Phoenix Pushes Bicyclists to Avoid Death and Injury By Riding with Traffic Flow

Dozens of signs going up in Phoenix this week warn bicyclists to "ride with traffic" to reduce the many collisions between bikes and motor vehicles.

In the majority of such accidents, officials say, most bicyclists rode against the flow of traffic.

The signage scheme comes after last month's successful passage in Phoenix of Proposition 104, which will put 35 years of higher sales taxes to work in the form of improved light-rail service, road maintenance, and 1,080 miles of new bicycles lanes. With cooler weather coming and the planned expansion of bike lanes, more people will be bicycling in the coming months, says city spokeswoman Monica Hernandez, and this requires a new emphasis on safety.

Nearly 55 new signs had been put up in the downtown corridor by Tuesday, Hernandez says. The signs are stuck on the backs of existing street signs so they'll be seen by  wrong-way bicyclists.

City statistics show that in 2013, the last year for which data is available, there were 485 bicycle collisions, with 417 injuries and 10 deaths. In the cases where the direction of travel was known, most of the bicyclists injured or killed were riding against the flow of traffic. 

While the 2013 report doesn't specify if the bicyclist or motorist caused each accident, 34 percent of bicyclists involved in a collision had been riding against traffic, compared to 20 percent riding with traffic. Bicyclists were crossing a road in 40 percent of the collisions, and it's likely that the majority of those victims were on the wrong side of the road, says Kerry Wilcoxon, a Phoenix traffic engineer. 

While pedestrians may be safer from walking against the traffic flow, that's not typically the case with bicycles, officials say.

Still, it's somewhat "controversial" to tell the bicycling public it should always ride in the direction of vehicle traffic, Wilcoxon says, because occasionally it actually may be safer to ride short distances on the "wrong" side.

Some cities, like Tempe, have ordinances against riding bicyclists against the flow of traffic. But not Phoenix.

The controversy arises because riding a short distance against traffic sometimes might be safer, Wilcoxon says. Bicyclists are occasionally faced with the "very real choice" of riding a block or two against the grain, or crossing the street twice — once to get to the right side of the road and again to reach their destination. In choosing to cross a busy arterial street twice, "you increase your exposure" to an accident because 40 percent of collisions involve crossing streets, he says.

That's one reason Phoenix doesn't have an ordinance that orders bicyclists to ride with the flow of traffic, Wilcoxon says. Another is that officials don't want parents to discourage their kids from riding bicycles because they're worried the kids will get tickets, he says.

"The main point of our campaign is to alert both bicyclists and drivers," Wilcoxon says. "If you're going to be riding the wrong way, be careful. And for the drivers — watch for bikes."

Metro Phoenix and the state have vastly different reputations when it comes to bicycling.

In 2010, Bicycling Magazine named "Phoenix/Tempe" the 15th-best place to ride a bicycle out of 50 metro areas.

But as a state, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Arizona has one of the worst bicycling-fatality rates in the country.   
KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.