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Tucson striving to improve bike safety

Arizona residents rely on their bikes as a means of transportation. (Photo by: Ashley Mikelonis/Arizona Sonora News Service)

It was a beautiful, spring day when 10 bicyclists from New Mexico took a ride on the northwest side of Tucson in March 2016. The tourists were members of the Santa Fe Seniors on Bikes, a bicycle club of riders age 50 and older. Tucson’s bicycle culture is what attracted them to town.

The cyclists stopped at a red light in the designated bike lane. Moments later, a pickup truck struck the group. One of the bikers died at the scene while the other passed away before arriving at the hospital. Police arrested the truck driver for driving while under the influence of narcotics.

In 2015, 818 bicyclists were killed in motor vehicle traffic crashes in the United States, a 12.2 percent increase from 2014, according to a report prepared by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The report also estimated 45,000 bicyclists were injured in crashes in 2015, a 10 percent decrease from 2014.

The League of American Bicyclists ranked Tucson a gold-rated community when it comes to cycling, but the city refuses to settle for second best. Its goal is to reach the platinum level, the highest ranking a city can receive, and maintain that status.

“Getting more people riding bikes is good for our community in terms of increasing public and personal health, improving air quality, minimizing the costs and consequences of climate change, supporting the local economy, and building community cohesion and vibrancy,” said Andrew Bemis, lead planner of the bicycle and pedestrian program for the city of Tucson Department of Transportation.

There were 29 bicyclist fatalities in Arizona in 2015. Eight of them were in Phoenix, four in Tucson.

Bemis added: “National research shows that roughly 60 percent of the population is interested in riding a bike more, but are concerned about their safety doing so. In order to make riding a bicycle a viable transportation option for people of all ages and abilities, it is imperative to make our transportation network safer for these vulnerable users.”

The Bicycle and Pedestrian Program is dedicated to improving the safety and accessibility for pedestrians and cyclists through engineering, enforcement, encouragement, and evaluation.

Bemis also mentioned the Tucson Department of Transportation (TDOT) is currently working on several projects. It recently released a bicycle boulevard master plan calling for improvements to 64 residential corridors including dedicated push button crossings at major streets, lowered the speed limit on two designated bicycle boulevards from 25 mph to 20, and are trying to incorporate bike lanes where space permits on all roadway resurfacing projects by implementing the road diet program.

This program consists of reducing the number of travel lanes in a roadway and using the space for turn lanes and bike lanes. The Federal Highway Administration Road Diet Information Guide explained that road diets, depending on road characteristics, can reduce crashes by 19 to 47 percent.

The Bicycle and Pedestrian Program is partnered with Living Streets Alliance, an organization that promotes healthy lifestyles in communities, to conduct bicycle and pedestrian safety in elementary schools as part of the Safe Routes to School Program. The program supports community efforts such as Cyclovia Tucson, Love to Ride Tucson, and Bike Fest Tucson. The program is also working with the Tucson Police Department to raise awareness about distracted driving.

“Compared to many other cities, Tucson is definitely in the top 10 or so. But again, to really make the jump to the next level, we need to make bicycling to work, school, shopping, out to eat, going to church, or running errands safe, comfortable, and efficient,” said Colby Henley, bicycle program manager for Living Streets Alliance.

“Bike and pedestrian advocates often talk about building an 8 to 80 community, meaning if an 8-year-old and an 80-year-old can get around safely and comfortably, then all people will be able to as well. So with that as the criteria, I think Tucson is doing well, but we’re not there yet.”

Pima County has been developing The Loop around Tucson with paths linking to Marana, Oro Valley, and south Tucson. About 100 miles of shared-bike paths have been completed. Once the project is finished, The Loop will have a total of 131 miles and will connect to Rillito River Park, Santa Cruz River Park, and Pantano River Park.

A group of bikes outside of the main library at the University of Arizona. (Photo by: Ashley Mikelonis/Arizona Sonora News)

The University of Arizona recently formed a bike committee to try and upgrade the bike conditions on campus. “We are only in the beginning phases right now,” said Zach Brooks, special projects coordinator for UA Office of Global Initiatives and member of the campus bike committee.

Brooks explained they have established specific priorities to address bike safety. These include improving communications between bicyclists, pedestrians, transit users, and drivers, upgrading the quality of detours for bicyclists and pedestrians, implementing bicyclist safety education, increasing the awareness of bike services and programs, and improving relations with the UAPD.

Tucson is committed to making this an even more bike-friendly city, but there is still work that needs to be done.

According to the Bicycle Boulevard Master Plan, the estimated cost of completing the entire bicycle boulevard network in Tucson is $37.3 million or approximately $193,000 per mile.

“Tucson is absolutely capable of becoming a better city for cyclists,” Bemis said. “The only concerns that remain are the time it will take and the money it will cost to complete these extensive projects.”

Click here for high-resolution photos.

Ashley Mikelonis is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at amikelonis@email.arizona.edu.

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