Phoenix Moves Closer to Adopting Plan for Safer Streets

Responding to pressure from activists, the Phoenix City Council voted on Wednesday night to speed up the process of approving design standards for safer streets.

As Phoenix New Times reported last week, bicycle and pedestrian safety advocates on the Complete Streets Advisory Board have grown frustrated with the high death toll on the city's streets. Over the past four years, board members have been trying to pass design guidelines intended to make walking and bicycling as safe as driving. To do so, they've had to go through what Phoenix's street transportation department admits is a lengthy review process — and what some board members see as inaction or even outright obstruction.

Prior to Wednesday's council meeting, Connor Descheemaker, a Complete Streets Advisory Board member, had submitted a citizen petition asking the city to immediately adopt the design guidelines that the board has approved. If successful, it would have eliminated the need to involve the street transportation department in the process.

The petition, which was backed by a broad array of community groups including the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), Pinnacle Prevention, and Native American Connections, put city council members in an awkward position.

If they'd rejected it outright, they would have looked like they care more about bureaucracy and following proper procedure than about pedestrian and bicyclist safety.

Supporting it would have meant overruling the recommendations of city staff and the Street Transportation Department.

Instead, they found a compromise: Voting to move up the timeline so the council can vote on the guidelines in May rather than the end of June.

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Connor Descheemaker
City of Phoenix / PHX TV
Descheemaker said that while it wasn't the outcome that he and other activists had hoped for, they're happy that the process will be expedited.

"Ideally, they would have passed them today, because there’s really no reason not to," added Sean Sweat, who also serves on the Complete Streets Advisory Board. "They’ve had years of public input."

Both Descheemaker and Sweat said that having the vote take place in May is crucial, because Mayor Greg Stanton will have to resign soon in order to run for Congress. When that happens, it will trigger a serious shakeup on the city council as Kate Gallego and Daniel Valenzuela vie to replace him, leaving two seats empty.

The motion passed 6-1, with no discussion and none of the council members choosing to explain their votes.

But a number of residents spoke in favor of the proposal.

"I personally do not have enough fingers on my hands to count the number of times when I have nearly been run down by a vehicle while biking on Thunderbird Road," said Gabriel León, who described himself as a fourth-generation Phoenix resident. "Nor do I have enough fingers to count the number of times when I’ve almost been run down with my cousins because of the lack of mid-block pedestrian crossings in majority-Latino neighborhoods."

Leslie Dornfeld, who chairs the Complete Streets Advisory Board, was blunt. "We can either wait for more people to die and have a process where pretty much nothing will change, or we can start working on this now," she told the council.

A recently released study from the Journal of Public Health suggests that implementing the design standards could help cut down on Phoenix's staggeringly high pedestrian death rate: Researchers found that Florida's complete streets policy has prevented between 3,500 to 4,000 pedestrian deaths since it was adopted in 1984.

Passing that law didn't require the state to overhaul existing streets, which would be prohibitively expensive, but it did mandate that safe pathways for biking and walking be included in new construction or road improvement projects. Phoenix's guidelines, if approved, would work the same way.

Some changes could be on the way even sooner. When the next city budget is proposed in May, it will include funding to hire someone whose full-time job is to focus on pedestrian safety, city manager Ed Zuercher said.
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Antonia Noori Farzan is a staff writer at New Times and an honors graduate of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. Before moving to Arizona, she worked for the New Times Broward-Palm Beach.