LAB president: Tucson needs more commuters to compete

LAB President, Andy Clarke, left, poses with Perimeter Bicycling Association of America's Richard DeBernardis.

Andy Clarke, the president of the League of American Bicyclists is in town for a series of events over the next few days. I was able to sit down with him for 20 minutes at a reception dinner hosted by Richard DeBernardis and the Perimeter Bicycling Platinum Challenge Committee.

We talked about where Tucson is and where it needs to head to be a Platinum Bicycle Friendly Community. Check out the conversation below.

The League of American Bicyclists focuses on commuter cycling instead of recreational cycling. Why is that?

On a purely practical level, for better or worse, the only trips that are counted as far as the official statistics are concerned are journeys to work. So if you want to register on the Census and American Community Survey data, we’ve got have people doing those everyday trips to and from work. That needs to show up. We need to be able to compete with Davis and Portland and Boulder and the San Franciscos and Minneapolises of the world where there is two, three four times the volume of cyclists that you have here in Tucson.

That is on a very practical level. I think also on a more philosophical level, the everyday transportation stuff is very much more visible. It is very much more accessible. It makes the whole bicycling thing more accessible to people and less intimidating.

Your recreational cyclist is always lycra-clad, always on a $3,000 bike, always with a bunch of like-minded and similar people. That can be intimidating to folks that are not used to riding, who are unsure about where to ride, who to ride with and just want to get to work or to the store.

I think the everyday more utility cycling piece is really important for changing the overall culture. It makes it more mainstream, more accessible, more believable that this stuff really makes a difference and really matters.

As long as it is primarily a recreational activity, it is too easy to cut it out of the budget when the time gets tough or too easy to dismiss it as a fringe special interest issue. That is what we need to get away from.

Every community has got recreational cyclists. You go to the less bicycle friendly places like Houston or Dallas or San Antonio (just to pick three places at random). They’ve got phenomenal bike clubs. They’ve got an amazing recreational cycling community there, but Houston basically totally sucks for everyday cycling.

You go to Portland, they still have the recreational scene but there’s just bikes everywhere. There are people doing it for school, for work, for church, for social — for everything. That really changes the dynamic. That is probably the single biggest missing piece for Tucson to fix.

Tucson has increased its infrastructure, but hasn’t seen an increase in commuter riders. What does that tell you?

It tells me that encouragement is a huge part of what needs to happen next. Encouragement that is fairly broadly defined. The kind of encouragement and advocacy type stuff that goes hand in hand. The kind of thing that ciclovia events embody.

Not to overuse Portland as an example — whenever they put a new bike lane or a new piece of infrastructure in, they make sure they also have a local community ride to introduce people to what the new thing was. It is really important now to just give people the extra incentive or push to get out there to use the the amazing infrastructure and the amazing opportunities that are here.

The vast majority of people, they just have no idea where the trail at the end of their street goes, where it could take them.

Gas prices will be a huge help. It’s not something we can control or necessarily we want to see for other reasons, but inadvertently it will have the effect of forcing a bunch of people to say, “you know what? I am just going to try riding.” They will discover that there are bike lanes everywhere and there is a great trail and greenways system and that there is every opportunity to make it work.

In a lot of cases, people have got bikes hanging in their garage, but literally don’t know how to put air in the tires to get the thing riding again. If we can help people get past that hurdle we’ll get them riding and they will be back in the saddle again. I think there is a lot of that we can do.

The good news is that you’ve had a couple ciclovias, there is a local advocacy group — the Living Streets Alliance, your own site [Tucson Velo]. There are more places and venues where you can see that happening. I think that will start to build a lot of momentum pretty quickly.

What are some of the positive and negative characteristics Tucson has for cycling?

I don’t think I have got anything fantastically insightful. You’ve got outstanding weather. You’ve got all the geographic and climactic benefits going for you.

Of course what you have going against you is everything is very spread out. It is very suburban. The streets are big and the traffic is fast and the drivers aren’t very good. Those are all certainly disincentives, but I think with the infrastructure you’ve got and the education programs you’ve got, I think you’ve got the opportunity to overcome those challenges. Those aren’t insurmountable.

The desirability of cycling is evident from the hordes of people that come here for events, for training, for vacation. The vibrant bike community you’ve got going on here speaks volumes for the desirability of riding here.

