Traffic diverter on University Avenue bikeway at Stone Avenue. Motorists must turn right from University Avenue onto Stone Avenue. This setup is also known as TOUCAN. Find more information and photos here.
Earlier this month my buddy Jonathan and I spent a week visiting our friend Lauren in Tucson, Arizona, and I was a little surprised by just how bicycle-friendly a town it is. This college town of 520,000 people (roughly one million metro) was recently rated the 9th best city for biking by Bicycling magazine, one notch above Chicago, so I knew it was a good place to pedal. But this city in the Sonoran desert, surrounded by saguaro cactus-covered mountains has more going for it than just cloudless skies and inspiring nearby destinations for road and mountain bike excursions. Central Tucson has a blossoming bike culture and some excellent infrastructure, including a great network of bicycle boulevards, which our city would do well to emulate.
Biking near Gates Pass, west of town
Much of Lauren’s life revolves around bikes. She works as a mechanic, does road and mountain bikes races, coaches a youth team called El Groupo, and volunteers at a weekly women and transgender repair session at BICAS (Bicycle Inter-Community Art & Salvage). BICAS is a full-service community bike shop plus a welding shop and art studio space. It has a unique emphasis on creating artwork inspired by cycling and/or incorporating old bike parts and is largely responsible for Tucson’s ubiquitous bike-related public art.
Mural outside BICAS
The yard at BICAS features bike parking racks made out of old frames, tabletops made from chain rings welded together and a giant saguaro fashion from strips of wheel rim. Artists associated with the center have created murals all over town featuring colorful bike imagery, garbage cans on the hip 4th Avenue retail strip made from inverted forks welded together, and even a beautiful “Bike Church” at Granada Avenue and Davis Street.
Aside from a wonderful bike camping trip in the nearby Catalina Mountains, one of my favorite aspects of the visit was sitting in the sunshine on the railing of Lauren’s second-floor balcony, watching an endless stream of cyclists rolling down the 3rd Street bike boulevard. There were lots of Lycra-clad racer types heading to and from the mountains, but also plenty of students with backpacks heading to class on department store bikes, people carrying groceries or friends on Xtracycles, and families with kids.
In addition to the great weather (except in summer when temperatures regularly top 100 degrees), and the constant advertisements for cycling through public art, it seems to be the infrastructure that makes biking a popular transportation choice for people of various abilities. Michael McKisson, Publisher/Editor of the daily bike blog Tucson Velo, graciously agreed to give Jonathan and me a tour of local bicycle facilities.
Michael points out a smooth strip of pavement installed especially for bicyclists
Michael, who teaches journalism at the University of Arizona, provided some background over coffee at the Epic Café on 4th Avenue, which is currently under construction for a new streetcar line. He says one of the reasons biking is so popular in the Tucson area is the quantity of bikeways, about 700 miles in the metro area, largely due to a well-enforced local ordinance that requires that marked bike lanes or striped paved shoulders be included in all road projects. There are currently about 23 miles of off-street paths, mostly alongside dry riverbeds, on the perimeter of the city and the county government is currently working to create a 55-mile loop.
Path alongside Santa Cruz “River”
I told him I was especially impressed by the dozen or two miles of designated and de facto bike boulevards, streets where car traffic is permitted but concrete traffic diverters, street markings, signs and/or traffic signals limit through traffic and prioritize biking. These boulevards, especially when located on residential streets, are very pleasant to ride on because there is little car traffic and none of it is speeding, making them particularly attractive to inexperienced cyclists.
Third Street Bikeway – note the “Do not enter / Bicycles exempt” sign
The Chicago Department of Transportation and 47th Ward Alderman Ameya Pawar want to build our city’s first bike boulevard (AKA “neighborhood greenway”) on Berteau Street (4200 N.) between Lincoln and Clark. But the proposal has already met strong resistance from local residents who fear that prohibiting through traffic on the street will wreck havoc on their commutes.
I asked Michael how Tucson was able to build so many bike boulevards without local drivers revolting. “At first even bicyclists thought they wouldn’t work,” he explained. “People are always afraid of change but once the bike boulevards come in people really enjoyed them. Non-cyclists like that they reduce the number of drivers and calm the traffic. They don’t keep cars off the street altogether but they slow them down.”
This configuration on the 4th Avenue Bikeway forces cars to turn off the street but allows bikes to continue forward to the next block
He mentioned a few strategies the local government used to assuage residents’ fears. “They printed out giant images of the streets so people could mark them up with their ideas,” he says. “They talked up the potential for increased property values. And they took people for bike rides on the streets to show them it wouldn’t be such a bad thing.”
Afterwards he took us out for a twenty-mile spin around the city to show us some his favorite features, ending at BICAS. Here are a few more photos from the tour.
A tree as traffic calming on the 4th Avenue Bikeway
A “toucan” crossing sign. There’s a button that both bikes and peds press to light up the sign so “two can” cross.
A DIY repair station with tools on the U. of A. campus.
Underpass below an arterial street near the U. of A.
A bike/ped bridge shaped like a rattlesnake.
When you cross, a loudspeaker in the tail makes a rattling noise.
I left Tucson inspired by the vision of what Chicago might look like once it becomes a notch more bike-friendly. With our city’s big plans for dozens of miles of protected bike lanes and thousands of bike share vehicles this year, hopefully that day won’t be too far in the future. But it would be great to see some of Tucson’s excellent cycling ideas, especially bike boulevards, implemented here soon as well.
Steven visited Tucson in December 2010 and noted that the city also separated paths (think off-street trails through neighborhoods) that reminded him of the intercity paths in the Netherlands.