How Phoenix Is Using 'Complete Streets' To Improve Residents' Safety, Health
Slowly, some of Phoenix’s streets are getting dramatic makeovers. While these projects may put a squeeze on future traffic, advocates of "Complete Streets" are welcoming the city’s steady embrace of what some call a key solution to city health and safety issues.
At a meeting in Steele Indian School Park’s Memorial Hall, Phoenix officials invited the public to view plans and voice opinions on a proposed redesign of Third Street stretching from the midtown park to downtown. When she saw my microphone, Margaret Dietrich of the Midtown Neighborhood Association was eager to speak.
“Third Street getting across is taking your life in your hands," Dietrich said. "People just go like crazy down that street because it feels like you should be able to. And there are so few places you can actually cross the street. And there are the people on the east side of Third Street that would like to come to the restaurants on the west side.”
Dietrich said her association is all for what is called a “Complete Street.”
“We’re totally in favor of narrowing it down," she said. "Which will essentially cut down the speed and make it much more friendly to bikes and pedestrians and everybody.”
Which is not lost on Mark Melnychenko, who’s with the Phoenix Street Transportation Department. He helped explain the designs mounted on easels around the room which include added and protected bicycle lanes, repaved and restriped surfaces, LED lighting, areas of new sidewalk, ADA improvements and on-street parking.
“It’s a balance between the needs of the residents and the commuters, but if we need to take a side, it’s going to be the residents, absolutely," said Melnychenko. "What we want to do is add additional modes and choices and we want to make those safe.”
One of those alternative commuters is Bill McComas, of Phoenix Spokes People, a group of urban bicyclists dedicated to making Phoenix a friendlier, more welcoming place to ride a bike.
“I personally commute, I shoot for five days a week. It averages three or four days a week," McComas said. "I’m not in the best shape a person can be but I’m in a lot better shape than I would be if I didn’t bike as much. I average about a couple thousand miles a year. So I think making it easier, making it more accessible for people that are less comfortable with it than I am would definitely get more people out on bikes.”
Which has been a challenge so far, said Joseph Perez, bicycle coordinator for the city.
“Someone who’s 12 years old, 75 years old, they may not ride on the streets the way they are today because there are no facilities for them," said Perez. "There are no bike lanes in some areas, and it can be intimidating to be on your bike, getting honked at by motorists when you have every right to be there, and feel like you’re not welcome and it’s unsafe.”
Some concerns have been brought up early, such as designing parking that ensures drivers don’t obstruct the bike lanes but still encourages people to visit businesses on Third Street. This may spur businesses to move into often vacant storefronts just south of Osborn and increase visitation to existing businesses such as Lisa Sette’s Art Gallery a little farther south.
What A 'Complete Street' Looks Like
A rendering for the area near Van Buren Street and 37th Avenue in Phoenix.
“I’m really looking forward to the trees and sidewalks and lights, and I think that will encourage more development, whether that’s infill or new development,” said Sette.
Right around the corner from her gallery, construction is underway for another large, upscale apartment complex. “I know a lot of my clients are moving from large homes into condos and apartments," Sette said. "And they all happen to be in midtown and downtown.”
Public meetings like this have cultivated public support Melnychenko needs to present plans to the Phoenix Infrastructure and Transportation subcommittee. If approved, final designs will emerge later this year with construction starting in 2017. But Melnychenko said he has heard complaints from peak-hour commuters who use Third Street.
“We want to design our streets for the full day," said Melnychenko. "Eighty percent of the day when I look at Third Street and taking pictures, I have trouble finding vehicles. So, do we design it for that peak period and widen it and all that? People kinda understand that we have to design it for the livability of the street.”
The health of the community is also a consideration.
C.J. Eisenbarth Hager with St. Luke’s Health Initiatives said obesity rates are increasing at national, state and city levels, but that “riding light rail, biking, walking as part of your daily routine, is an effective strategy to combating obesity," she said. "In fact, in Charlotte they tested folks who changed their behavior and started riding the light rail. And on average, within six to eight months, they lost over six pounds each.”
