Traffic Troubles

FACT: Maricopa County, Arizona, where I call home, is the fastest growing county in the United States. That is not me talking, that is the U.S. Census Bureau. The data says we add an average of 222 people every day.

FACT: Arizona has the highest rate of pedestrian deaths in the nation. Again, that ain’t the Bluescat merely bloviating, that is a report by the Governors Highway Safety Association. Reading the report, it is clear that bicyclists are classified as sort of a pedestrian. According to the report, 224 walkers were killed in Arizona in 2017, along with 30 bicyclists.

So, common sense and facts should tell us that traffic has become worse and more dangerous in Phoenix, Maricopa County, Arizona. Right? Well, realizing how disdainful Americans have become about truth, facts and common sense in the last year or so, I shall result to deferring to a totally redoubtable authority in this matter: my wife.

“Honey, do you think traffic has gotten worse and more dangerous in Phoenix lately?”

“What? Of course! YES!”

(At least she didn’t give me her typical look when I ask a stupid question; think of how the damsel in distress looks at the thing which has just exited the alien pod.)

I agree with her, of course, and not just because I’ve learned it is vital to agree with her, but because she should know. She travels over 30 miles every weekday, through some of the most freeway intensive space in the state. She has had two accidents in the last 18 months, both involved trying to get into a proper lane in order to make a turn which would allow her to reach her desired destination. Luckily, there were no injuries, but I could have purchased two brand new bikes with what we paid for in repairs.

I’ve taken some photos to support our position. In one of them, we see the rear of my recumbent parked on a sidewalk next to a bike lane. A steady line of cars is streaming by us, all the way up to a stop light which has just changed to yellow. Just ahead of my bike we see a driveway entrance, and just beyond that – in the shadow of a tree – we see that the striping for the bike lane ends; over a block from the right-turn lane at the intersection.

Danger at the End of the White Line

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of bike lanes, but this represents one of my biggest beefs with them: they are oftentimes implemented horrendously. The picture shows how a cyclist is entering a no man’s land for over seven car lengths. I’ve travelled this stretch of road many times, and can testify to witnessing a few near misses with cyclists trying to get into the traffic lane to head straight ahead through the light, or almost getting mowed down by drivers who whip over into that “right lane” there figuring it is open to pass all that traffic.

My strategy here has always been to stay in the bike lane until I get to that driveway opening, and then glide up onto the sidewalk and take it all the way through the light. I can do that in Phoenix. I guess in Tucson, Arizona, you can’t do that unless there is a sign posted allowing you to do that.

One of the alternatives is doing what this brave fellow is doing:

The Brave Soul

He’s staying to the right, letting the traffic squeeze by on his left. This isn’t, of course, what you’re supposed to do. You’re supposed to “take your lane” because the Arizona Revised Statutes say your bicycle has every right to be there.

In reality, very few motor vehicle drivers believe that. They believe that the road belongs to them, and that bicyclists “don’t belong out there.” I had a Phoenix cop tell me that himself, using those exact words: “You don’t belong out there!”

I had been waiting at a stop sign, the cop pulled up behind me, honked and gestured for me to move over to the side. He then pulled up next to me, buzzed down the front passenger’s side window of his big American branded SUV, said “You don’t belong out there,” and pointed over at the sidewalk.

Let’s think about that sidewalk for a second, and while we do lets take a look at that same intersection less than a minute after The Brave Soul rode through it:

The Grand Ballroom Crosswalk

Not a pedestrian in sight, and the crosswalk is big enough for two bikes and a whole Cub Scout troop ushering a dozen little old ladies across the street in opposite directions onto the sidewalks. Still, the masters of bike safety claim bikes don’t belong on sidewalks and pose a danger to the poor pedestrians.

Well, yeah, bike roadies blazing down the sidewalks at full throttle do pose a hazard … to themselves and everybody else, but the typical bike commuter is in much greater danger if he tries to occupy the hostile environment of a traffic lane of a two-lane street at rush hour.

And in one of my previous writings, I’ve even addressed how in certain circumstances communities require bicyclists to ride the wrong way on sidewalks: Sidewalk Salmoning: It’s The Law.

I do think the idea of bikes on sidewalks is starting to gain some traction. If you look closely at the picture of that grand ballroom of a crosswalk, you’ll notice the ramped curb returns. These features invite bicyclists to glide up onto the sidewalk. Heck, they even replaced all the vertical curb returns at all the intersections in my little middle-income neighborhood!

Welcome Ramp

I don’t think there are enough wheelchairs or power chairs within a one-mile radius of my house to justify the expense.

