A Londoner’s perspective of cycling in Tucson

Creative Commons photo by Motorblog.

Creative Commons photo by Motorblog.

Editor’s note: This post was written by David Armet a native Tucsonan, who was interested in comparing bicycling in Tucson to his current city, London. 

I’m a Tucson native, born and raised in Tucson, but I left after high school in 2000, and since then I’ve moved to London England, UK.  I’m even a dual British-American citizen now. London is having a bit of a cycling renaissance recently with as much as a quarter of rush hour traffic being on bike. I cycle daily in central London and I was back in Tucson last week and I thought it would be fun to compare the differences in cycling experiences.

In London I’m a big user of TFL’s Cycle Hire Scheme (or Boris Bikes, named after our mayor Boris Johnson). I’m a member like thousands of others and there is nearly ten thousand bikes available at more than 500 stations. There are several stations within a few steps of my front door.

The way the system is setup to be used is to take a bike purely for transit taking it out of one electronic computer-controlled bicycle rack and cycling to your destination and returning that bike to a different rack. As long as your trip is less than 30 minutes it is free (if you are a member) but if you keep the bike for longer, the charges add up quite quickly. So really it is best to take two or three or many short hops instead of one long ride.  Even if you are only returning a bike and then taking another two seconds later, your “free” half hour restarts.

Also there is no included bicycle lock, so when running errands, it actually is much easier (and cheaper) to return your bike to some random station and then grab a different bike at that same station (or another station right down the road), than to keep the same bike for several hours, they really are transit bikes, which I think is cool.

Last week I took a trip I take often.   It was 3.1 miles across the city of London, from Liverpool Street Station to Cartwright Gardens Bloomsbury. I used the heavy three speed Boris bike and my total trip time was a very leisurely 25 minute cycle.

In London even at these slow speeds, on a slow upright bicycle, the cycle is still faster than a car for a short trip like this. At every light I pass the cars on the outside and sneak into my “Bike Box” made of blue paint between the crosswalk and the advanced stop line (ASL) for the cars. These ASL’s and bike boxes make cycling MUCH MUCH safer and more enjoyable because you get a bit of a head start from the cars starting at the light and don’t have to be crowded in behind them sucking down their smog.

Creative Commons photo by marcus_jb1973 on Flickr.

Creative Commons photo by marcus_jb1973 on Flickr.

You get going quickly after the light changes, and since cars don’t end up going much faster than 25 MPH in Central London (and they only average 10 mph), your bicycle does not end up getting passed that much.

London is a quite formal city, and trainers (sneakers) are nearly never appropriate and if you are a man above the age of eight years old short trousers (shorts) are never a good idea, regardless how hot it is.   But London has a cooler more temperate climate and cycling slowly on an upright bike in a collared shirt, slacks and dress shoes, especially for shorter trips, is completely fine, you don’t get sweaty and, at worst, you get a healthy glow.

London has a bad reputation for being rainy, which it does not deserve.   It is often overcast, but it is never very cold, even in the dead of winter (because of the ocean and the Gulf Stream current). In London it does not rain all the time and when it does it usually is misty a kind of sprinkle and if you are walking or taking a quick cycle you don’t end up getting soaked. The cycle hire scheme is a great solution for mixed weather.  If you cycle from point A to B when the weather is good, and while you are there the weather turns for the worse you can simply take the underground (train) or a bus home and leave the bike.

This feature means people often takes bikes only one direction and then use other transit the other way, I know that other cities with cycle hire schemes have problems created by this, where everyone takes the bike down the big hill and then locks it at the bottom but no-one ever picks the bike up and cycles it up the hill!

Luckily London and these other cities are “third generation” cycle sharing systems.  Third generation Cycle Sharing systems use technology to always know who has what bike, they have chip cards, internet integration, and specific electronically controlled racks. You can learn more about the generations of cycle sharing schemes here. Because there is all this technology, the bicycles can be monitored and are actively rebalanced by a fleet of small electric trucks (and workers) that move the bikes from the bottom of the hill back up it, and specifically in London, contra the rush hour commuter surge,  London has one KILLER rush hour!

On my cycle to Cartwright Gardens, I took what could best be described as “quieter streets”, similar to the 3rd street bicycle path (bike boulevard or neighborhood greenway).  None of the streets were as quite calm  as 3rd street and half my trip did have a lot of slower traffic, but these are much less crowded roads than the main roads.

I took these quieter streets because on the main roads there really is no space, and the volume of idling diesel traffic really makes terrible air quality — it stinks so badly some commuter cyclists wear air masks!