Not wanting to over generalize, but you’ve probably got a fairly large under-served population who don’t have a choice as to how they get around. For whom getting on a bike would actually be a really good practical alternative to walking or taking the bus or even doing it in combination.

You’ve got a lot of great attributes and a lot of great opportunities. It is time to step up and take advantage of them.

What three things should the region be doing to improve?

Number one, take the ciclovia annually to monthly or weekly. There is no reason why you guys shouldn’t be doing something like that on a much more regular basis. I think that has the opportunity to be really transformative.

The second is what some places call “smart trips” or individualized marketing programs that give people the information, encouragement and the opportunity to get out and ride.

Thirdly, probably just closing the gaps in the infrastructure. Making sure the missing links in the network are filled and continue to build that network. Complete it where you’ve got big gaps, but also with bike boulevards and other things, keep adding to it. That can never get to be too big.

What type of facilities should the region focus on building?

One of the exciting things about the work that is going on in Portland is the break down they have documented with the population of Portland with the different types of cyclists.  [Strong and Fearless, Enthused and Confident, Interested, but Concerned and No Way No How. Read more about the groups here.]

Different types of bike infrastructure play to different audiences. I think you’ve got the opportunity with bike boulevards and with some of the higher quality, innovative protected bike lanes and extensions to the trail system to really tap into the Interested, but Concerned population.

Bike lanes, you need to continue adding them when you can, when resurfacing is happening, when new streets are being built and making that as routine and normal as possible. That will happen over the next five years or 10 years. Those gaps will close in the on-street system.

I think there is a real opportunity to focus on some higher quality routes that are going to attract people who right now just don’t see themselves out on Speedway, however good the bike lane.

It is hard. You need all of it. What we see in other Platinum level communities and even Gold communities is that you can’t just have trails or just have bike boulevards, or just have bike lanes. You really do need it all, but obviously with the financial system being what it is, you can’t have it all in one go so it is hard to prioritize.

Anything else you would like to add?

I am excited to be here to see how things are changing. To me, the the advent of Living Streets Alliance, the ciclovia events, your site and some of the stuff that is happening is a really critical changing of the guard that is going to propel you to Platinum.

Are we going to get Platinum level? (Clarke wouldn’t tip his hand, but said at this moment we aren’t a Platinum community because our Platinum application hasn’t been submitted and reviewed yet. Here is what he did say…)

There is still work to be done. I haven’t seen what the crash numbers are. That has been an anxiety. I know there has been a big focus on that. You guys are doing more in the enforcement area than almost anywhere else, so that is definitely good. The safety story has not always been the best here and that is something we have got to work on.

Even if you guys don’t make Platinum, you are still one of the poster children of the program for us. The story of what Tucson is doing — what you have been doing for the last six or seven years — is really extraordinary and something we happily tell people about all over the country, all over the world.

13 comments
Jonathan Kandell
Jonathan Kandell

I just commuted 7 miles to work on my old 80s steel dinosaur--and it took 40m and was very pleasant.  What got me to do it:  I found a route with only two major intersections; the rest were crosswalks.  I want to take this chance to THANK everyone involved in putting up all those HAWK crossings and pushing bike boulevards!   It's like night-and-day compared to biking in the 80s.  Even though the boulevards aren't all spiffy yet, they're fairly functional. Thanks! 

Red Star
Red Star

The Visitor seems to suggest that for Tucson/Pima County it's more of a 5K, or a 10K, or a 15K, or a marathon (take your pick), than a sprint  (borrowing from foot-racing).

