needs to accommodate a bike lane. “All the new construction thus has better facilities says Kempton, noting that there are hurdles with the rest of the city. “It's a lot easier when building a road than retrofitting a road.” The overall goal is to provide access and make it easier for people who ride bikes adds Kempton.

The plan for improved bicycle friendliness in Phoenix goes to the state level, which is the domain of Michael N Sanders, who's in charge of the Bicycle and Pedestrian Program for the Arizona Department of Transportation. His jurisdiction includes the state highway system, and he notes that at the region level efforts have been promising. “When they build a new street, bike lanes are now standard,” he says.

The biggest regional cycle friendly move came from the state engineer. “Cyclists are allowed to ride along side-controlled access highways, in part because this is the only way to get to far off destinations outside the cities," says Sanders. "Cyclists still can’t ride alongside the freeways in the city, of course, but once outside they can ride along the highways. I-17, for example, is open to cyclists.”

Closer to the city center, plans are underway to help Phoenix rise to become one of the great cycling cities, especially as most riders note that there really isn’t an off-season; while the summers can be blistering hot, locals simply recommend riding early and drinking lots of water.

To this end, the mantra of ‘build it and they will come’ is very much what the planners have in mind. “Phoenix participates in the Maricopa Association of Government Pedestrian and Bike Committee and we do have contact with bike co-ordinators from other cities,” says Kilcoxon. While that access is limited, he believes there's hope for the future: “The Phoenix bike program is still in its infancy and we're making up for many years of virtually no bike planning.”

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