Image used with permission  from http://aseasyasridingabike.wordpress.com

Image used with permission from http://aseasyasridingabike.wordpress.com

London does not have much dedicated cycle space at all, in fact many cycle lanes are designed so poorly they are dangerous.  One specific lane is Cycle Superhighway Two (CS2) along Whitechapel road, another place I often cycle, but rarely enjoy. Recently on this road the first cyclist using the new cycle hire scheme died.

Cycling in London, much like cycling in Tucson, is tremendously safe, some would even say safer than in cars as the money moustache man says, using clever accounting.  But regardless how you do the math simply because there are so many millions of miles cycled on these bikes, one death is not that surprising.   It is tragic and sad but not surprising.

Despite these dry statistics, an emergency should never be wasted, and thousands of cyclists and I decided to protest this poor cycle facility.  This specific lane really is just blue paint painted down the side of the inside lane, truly useless because there is not enough space on the far side of the cycle lane for the car to fit.   Literally the cars park and drive in the cycle lane!

I attended a memorial protest ride you can view here: (You can see me in the very back at 5:00 with my old school UA shirt and a ball cap if you squint really hard!) The protest ride’s goal is to get better infrastructure, more than just paint on the roads, something that is more comfortable to cycle in as well as safer London can really use that because the city is so crowded there really is a war on the streets.

I try to ride on the quieter streets more than the faster larger roads because there is a lot of conflict on the larger roads between vigilante drivers stuck moving slowly in stop and go traffic and cyclists.

A recent problem I’ve had is a “punishment pass” roughly described as when a cyclist is riding in the primary position to prevent a driver overtaking (passing), because it’s not safe.  Then when the driver can overtake they drive as close as they can whilst shouting abuse.  This is terribly illegal, and very dangerous, and it never is necessary because nearly every time it has happened to me this driver that MUST GET AHEAD of the cyclist is waiting at the light, and I calmly and quietly pass them to get into my “bike box”.  You can learn more about the etymology of the “punishment pass” here.

After my busy day, running errands and attending the protest ride I packed my bags and flew back to Tucson Arizona.  July in Tucson! Yikes I hope I like the heat!

The next day I started near El-Con Mall and walked about two miles to pick up a loaner bike for the duration of my trip to Tucson. I started at 6:30am but walking in Tucson is SO BORING!  Things are just too far apart to see enough interesting things at walking pace, especially in midtown. The shops and stores are so sparse, and you just don’t get enough interesting visual stimulation at 2-4 mph, but Tucson becomes much more interesting and much much better when you speed up to cycling speed.

I arrived at my friend’s house at 7:15 a.m. and I was a bit uncomfortable from walking in the heat and my backpack was already making me sweaty. I’m not prepared for this Tucson heat! From there he lent me a bike and we cycled over to Frank’s on Pima and Alvernon.  The cycle was a breath of fresh air!  My sweaty walk became a breeze of a ride as we cruised down 5th Street taking the lane for a half mile, and having only a few cars safely pass us, fully in the other lane, no punishment passes here –only slow considerate passes fully in the left lane! Go Tucson! Then we turned up Alvernon Road and the generous size of the striped shoulder gave us plenty of space for both the cars to pass and us to cycle in a line.

The thing about Tucson is that it is just so generous.  The space is HUGE, there really is enough space on the roads for bicycles as well as the cars, without creating the kind of conflict I’ve become quite used to on the bike in London. I know for road cyclists in big groups there really is quite a lot of conflict, but for small groups utility cycling on many roads in Tucson there really is plenty of space.

At Franks, we met a couple other friends and struggled to find a place to park the bikes.  Torres Mora, the manager said he would get in touch with Ann Chanecka about the city program for bike parking.  Hopefully there will be some better parking there eventually. I ate the morning special (available for $1.75 anytime before 9am weekdays) of eggs, home fries, and a biscuit with gravy.   It was huge and enough food to fuel me for a whole day of cycling.  With coffee, tax and tip, still only 5 bucks!

After breakfast at Franks I had a meeting by the UA and cycled over there on Pima to Treat to 3rd street.  Easy cycling, but a bit bumpy!  Speedway is SOO smooth, and it does have a decent striped shoulder to cycle in, but it has heavy traffic and if you want truly stress-free cycling by using the much quieter route you seem to be stuck with poor road surface. This is unfortunate, road surface is something you never notice in London because it is uniformly good, and it just works, it is one of those things that you don’t notice until it is bad.