But Eisenbarth Hager noted the clear difference between Phoenix and Charlotte.
“If this is going to be a walkable, bikeable, transit friendly community, we need to have shade and we need to have vegetation near us that’s appropriate for this climate and makes it a lovely walk for us. It’s going to be difficult, that vegetation within the neighborhood setting, particularly for low-wealth communities.”
Eisenbarth Hager said taller buildings can provide shade in the urban corridor, but neighborhoods with houses and water expenses may leave sidewalks more exposed. She said St. Luke’s is interested in the measureable health benefits complete streets may provide.
“Some of the metrics include very countable ones: Are we having more people walking?" Eisenbarth Hager said. "More difficult metrics to measure are the community cohesion metrics that will come as a result of having more people on the street. So knowing your neighbor and that in 115-degree weather they’ll check on you to make sure you’re OK.”
She’s encouraged by Third Street and other projects, such as the Roosevelt Street complete street design in downtown.
Greg Esser, founder of Roosevelt Row Community Development Corporation, also noted that shade is a critical component to complete streets. While looking at the maturing trees newly planted along Roosevelt, he said the goal and vision to expand their presence.
“To plant more than 300 shade trees in the right of way in this area," Esser said. "We envision a complete treeline pedestrian experience all throughout downtown. We’re doing that essentially one tree at a time to help extend the connectivity. It’s a big win for the whole community."
Esser said roughly 75,000 people work in downtown Phoenix — but only 5,000 live there — creating a tremendous amount of vehicle traffic. He said over the course of the last century, the auto industry intentionally forced out alternative transportation to make residents more car dependent, including a trolley that used to run up and down Third Street connecting Steele Indian School Park to downtown. This led to the neglect and degradation of pedestrian rights of way.
“There are still a handful of areas where sidewalks need to be repaired," said Esser. "But, the sidewalks were so bad in this neighborhood at one point that I actually had to assist somebody who was paraplegic in a wheelchair that overturned on a city sidewalk.”
But Esser said the arrival of light rail was the spark to the transformation of Roosevelt Row, connecting it to a growing midtown and ASU campuses. And he notes a simple truth about growth.
“People attract people," said Esser. "And being able to see people on the street lets people know it is a safe area, that it’s a welcoming space. And so to have something like this outdoor dining patio in front of Carly’s Bistro is a great amenity. This wasn’t possible before the city came in with a complete streets design.”
Which is something Dorina Bustamante with Downtown Phoenix Inc. hopes to use as a tool to revitalize and give stronger identity to surrounding neighborhoods.
“We were really interested in the culture of parks and streetscapes and how every moment along the sidewalk can bring calming, it can bring beauty, it can brand a neighborhood block by block,” said Bustamante.
Since 2006, Bustamante and Downtown Phoenix Inc. have been working with other groups, such as Roosevelt Row Community Development, to help connect neighborhoods. Bustamante said while neighborhood groups and associations have been eager to collaborate, many resist the idea of being made to look and feel like other parts of the city.
“We’ve really learned to play nicely with each other and self-identify and respect each other’s neighborhood identity," Bustamante said. "And hopefully, if we have a thriving downtown it will radiate outward and create an example for other neighborhoods.”
And as neighborhoods start to connect, Esser said there should be no reason for a pedestrian to feel confined to a given area either on bike or on foot.
“How far is too far to walk in Phoenix? As long as there’s visual interest, as long as you see engaging things, storefronts, transparency, you forget about the distance and you really become engaged with the environment. But when you walk past an empty block, that feels like distance because there’s nothing to engage you while you’re making that pedestrian journey," said Bustamante.
While there may be growing pains as this car-centric city cedes more lanes to light rail, bicyclists and pedestrians, complete streets are already showing their business growth potential. And besides their immediate safety, advocates argue that in not too long, their health benefits will be felt too.
EDITOR'S NOTE: A previous version of this story misspelled the name of Bill McComas.