Cycling Edinburgh

Bike-friendly Arizona

I recently returned from a short business trip to the Phoenix / Tempe area of southern Arizona. I had no opportunity to do any cycling there, but I was highly impressed by the way that the city authorities are encouraging bike use - as these pictures show.

Maricopa County cycle lanes

Photo: Arizona Dept. of Transportation

In particular, the city of Tempe claims to be a bike-friendly community, and with good reason. The city is less than half the size of Edinburgh, yet it boasts more than 165 miles of dedicated bike routes, and all major destinations have extensive bike parking. An incredible 3½ percent of residents cycle to work (about twice as many as here).

While I was there, the city held its annual 12-mile Tour de Tempe ride, a community project that aims to celebrate the joys of cycling. This year's event attracted more than 1,500 riders.

Throughout the wider Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix, Tempe and the neighbouring towns of Mesa and Scottsdale, most main roads have bike lanes - more than 1,340 miles of them. These lanes are wider than most bike lanes in Scotland. On stretches of road where parking is allowed, the bike lane is a full car's width from the kerb, which means they are never obstructed by parked vehicles. For the most part, motorists appear to respect the bike lanes.

Rack 'n' Roll

Bikes on bus in Tempe (AZ)

I was also impressed with the way that the transport authorities have integrated cycling with the public transport system, in a way that is undreamed of over here. For a start, in a programme known as Rack 'n' Roll, every bus in the Phoenix metropolitan area is equipped with a bike rack. Each rack carries two bikes, which are carried free of charge. It only takes a moment for a cyclist to load or unload his bike. The system is widely used and very popular.

Valley Metro, the main transport operator in the region, actively encourages people to combine walking or cycling with their daily commute. The company has installed bike racks - and in some cases, lockers - at all its major interchanges and park-and-ride sites. It also has a "bike buddy" scheme, aimed at less experienced cyclists who don't have the confidence to cycle to work alone. The programme matches these commuters with more experienced riders who can provide support and advice.

Light rail

Even more impressive is the 20-mile light rail system, which is currently under construction and opening in 2008. Apart from the fact the entire network is being planned, financed and built in a fraction of the time it is taking to get Edinburgh's more modest tram network on the road, the system has been planned from the outset with bike integration in mind.

Cycle parking at Arizona State University (ASU)

Every rail vehicle will be equipped with four hanging bike racks, each capable of holding two bikes. There will also be bike racks and lockers at every station. The approaches to the stations will include bike paths or lanes where necessary.

But the light rail system is more than just a means of transport. The city authorities are using it as the basis for a complete change in the land-use patterns of the metropolitan area. The aim is to create a network of "walkable communities", offering a full range of facilities, centred on the light rail stations. Sidewalks (pavements) and bike lanes will have precedence over vehicle access, and retail premises will be designed accordingly - for example, by having their main entrances facing the street rather than a car park.

It's not that long ago that anyone seen cycling in the western USA would have been considered an odd-ball or eccentric. More recently, cycling has started to become accepted as part of the mainstream, just as it is here. From what I saw on my trip, the cities of Phoenix and Tempe have a lot to teach the rest of the country. Perhaps some of our own transport planners could learn from them as well.

Mike Lewis, October 2006