It is sad that Tucson is not the same way, but when you think about it, keeping the roads smooth in Tucson is a much different problem. With millions and millions of people crammed close together, the cost to keep roads in good shape in London is truly minuscule per person, but in Tucson with much much more road surface per capita the cost is higher. Also London is a richer city, Tucson poorer, and finally Tucson has much more drastic temperature swings, meaning the asphalt, deteriorates more quickly than in a more moderate climate like London (which nearly never freezes and only has moderate daily temperature swings).

We cycled across the UA campus then down University and south on 4th avenue to the HUB for lunch.  I was a bit worried about the tracks from everything I’ve read, but I was pleasantly surprised, I felt there was enough space to cycle out of the door zone, and not feel like you were going to fall into the tracks and take a tumble.   The tracks are more dangerous than a normal road, but after my cycle on a weekday morning in the summer I felt it was OK. I still believe that when school is in session or maybe on a Friday night where the streets are full of students and people drinking that may not be the case,  but as a whole, the streetcar will probably help those neighbourhoods and it does not totally ruin those routes for cycling.

As I arrived downtown I was darn-right sweaty. I can’t believe anyone can wear blue jeans in this heat.  But as I parked my bike, I saw some road workers putting in sidewalk improvements on Broadway and they are in full length trousers some with two shirts on, all with long sleeves. I guess Tucsonans do acclimate to the weather especially those road workers who are out all day!

The HUB and most of the downtown scene is all very new since I left Tucson. Back in the 90’s downtown was simply cafe Quebec, and the Grill and a lot of homeless people, now there are fancy shops and high-rise luxury apartments, one bedrooms in One North Fifth  are over $1000 per month for Tucson, Shocking!  Downtown Tucson was always a bit grimy and that grime is going away, I could not help but feel a bit sad when I saw the burnt out hull which was the Grill, so many memories of my childhood. I can really understand why some would like to “Keep Tucson Shitty,“ but the downtown Tucson we are getting is not so bad either. It is not corporate, it is not Mill Avenue, so, yes our downtown is changing and is gentrifying but it is not doing so in the worst way possible.

I was spent and hot after a short day out (I guess I was not acclimated to the heat and I probably was not dressed cool enough) I felt too lazy to cycle uphill (technically true) back to the west side of town so I popped across the street to the Ronstadt and got my new pay as you go SunGo card and threw the bike on the front of the bus and was home in a jiffy in the air-conditioned comfort of suntan. Go bus!  The pay as you go proximity card is great and can fit in your wallet so you never need to have correct change and can take the bus whenever you need them. I wholeheartedly recommend it!

The bicycle racks on Tucson busses are great but only work because Tucson is so sparsely populated, two bikes on the bus and there is no more room.  In London you can take your bike on some of the more shallow tube lines and the overgrown trains outside of rush hour, but not on busses.  It is rarely used, but useful when you need your bike but don’t want to cycle the whole way.

I stayed in Tucson for two weeks cycling all over town, and I quickly acclimated to the heat and learned to dress a bit better (short trousers are ok for adult men in Tucson, YAY!). All in all, Tucson is a really nice, stress free place to cycle, if you pick your route correctly; there is not much conflict on the roads like in London, much more space for drivers to be in their lanes and cyclists in different lanes or on striped shoulders. London has a lot more density so there is so much more to get to in a 10 min walk or a 30 min cycle. Tucson is quite a bit sparser.  I’d say cycling in London is useful but in reality London is a city built for walking, that is the way to get around.  In Tucson cycling is great and more than useful; it can be much more comfortable for running errands than continually getting in and out of a hot car! Tucson was built for the car, but for many trips cycling can work best.

I hope you enjoyed my comparison of Tucson and London UK!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

12 comments
SP
SP

I've lived in both, and was raised in London, so I have a sixth sense for 'getting through a small space on a bike' and always look motorists in the eye to check I am not about to be run over. Especially by people in white vans - tradies who generally hate cyclists. These are useful skills. 

I found no great problems cycling in Tucson, although there were niggling annoyances - particularly not being able to park your bike wherever you needed to on UA campus, where bikes were regarded as potential 'obstructions' and occasionally ticketed. But there were not enough legal bikeracks. You were left standing there puzzling what to do. Maybe this has changed, but the acres of parking space around UA and lack of anything other than a few buses is a bit embarrassing.   BICAS is a fine example of a bike workshop though.I never went on any mountainbiking and owned no bike gear, but covered hundreds of miles in three years. Only the extremities of the city were out of reach.

