Bike boulevard fight may come to a head at tonight’s BAC meeting

A bicycle boulevard in Portland

The debate about bicycle boulevards again takes center stage at the Tucson Pima County Bicycle Pedestrian Committee meeting tonight.

At issue is the BAC’s March decision that suggested bicycle boulevards be given equal standing to the other Regional Transportation Authority projects approved by voters in 2006.

The city’s plan for bike boulevards includes a network of 40 neighborhood streets at half-mile intervals connecting the urban core. The network would provide safe crossings, way-finding signage, prioritized bike travel and traffic calming.

The fight over bike boulevards — which has created some dissension among BAC members — has largely focused on how the projects will be funded, skepticism about their effectiveness and delayed completion and funding of other projects like the Urban Loop.

Bike boulevard funding

Nanette Slusser, Pima County’s assistant administrator said the county has no official stance on bicycle boulevards because they don’t have enough data to make an informed decision, but don’t believe they should receive funding through the RTA.

According to Slusser, voters did not approve the use of RTA funds for bike boulevards and using the money for them will prevent the RTA from completing the projects promised to the voters.

“As stewards of public funds we have to be real careful that we give the public what was promised,” Slusser said. “When we use public money, we have to look at what was the intent of that money.”

Tom Thivener, the city of Tucson’s bike and pedestrian program manager, disagrees with Slusser’s assessment.

“If you look at the RTA legislation, which governs the whole show, it in fact calls out specifically that you can use the funding for neighborhood bike routes,” Thivener said. “Call it what you want, bike boulevards fall under that. They are enhanced neighborhood bikeways.”

RTA officials have said the maps and projects shown to voters were illustrations and can be changed based on the region’s needs.

“The RTA has said over and over again that we are not tied to the maps that were on the ballot,” Thivener said. “Why target bike boulevards? There are dozens of other projects that weren’t on-list.”

Projects being funded by the RTA that weren’t on the original list include some bike lanes, portions of the Urban Loop and the Arroyo Chico multi-use path.

According to Matt Zoll, Pima County’s bike and pedestrian program manager, most jurisdictions — including Pima County — has applied for projects that weren’t on the original list of projects voted on in 2006.

County officials have suggested that bicycle boulevards should only receive money from the RTA if they secured a federal transportation grant. The RTA would then provide the 5.7 percent matching funds required by the federal grant process.

During April’s RTA Bike and Pedestrian Working Group meeting, BAC representative Roy Schoonover introduced a motion which would prevent bicycle boulevards from receiving anything other than matching funds. The motion, which was counter to the BAC’s March recommendation, was tabled after the members could not reach a consensus, but it could still come back up for a vote.

Zoll said using RTA money for the grant matching is a great way to complete more projects. Zoll said they would likely have to use federal grants for many of the projects that were approved by the voters because there isn’t enough money to complete them all.

Thivener said if the motion had passed it would have made it extremely difficult to fund the network of bike boulevard the city wants to create.

“It would be unprecedented that we would make such a restriction on a bike facility that is so wanted by the bike community,” Thivener said. He said if the grant-matching proposal passes, “we may never get off the ground with bike boulevards in town. We may get one or two, but it would be more like a 100-year plan getting the whole network built out instead of it maybe being a 20-year plan.”

Will bicycle boulevards work in Tucson?

Way-finding markings in Portland, Ore.

Some BAC members and Pima County officials are concerned about the effectiveness of bike boulevards.

Thivener said studies are beginning to show that bike boulevards are a primary reason for increased riders in places like Portland and Minneapolis.

According to Roger Geller, Portland’s bicycle coordinator, Portland only has 30 miles of bike boulevards, but a study conducted by a Portland State graduate student found that for every one rider who used a traditional bike lane, 10 riders used a bicycle boulevard.

“People will go significantly out of their way to use a bike boulevard rather than a busy street,” Geller said.

Geller said they are targeting the 50-60 percent of their residents who they have categorized as “interested, but concerned” about riding bikes. To get those people riding, the city is planning to add more bike boulevards.

BAC member and Urban Loop advocate Norm Land, who would not go on the record for this article and has categorized himself as a bike boulevard skeptic, said in a public meeting that he doesn’t know if bike boulevards will work in Tucson. One reason he says he is skeptical is because the population density is higher in Portland.

According to the 2000 census data, Tucson had 1,400 less people per square mile than Portland.

Thivener said each of the elements found in bike boulevards: traffic calming, signage and bike/pedestrian signals, have been proven to work individually.

According to Thivener, city data suggests that when bicycle signals went in on 3rd Street and 9th Street, bicycle traffic tripled.

Zoll said some of the proposed boulevards will be very useful, but said others might not be popular.

“It will vary a lot as they get done,” Zoll said. “Some places will have very high use. Some places not so high. Those places that don’t have so much use may not need so many treatments. You kind of have to evaluate it very very carefully.”

“I don’t buy that argument,” Thivener said. “I think we are going to find that we don’t have enough of these when we get them going.”

Thivener said national guidelines on bike boulevards dictate that networks should be placed a half-mile apart in order to reach the most people and provide riders with routes to get to as many destinations as possible.

Region-wide benefit?

Thivener said bike boulevards would help reduce congestion on city streets that would benefit anyone driving into the city.

Additionally, Thivener said, bike boulevards like Treat Avenue would connect county facilities like the Rillito River path and eventually other portions of the proposed Urban Loop.

But, several local governments have voiced concerns that the plan won’t benefit people living outside the urban core.

