A special meeting of the Tucson Pima County Bicycle Advisory Committee on Wednesday could change the way bicycle infrastructure is developed in Tucson.
At issue is whether or not the TPCBAC wants to direct the Regional Transportation Authority and the Bike and Pedestrian Working Group, which control $80 million allocated for bicycle and pedestrian improvements, to make bicycle boulevards a priority.
Bike boulevard supporters like Tucson bike and pedestrian coordinator Tom Thivener, say bike boulevards, which are created on existing neighborhood streets, will likely increase ridership in Tucson and have been shown to work in places like Portland, Ore.
“We’ve thrown down all these stripes especially with the first couple RTA packages the city has done,” Thivener said. “They are great, they do fill the gaps in the overall network, but they are not going to get a lot people riding. If we are really serious about getting more people riding, we’ll look at alternatives. That is where the bike boulevard discussion comes along because we do have the great grid in place.”
Others, like Norm Land, a TPCBAC member and alternate voting member of the RTA Bike and Pedestrian Working Group, worry that bike boulevards may not work here and don’t want to rush into funding bike boulevards before they are sure they will increase ridership.
“They may be wonderful other places, that doesn’t mean they are going to be great here in Tucson,” Land said.
Thivener said several elements make up a bike boulevard: prioritizing bikes, which is done by moving or eliminating stop signs; decreasing and calming traffic on the street by adding traffic circles to slow down cars and preventing cut through traffic.
Boulevards also implement way-finding signs and pavement markings to alert riders and cars that the street is specifically designed for bikes. Boulevards often include public art and trees to provide shade.
Lastly, bike boulevards add traffic signals like the TOUCAN to get bikes safely across major streets. (Examples of the three pedestrian and bike signals used in Tucson can be found here)
The special meeting, which will be held at the Parkwise conference room (110 E Pennington) at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, was added when members of the TPCBAC decided they needed more time to discuss making bike boulevards a priority for RTA funding.
The RTA was created in 2006 when voters approved a 1/2 cent sales tax that is expected to raise $2.1 billion dollars over the 20-year life of the plan.
Gabe Thum, a transportation planner for the Pima Association of Government, said there are two pots of money that can be used for bicycle and pedestrian projects. The first is the elderly and pedestrian safety pot, which has $20 million. The second pot of money is the greenways, pathways, bikeways and sidewalks pot, which has been allocated $60 million.
The Bike and Pedestrian Working Group oversees how the money is spent. The group was originally made up of jurisdictional members, which included Pima County, City of Tucson, Oro Valley, Marana and other regional governments. Thum said two years ago they opened the working group to members of the public and allowed them to vote on projects.
At the same time, the group decided to create an evaluation process to determine which projects should get funded. Bike boulevards were fairly new and were not one of the priorities listed in the original evaluation process. The priorities at the time were: on street bike lanes, shared-use paths and sidewalks.
Because of the boulevards growing popularity, Thum decided he wanted to get the TPCBAC’s feedback on whether they should become a priority.
Thum said if the TPCBAC decides they should be a priority, it will raise bike boulevards to the same level as other projects and make funding them easier. Currently, projects that fall under the three priorities — bike lanes, shared-use paths and sidewalks — are ranked higher than boulevards.
It is competitive right now to get the RTA funds,” Thivener said.
Land said bike boulevards are unique in that they can receive funding from different sources including sources outside of the RTA. He said officials ought to go after other funding instead of using RTA money.
Thivener said he has tried to get bike boulevards funded outside the RTA and hasn’t been successful.
“The RTA is not the only avenue to go, but it is probably the best one,” Thivener said.
Although Land said he supports bike boulevards, he is hesitant to commit a lot of money to them before making sure they work in Tucson.
“They might work in Amsterdam where the population density is four times Tucson,” Land said. Their trips are probably quarter-mile, half-mile. Here they’re going to be three, four miles. Are people going to give up their cars? I don’t know.”
Thivener said you need a lot of bike boulevards to make them work.
“There is a lot of skepticism about whether they work or not,” Thivener said. “I truly believe we need a network of these. You can’t just have one bike boulevard in isolation.”
Land said three bike boulevards have been funded by the RTA, but does not believe they should be compared on a level playing field with paths like the Rillito and Santa Cruz.
“I want to see that they work and even if they work, I don’t know if I am ever going to believe they are equal,” Land said.
Thivener said in addition to increased ridership, boulevards are safer. He compared 2001-2008 crash data on Broadway Boulevard and the 3rd Street bike route from Wilmot Road to Campbell Avenue.
Based on bike counts, they extrapolated that 3,100 riders used 3rd Street on a given day and 450 rode on Broadway. During that period they counted 80 bike crashes on Broadway Boulevard and less than 10 on 3rd Street.
Land said another concern about making boulevards a priority is that they will only benefit the urban core of Tucson.
“Oro Valley isn’t going to build bike boulevard,” Land said. “Why would they? Boulevards are a core concept and a very good one. The RTA is by definition regional and boulevards are not a regional concept.”
“We want to get ridership up in this community and we realized that the best chance to see that happen is with low-dollar improvements that focus on the urban core,” Thivener said. “That is where you are going to have the biggest bang for your buck.”
Thivener said he hopes the TPCBAC will vote to make bike boulevards a priority.
“It is time for the BAC to really make a stand and send clear direction to their representatives at the RTA Bike Pedestrian Working Group about what their priorities are, Thivener said. “If the BAC doesn’t ask for bike boulevards they are not really going to get them — or they will get them in a very slow, drawn out process. I am just trying to kick it up a notch. I think we are going to look back in 10 years and see this as the turning point.”
Members of the public are encouraged to attend the meeting and voice their opinion about whether bike boulevards should be a priority.