By the 1990s cycling in central London, by contrast,  was something akin to an ongoing war with motorists - this conflict has simmered ever since, but diminished 5 yrs ago and  tipped in bike's favor with the Congestion Charge (charging motorists only to enter the CBD) and actions of Boris the mayor, who has at least created some investment in bike facilities and prioritized the issue. He and others look to other cities where the vehicle count creates standstill conditions, and they have taken some action. Although the bike superhighways are pretty lame, as mentioned. Car numbers are still high in the centre though, because this is a wealthy city. But with up to 6 mill. commuters in London, the place would fall apart without its third leg, public transport, and so that is a very big deal in London too.It transports millions each day. It does break down daily. 

Here is my solution for London travel - a folding bike with public transport. I did that for several years.  If the train or tube fails, you get off and ride. You will see hundreds of Brompton folders (made in UK) every day. Much better than walking, which in a big city can take ages.They fold on the Tube and buses, too.

I recommend 'In the City of Bikes' by Peter Jordan (2013) which is book written by an American who moved to Amsterdam and was constantly amazed by the rather anarchic bike culture.

mickelsp
mickelsp

David, thanks for sharing your story.  I think the thing that's coolest about biking in cities like London is the density of cyclists.  Even during bike rush hour in Tucson (say Campbell and 3rd going into UA), there just aren't that many people for the space, so you don't feel like you're "commuting" on a bike or part of a larger community of cyclists (the Tuesday night ride is a pleasant exception).  

On the plus side, there aren't bike traffic jams, but it'd be nice to feel more bike solidarity.  :)

drewo
drewo

Thanks for sharing these insights. My concern about Tucson's often woeful street surface conditions is that the double whammy excuses of "not enough money"/"it's the desert" will always be used to justify ongoing inferior road surfaces. Tucson likes to promote itself as bicycle-friendly, but when the actual road surfaces discourage bicycle riding (not just the broken asphalt, but the debris-strewn bike lanes that are not cleaned regularly) it's a lot of hot air not backed up by any commitment. We do have nice surfaces on some roads (stretches of Broadway, Oracle Road, the I-10 service road) so smooth, well-maintained roads are possible.

Clean, inviting and navigable roads and bike lanes will encourage more cyclists, and allow Tucson to truly live up to the claim as a bike-friendly town.

Suzanne
Suzanne

I like the acknowledgment that it's MORE convenient and comfortable--not less so--so do a bunch of stop-and-go errands on a bike than in a car, even on a hot day! And no, we are not all hard-asses and some of us like to take the bus to take a breather and cool off. Great shout-out for the bus-and-bike. I can't wait for more of the 3-bike racks to go on those buses. (I did see one at Ronstadt a couple of weeks ago.)

But here's the part of this useful and enjoyable post that I would like to amplify: Note to MOTORISTS: There is plenty of room on Tucson's roads for bikes. And that's where we belong.

zz
zz

So, I guess if we want to increase congestion here, we better recognize when to stop.

arsolot
arsolot

Thanks for your article. I enjoyed reading it.  I really liked learning the term "punishment pass!"

bkr
bkr

I loved the article, thank you.  The tracks don't seem to be a huge problem to negotiate at this time if you are careful, but those of us who bike the area daily are concerned about the space for bikes and cars along the route when the street car itself is running, as it cuts way into the space needed to ride safely along 4th ave.

mickelsp
mickelsp

@drewo I agree that it's hard to call Tucson "bike-friendly" if the road surfaces aren't very good.  I think the city could make life a lot better for cyclists just by focusing on good surfaces on the most heavily traveled bike routes (3rd St. and 4th Ave. bike boulevards, for example).  Those are the bike-equivalents of Speedway for cars, and if the major car thoroughfares get resurfaced, why not the major bike thoroughfares too?  

Of course it'd be better if they could do more, but that would be a good way to use limited resources.

Suzanne
Suzanne

@zz Yeah, it took a long time, but folks in our neighborhoods are starting to catch on that the purpose of the streetcar project is to bring more car traffic into the city center. Parkwise director has admitted as much in two public meetings in the past few weeks. Look out.


zz
zz

@mickelsp @drewo  I'd settle for bike conscious; friendly fades so quickly on the signs. Improvements can't really be made to just bike features..in that sense cars and bikes need to be thought of together. You can't make repairs to the travel lane and leave the striped shoulder to hang. Or sweep the arterials and leave a long pile of debris in the center where the bikes travel. There is a lot that's not so resource-dependent that would indicate bikes are part of the thought processes going on. I don't hate cars; I think there's just too many of them and it's no picnic for them, either, out there.

zz
zz

@Suzanne I especially like the picture of the CS2. They seem to have calmed the traffic there alright.