Bicycle Ridership Increases Through City Support

Kristin McRay had just moved to Tucson, her bike her only means of transportation, when somebody stole her rear wheel.

She called bike shops in town who said it would be $100 for a new one.

“I didn’t have that kind of money,” she said. “That sounded really expensive.”

Ms. McRay found her way to Bicycle Inter-Community Art and Salvage, a non-profit bike repair and recycling collector located in downtown Tucson, where people can work in the shop to pay off used bikes. Or they can build their own bike from used parts available in the shop.
Every day people of all ages visit Bicas because it offers an affordable way to repair their bikes as more and more people need them.

“I found a used wheel for 5 dollars. I picked up all of the parts that I needed to fix my bike for under 20 bucks,” Ms. McRay said. “And I was hooked.”

She now works at Bicas, teaching workshops aimed at Tucson’s growing biking community.

A county study conducted last year showed a slight increase in ridership. But biking advocates said that the city needs to do more to accommodate the growing numbers, particularly with more low-income immigrants without access to automobiles sharing the streets. Civic organizations and government agencies are working together to educate and organize events designed to promote bicycle use and safety.

“We know that compared to other cities, Tucson has a very high bike ridership,” said Ann Chanecka, a coordinator at Tucson Bicycle and Pedestrian Program. “A lot of that are people that must rely on biking to get around, and we also have a high amount of folks that choose biking as their transportation mode for all the benefits that it brings.”

On any given day, children, college students, homeless people, delivery people, retirees, families with cargo bikes, and ride alongside recreational cyclists.

“These are people who wear spandex and have bicycles that are worth more than my car,” said Kylie Walzak, program manager at Living Streets Alliance, an organization that promotes walking and biking.

Ms. Walzak has been meeting with city leaders and officials who design the streets to discuss how to better accommodate riders. She is concerned about the growing numbers of immigrants and refugees from Latin America and Africa who do not have driver’s licenses and need to use a bicycle.

“We are advocating to recognize that we have this large population that can’t drive and to tell our decision-makers we really need to be thinking about them when we design the city,” said Ms. Walzak, who is seven months pregnant and rides her bike to work everyday.

The city has been expanding and improving its infrastructure, Ms. Chanecka said. In the last few years, it has installed roadway markings to improve safety and to deliver information. It has added protected barriers to better separate bicyclists from motor vehicles, according to the 2015 City of Tucson and Bicycle Pedestrian Program report. It has also added bike lanes.

Recognizing that some cyclists do not feel comfortable riding in the bike lanes, the city has been working on the infrastructure that appeals to a wider audience, like bicycle boulevards on residential streets.

But Tucson is a city designed around cars. It has a lack of sidewalks but it has really wide roads with enormous intersections. “People are expected to walk across them, and people get killed,” Ms. Walzak said.

At least two fatalities have been reported this year, according to Arizona Bike Law, a bicycle advocacy blog. “A lot of people feel comfortable riding in the neighborhood, but when they get to six-lane, eight-lane roads, it’s a real challenge to get across,” Ms. Chanecka said. To address this issue, the city plans to install more crossings.

We often say that everybody drives. In reality, a third of our population doesn’t drive, because they are either too old, too young, maybe they have a disability that prevents them from driving ━ or the biggest reason in Tucson is that they are too poor to be able to afford a car.

—Kylie Walzak

Ms. Walzak’s organization, Living Streets Alliance, also promotes education and supports a number of programs for cyclists throughout the city. Light the Night, a free bike light distribution and safety campaign, is an event produced in partnership with the city and county aimed at making biking safer.

Twice a year, the city closes off major streets to cars to allow Tucsonans the freedom to enjoy safe and open streets for a day. The event Cyclovia Tucson began in 2010 and was inspired by Bogotá, Colombia. Bogotá launched one of the first and largest events in 1976. It was copied around the world. Another event, Bike Fest, is a month-long celebration of bicycle transportation held every April since the 1990s.

Collaborations between the City of Tucson Bicycle and Pedestrian Program and the non-profit organizations have allowed projects like Safe Routes to School Tucson, where Ms. McRay teaches children how to fix bicycles.

“Before, I couldn’t even ride a trike,” said Xochitl A. Villanueva, a 9-year-old who attends the Ochoa Community Magnet Elementary School in South Tucson. “Now I feel great, because sometimes I go fast, and I love the speed.”

Edward Cantrell, a devout bicyclist, remembers the city of his childhood when there were no bike lanes and no biking boulevards.

“It has definitely improved, but you can always get more,” he said.

Mr. Cantrell, who is deaf, does not own a car. He prefers his 2000 Schwinn Frontier bicycle. “It’s like a therapy for me,” he said. “It’s the best way for me to just decompress.”

Ana Rodriguez contributed reporting.