Yes, the traffic has gotten bad, and I bet it is only going to get worse. I would also bet we will never be able to convince motorists to share the road with our bicycles. It is up to cyclists to stay out of their way and move at sedate speeds when we venture onto the walkways.

I still believe bicycling is a pretty safe way to get around. I’ve been hurt worse simply lifting heavy stuff than I’ve ever been hurt riding my bike.

We just gotta remember the last thing police Sgt. Phil Esterhaus (Michael Conrad) always said at the end of his roll call on the old Hill Street Blues television show:

“Let’s be careful out there!”

BluesCat is a senior citizen still living and working in Phoenix, Arizona. He’ll share the sidewalk and even his bike pump; he will not share his beer.

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8 thoughts on “Traffic Troubles”

  1. Maricopa County. Hmm. Didn’t you have a well known sheriff down there?

  2. David says:

    Those curb cuts with the rubberized pads are requirements from the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). They provide tactile feedback for visually impaired pedestrians. It may very from state to state, but where I’m from they are required retrofits whenever road improvements are made at that location.
    The important thing for you to know here is that these are NOT red welcome mats for your bicycle, particularly if they are wet. Hitting one of those on a bicycle in the rain is like cycling onto an ice rink, and the bumps just serve to separate your tires from contact with the surface. I know this first-hand, but I will not post the bloody photo.

  3. BluesCat says:

    I did not know that! Thanks for the heads up! I’ll just remember to keep to the concrete and not ride the bumps. Of course, in sunny Phoenix – where the rain never comes – I don’t think it would be much of a problem.

    Yeah, everybody from my in-laws to vendors way out on the Pacific rim have given me friendly grief about America’s Toughest Sheriff. Just so ya know, I NEVER voted for him.

  4. Charlie says:

    I’ve never felt comfortable on a bike mixing with walking people (or baby carriages, dogs on leashes, or … ). In principle, if I’m traveling at a similar speed to the walkers, say no more than 2x, I can slow down and wait to pass when appropriate. Your photo is a typical, empty sidewalk. There’s lots of them. But there are places and times where pedestrians are around as well. So “use the sidewalk” isn’t always an appropriate response.

    I noted the speed – no more than 2x the speed of the pedestrians. It’s 23 miles from my home to my work. I won’t cover that distance at 4-6 mph. Bike commuting at my typical 18-22 mph is workable. If I’m supposed to conform to pedestrian speeds when commuting by bike, I’m going to be back in a car.

    I know … The correct answer is that I should live closer to my work. That’s a different story.

  5. BluesCat says:

    I’m a little over 8 miles – as the bike rolls – from the new office location of my company. And I heartily agree with you that I couldn’t ride sidewalk speed the whole way (it’d take around two hours to get to work). I’ve developed a route which combines quiet neighborhood streets, bike lanes, multi-use paths and as few sidewalk rides as possible; when safety demands the sidewalk, I’m willing to invest a little more time!

    Keep riding, man.

  6. John M. Hammer says:

    BC, there are many situations where not following the rules might be more convenient. Many cyclists AND MOTORISTS break rules for their own convenience, sometimes it doesn’t inconvenience or put at risk anyone else, sometimes it does. Since we don’t have perfect awareness it’s better to just follow the rules when the only thing APPARENTLY at stake is convenience (which includes ease, saved effort, saved time, etc.).

    On the other hand, there are some situations where not following the rules is necessary for safety. When approaching an intersection where cars are stopped at a traffic-control device, I will not pass a car on its right if it is signaling a right turn (or looks likely to be making a right turn even if it’s not signaling). I’ll either pull up behind that car’s rear bumper and remain in the bike lane, or I’ll merge over into the traffic lane and join the queue.

    “The Brave Soul” in one of your photos above is actually a very foolhardy person as he is passing a vehicle on the right which is turning right and which is even signaling that turn.

    Let’s take the intersection in your article as an example. That’s not the greatest bike lane I’ve ever seen but it’s a heck of a lot better than a door-zone bike lane, I’m pretty sure it’s good enough to use for most of it’s length. But when it ends before an intersection with a traffic-control device, you need to either merge with the queue or hit the sidewalk. Staying to the right of motor traffic in such a situation is asking to be right-hooked, sideswiped, or gradually forced further to the side of the road. If your picture shows the common appearance of this intersection’s sidewalks (i.e. completely devoid of pedestrians) and streets (long queues at the intersection) this looks like a perfect example of breaking a general rule (NO ADULT CYCLING ON SIDEWALKS) for the sake of safety: Pop onto the sidewalk, wait for the light to change as if you’re a pedestrian, then proceed – just be careful merging back into the traffic lane if the bike lane doesn’t reform at the other side of the intersection.