Brian Meyer82
Brian Meyer82

 I think the increase in the cost of gas is helping. If we think about the hurdle of purchasing a bike in economic terms, commuting tends to pay for the purchase. Conservatively speaking, if an individual has a 10 mile per way commute, and averages 20mpg in their vehicle, they'll burn 1 gallon of gas per day. That's 5 gallons per week, and at the current rate of approximately $3.60 per gallon, that's $18 per week, or $864 per year. If this individual is able to commit to commuting just 2 days a week, they'll save $344 annually. At 2 days of commuting per week, over 2 years, you've bought yourself a $700 bicycle. This model doesn't even consider the vehicle maintenance you've saved yourself by not driving.  It's these type of logical/economic arguments that will help sway certain types of people. Ideological arguments may sway others. Health benefits may encourage others. I think the fight for increasing commuting in Tucson is a really steep uphill battle. We have atrocious drivers in our community. They resent bikes on the road. Its a frightening and dangerous environment to the new rider. It's a hostile and infuriating situation for those of us who are experienced and skilled riders.  Oh. and of course there are the Police. In my years of riding, I think I've seen a cop pull over a motorist 1 time for how it drove near a cyclist. I see motorists actively and recklessly endangering cyclists safety (and breaking the law) at least 1 time everytime I ride. Instead of "cracking down" on unsafe cyclists, which TPD seems to do twice a year through mandate, I'd like to see the police defend the cyclist. Infrastructure.  1. Whoever is responsible for the lack of bike lanes surrounding the University on 6th and on Euclid should lose their job today.  2. The trolley tracks have injured, maimed, and now killed cyclists. The city does not care. If it rained here with any regularity those statistics would sky rocket. If an experienced racer has trouble riding in traffic in the downtown area because of trolley tracks, you built a poorly planned, crappy system. It's only getting worse. The trolley tracks should, without a doubt, be ripped out. They have no meaningful commuting utility and only serve to endanger and impede one of the only areas in Tucson with cycling density.

Erik Ryberg
Erik Ryberg

Andy Clarke, you just made my day.  Bravo!  And thanks Mike for the excellent interview.

Tom Thivener
Tom Thivener

http://cms3.tucsonaz.gov/projects/bicycle-boulevards PK, the best hope for a network of low-stress bikeways that criss-cross the urban core, are bicycle boulevards.  Because they utilize existing residential streets, they cost a lot less than building greenways in the City, but provide many of the same benefits. Click on the link above to learn more.

teacher
teacher

I commute 4 out of 5 days to work. 13 miles each way. I started in January and am still at it. It was a great decision to do so.

PK
PK

Another thought - I telecommute but the thought of commuting in the summer heat makes me think that our climate works against a model that works for Portland or cities up north.  Can we not achieve Platinum by promoting recreational cycling for residents and as a destination for outsiders during the winter months?  Thanks to a fantastic Christmas present, I am now one of the many lycra clad riders (sans 3K bike)  who make great use of our bike lanes early in the morning and on weekends.  I have gone from zero to 850 miles logged in the past four and a half months. Many people who I tell about my rides are simply too scared to mix it up with traffic.  If we could get more dedicated bike routes like the Rillito that crossed the city North to South and East to West, that would help a great deal to promote biking for commuters and recreational riders alike.

Martha Retallick
Martha Retallick

I'll confess to not having a job to commute to in 11 years. (I'm self-employed.) But I can remember a distinct disincentive to bike commuting during my work-away-from-home years. And that was the attitudes of coworkers and management. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, people who rode bikes to work were considered oddballs. Which mean that the few, the proud, and the rugged who bike commuted had pretty thick skins. And not every employee had that. So, change the attitudes in the workplace, and you'll see a lot more commuters.

PK
PK

I think getting bikes into the hands of as many youth as possible via BICAS and ciclovia. Get them riding and have fun events along the Rillito path and riding downtown as Living Alliance does.  A weekly San Francisco style Critical Mass riding event through town? Love this site.  I have learned so much reading it.  Thank you.  Keep up the great work!

Ianjohn27
Ianjohn27

Wow! Andy really nailed it here. I wish there were easy answers like "build facilities of type "X" and you're ridership will explode -- but really, it's a lot about things harder to get your head around like "make sure you have showers at workplaces" and "do smart trips programs to get people out there." It's a lot more work, but I think it's what's needed to really flip the bicycling culture here. Great stuff -- I hope lots of people get out to see Andy this afternoon!

PK
PK

I saw that piece on bike boulevards. It is great. I used to teach in the East Bay so I very familiar with the Berkeley examples. I'd love to see Tucson embrace that model.

Daniel Majewski
Daniel Majewski

"A weekly San Francisco style critical mass riding event through town?" already exists!  It's called the Tuesday Night Bike Ride and it starts at the U of A flag pole every Tuesday night at 8:30.  It's a lot of people and a lot of fun.  exists!  It's called the Tuesday Night Bike Ride and it starts at the U of A flag pole every Tuesday night at 8:30.  It's a lot of people and a lot of fun.  

Ianjohn27
Ianjohn27

 "your" not "you're". It's early. Thanks for the great interview, Mike.

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