“We are somewhat concerned that the only beneficiary is one jurisdiction,” Slusser said. “It is not a regional benefit. What we can tell from the plan so far is that there are a lot of inner-city bike boulevards that do no reach any other jurisdictions, do not provide any level of connectivity that make sense.”

Urban loop completion Pima County’s top priority

The Urban Loop completion is one of Pima County’s top priorities and according to an email obtained by Tucson Velo, the county is unwilling to support bike boulevards if it would take any potential funding away from the loop.

Pima County deputy administrator John Bernal wrote to Gary Hayes, the RTA director, saying, “The bikeway boulevard proposal that the City of Tucson is aggressively pursuing is not supported by Pima County, at least not at the expense of our Urban Loop system.”

During the may RTA Bike and Pedestrian Working Group meeting, Schoonover said he was concerned the city wanted almost $1 million to turn Treat Avenue into a bike boulevard.

According to the meeting minutes, he said if boulevards are submitted for a reasonable amount he would support them; however, the amount for Treat is a “horribly big number.”

Thivener said bike boulevards cost about $200 thousand per mile, which is more expensive than the cheapest bike lane stripings that do not require any road modification, but cheaper than many other projects.

“We are still getting some flack that it is too expensive,” Thivener said. “The same people who say it is too expensive do not hesitate to throw multi-millions toward urban loop projects. If it is a river path project, then no questions asked. If it is something else that is not high on their priority list then stop the presses, we’ve got a problem. Let’s find a problem that we can hold this thing up.”

Some agreement

Officials all agree that Tucson needs more bicycle facilities and bike boulevards, bike lanes and multi-use paths all need to be part of the plan.

“We need as much as possible,” Zoll said. “Bike boulevards are excellent, the Urban Loop is excellent, bike lanes are excellent. We need a lot of things to make a difference in how many people are riding. In terms of an either-or, that hasn’t been the history. The history has been one way or another finding funding for both.”

“It is a limited pot and everybody needs to decide what the priorities are,” Slusser said. ” I think you can have all of the above, it is just that there isn’t enough money for everything at the same time.”

The public is encouraged to attend the BAC meeting and participate in the discussion. The meeting starts at 6 p.m. at the Himmel Branch library.

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4 comments
Mtngoat
Mtngoat

I agree that bike boulevards don't service everyone in the region, but that is the point really. In my view they are intended to improve choices for those living in the central city areas. This reduces traffic for everyone and provides one more incentive for people considering the choice to live in the more densely populated core. In the long run, Americans need to give up their love affair with sprawl. It has been a deteriorating and abusive relationship, so the more we can encourage urban living with "quality of life" inducements like better bike facilities, the better for us all! @Steph Every time my husband and I drive down 5th/6th for some reason, I say the same thing. I think he is getting sick of me preaching the safe routes to school, lively ped bike corridor gospel while he is trying to dodge the crazy people flying down the road at 40 mph. Regarding the north/south corridor you long for, it is coming! http://cms3.tucsonaz.gov/project/4th-avenue-fontana-bicycle-boulevard I wish it would connect to the Rillito, but I'll take it.

Steph
Steph

I'd love to see bike boulevards, at least throughout midtown. If we want more density, we have to accomodate people who choose to live in more crowded ways with easy access to public transportation and protected bike friendly throughways. As long as bikes compete with cars, bikers lose. I would also like to see some decent pavement on all the bike routes, as Coghauler mentions, but we need way bigger dreams for where our money should go. How about an east/west street like 5th St. closed to cars and dedicated to rapid transit, walk path and bike paths all the way from downtown to Wilmot Rd. At least 5 huge TUSD schools, downtown workers and residents, U of A students and employees, and 4th Ave. businesses would benefit from access to a dedicated biking corridor and density would naturally increase along that line. The same could be done with Stone or some other lesser north south street. Instead of making ourselves into a piecemeal copy of what other cities do, let's think big and become a destination city for people who want bike friendly roadways.

Mickey
Mickey

I'm not sure how well the bike boulevard thing works across the entirety of town. I live on the east side, and although I'd love to see 3rd st extend all the way across to Wilmot, it doesn't change the fact that the only way to get east of there is a busy street like speedway, broadway, or tanque verde. I think for most of central tucson they will work wonderfully, but there are areas which will still be cut off. This is how I've always viewed Tucson, it's really awesome riding for awhile, and then all of a sudden you merge into 3 lanes of traffic without a shoulder. That's not to say the Urban Loop really benefits me in any way either unless I'm trying to reach somewhere on the perimeter of the city. But in any case, I think bike boulevards are the way to go as 80% of the cyclists in Tucson eschew the bike lanes in this town for the sidewalk on the wrong side of the street anyway.

ian johnson
ian johnson

I'm pretty sure that the density argument doesn't hold water; in March at the RTA bike/ped working group meeting, part of Tom Thivener's presentation included specific data related to that: "Population density in Portland is 3,939 people per square mile vs. Tucson’s 2,500 people per square mile. However, there are Tucson neighborhoods, such as central Tucson with a density of 4,618 people per square mile and the UA campus with a density of 11,362 people per square mile." -- page 5 of this meeting minutes: http://www.rtamobility.com/images/stories/pdfs/RTABPWG/2010/RTABPWG-2010-03-31-Minutes.pdf So I think it's a matter of choosing routes for the boulevards that pass through these higher density areas, but extending them through lower density areas when it's required for connectivity (esp. to amenities like the urban loop and other destinations.)