Looks like Phoenix made it on somebody's naughty list -- again. A new study, published as a blog post by BetterDoctor.com, found Phoenix to be one of America's 10 least bike-friendly cities. We spoke about these findings with with Divya Raghavan, the Bay-area analyst who created the list, and with local cycling advocate John Romero.
When it comes to cycling, Phoenix has a lot going for it: wide streets, very few potholes, lovely weather for most of the year, and pretty much all its roads are flat (until you hit a mountain). If riding on the main thoroughfares is a frightening prospect, there are plenty of quiet side streets. They're even organized in a convenient grid pattern, so there's always an easy way to get from point A to point B. But maybe most importantly, Phoenix has a strong community of cycling enthusiasts who are working their firm little butts off to make this town a better place to ride a bike.
But BetterDoctor didn't see things this way. The San Francisco-based service helps pair people with doctors -- so cycling is not exactly their forte. Raghavan explains the company's reasons for conducting the study: "We're really invested in consumer education around healthcare and helping people save money on healthcare. One thing we wanted to look at is ways that people can save money on healthcare, and engaging in a healthy lifestyle is one way to prevent going to the doctor."
She adds, "We focused on cycling because it's an easy and accessible way to exercise for folks who might not have time to devote to fitness."
Raghavan's research focused on the 52 largest cities in the United States, and compiled data using three primary statistics: the percentage of residents who commute to work by bicycle, the number of cycling-related fatalities per 10,000 bike commuters, and the number of federal dollars devoted to infrastructure per resident. Information from the U.S. Census American Community Survey was used to calculate the number of bike commuters, along with information from a study by the Alliance for Biking and Walking.
It should be noted that the BetterDoctor survey focused specifically on bike commuting -- not necessarily on cycling for recreation, or cycling for other forms of transportation -- so while it might indicate that our commuters don't bike to work, it doesn't necessarily mean that our town isn't amicable to cycling in general.
Raghavan's suggestions for improving Phoenix's bike friendliness were pretty generic. "Have dedicated bike lanes. Invest more money in putting bike lanes on main roads. Other cities have communities that organize city-wide bike rides - that sort of thing can inspire people to bike to work."
John Romero, founder of PHX BikeLab, disagrees. "Phoenix has made huge strides in the last couple of years," he says. "Phoenix Spokes People is a newly formed advocacy group that made some targeted efforts at the Phoenix City Council meetings last year to make some dedicated efforts to lower the barriers that prevent people from considering bikes as an option. Through their efforts, they've changed the budget allocation for bicycle infrastructure from a typical $50,000 a year stipend to a $1.5 million budget -- in their first year. The city was ready for it."
Romero also discussed recent recognition Phoenix has received for its efforts to improve conditions for cyclists. "The league of American Bicyclists has us listed as Bronze City. Twenty years ago, we were in their bottom 50," he says. "We've made attempts in previous years to even get on their map. In 2013, we got an honorable mention that we were making efforts, but now we are officially listed as a Bronze City for bicycling."
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Romero feels that perhaps the data used to compile the BetterDoctor survey is a bit out of date. "It's true that Phoenix ranks really low on a national level, but we're not that low anymore," he says. "There are other cities that have more of a progressive voter base; Phoenix is a conservative town, so it's hard to get some of these feel-good, rainbow-and-unicorn objectives passed at Council. But I think we have a lot of young new fuel in the Phoenix area that's going to change some things, and that our city is quickly going to become notably different. Phoenix is making huge strides, we're actually carving out a niche for ourselves on the global scale as a contender in the bike-friendly world. Mayor Stanton is a great catalyst for this; part of his electorate platform was that he was going to put Phoenix on the map as a bike-friendly city."
While our townsfolk might not be riding their bikes to work -- yet -- Romero thinks we're on the right track. "Fifteen years ago, downtown Phoenix was a ghost town; now we have destination points, attractions for people to visit, out there in the public realm... Roosevelt Row is one of the largest monthly art venues in the nation, which is something to speak of," he says. "That's attractive to anybody that's looking to take up residency in the downtown area; it adds this element of excitement and engagement with the community. These are perfect recipes and formulas to incubate a bicycle culture."