    But riding on sidewalks in general is a very bad idea. For one thing, it puts pedestrians at risk and inconvenience so walk your bike if there are peds around – bikes like ours can be flintstoned at walking speed with our butts in the seat but our feet on the ground, it’s not faster (and shouldn’t be) but we take up less space than walking to the sides of our bikes that way. Even if you don’t see a pedestrian, you never know when one is going to appear from around a corner occluded by fencing or bushes, or step out of a doorway, etc. For another, it’s unsafe for the cyclist because popping up and down curb corners at anything faster than walking speed puts the cyclist at great risk to motor vehicle traffic at intersections. For yet another, doing so puts the cyclist at risk at every driveway as a motorist pulling out of a driveway isn’t expecting a faster-than-walking-speed vehicle on the sidewalk at all least of all a 50% chance of that vehicle coming from the direction opposite of the direction they’re looking to check for traffic as they pull out, which they do backwards and over their shoulders more often than not.

    Final thought: Curb cuts at intersections are critical for those who rely on personal wheeled sidewalk-capable transport to supplement their inability to walk. But they help many people, including people pulling shopping carts home from the grocery store, older or infirm folks using walkers, older or infirm folks who do not rely on any devices but have trouble getting up or down curbs, parents/caregivers pushing infant strollers, etc.

  7. Nat says:

    The reason to stay off of sidewalks is the exact same reason not to shoot up the right side of a car at an intersection, but moreso: you’re putting yourself in a position where you are likely to be hit and unlikely to be seen by motorists.

    The problem is two-fold: you’re out of sight, and even when you’re seen motorists expect pedestrians on sidewalks. In reverse order:

    Motorists don’t pay particularly close attention to pedestrians. Because from the perspective of a motorist, a pedestrian is basically a stationary object, they tend to scan the sidewalk just a couple dozen yards, tops, from any place where they might be crossing a pedestrian path. Which means that they look where a walker or fast runner might be, and if they see a cyclist a quarter of a block down they tend to subconsciously treat them like a pedestrian and assume they are too far away to be a concern. But by the time they turn, wham!, there you are right in front of them, with no time for either of you to do anything about it.

    IME, the bigger problem is that often you’re out of sight on a sidewalk. This is slightly less of a problem with the sidewalks in your pictures–there’s no space between the road and the sidewalk (which, btw, is a miserable experience as a pedestrian, so between that and the sprawling nature of the Phoenix area, I’m not at all surprised you never see any pedestrians). But still, a motorist is going to scan the road. You’re not on the road–you’re off to the side. That makes it easy to not even see you. On top of that, if there’s parking that means there’s a row of parked cars between you and the motorists, if there are trees or utility poles or landscaping, that obscures you, and so on. As I tell cyclists new to road cycling: Do you want to get hit by a car? Then ride on the sidewalk. It’s one of the most reliable ways to get hit by a car.

    As for the “brave soul”: neither he nor the motorists are doing it right. If you’re making a right turn, there should be no traffic between you and the curb that isn’t also turning right. Which means that a motorist should shift over to be almost on the curb when approaching an intersection to turn right. That’s why the bike lane stripe disappears on that road in your picture. It’s actually following traffic engineer standards. The bikelane stripe is removed so that cars aren’t dangerously encouraged to turn across a lane of straight-through traffic. It’s giving them permission to move right, to adopt a proper lane position. By the time a right-turning car gets to the corner, there shouldn’t be enough room between the curb and the car for a cyclist to fit in there. If there is, you’re doing your right turn wrong.

    Not that I’ve ever seen a car actually do that, mind you. 🙁

    Meanwhile, yes, that cyclist should be either in the line of cars, or to the left of the right-turning cars, passing them on the left while they make their right turns. And note that they would not be any safer if they were on the sidewalk–they’d be in basically the exact same position. But by being a little further away from the cars, they’d be a little less likely to be noticed, thus increasing the odds of getting hit.

  8. BluesCat says:

    Whenever I’m riding the sidewalk, I always follow the good rule that says to ride at a speed which makes it possible for you to stop at any point BEFORE you reach an opening you can’t see behind. This means sometimes you have to ride really slowly when you’re approaching a tall hedge or wall which blinds you totally to something coming onto the sidewalk.

    Another reason you don’t see a lot of pedestrians on the sidewalks in the Phoenix summers is the heat! When it’s 115° F outside, your feet cook even when you’re wearing sandals!

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