Phoenix: Where the Invisible become Visible

I just returned from a four-day trip to Phoenix, Arizona. It was my first visit to the Southwest. The four days were spent with my boyfriend (Dakota) exploring a large swath of the Phoenix area including Tempe and Scottsdale. We managed to utilize every form of transportation available:  light rail, bicycle, walking, private car, taxi, bus, and pedicab. In short, I was pleasantly surprised by my visit. My expectation of it being merely a place to not be shivering cold was greatly exceeded. Beyond the amazing vegan food, friendly people, diverse population, and fantastic street art I grew very curious about the bike culture which in it of itself could have held my attention for the entire trip.

Almost instantly upon walking my first few steps in the downtown area, something seemed really strange about biking in Phoenix. Not only were a lot of people bicycling, but the people bicycling were meant to be invisible.

Huh?

In the bicycle advocacy world, especially in the corners of transportation equity, the term Invisible Cyclist gets thrown around a lot. I find that term useful in that it says something pretty intense for post-racial America in two simple and innocuous words. The term came into the bike world’s lexicon via this article by Dan Koeppel.

A similar story was written about the Twin Cities in which journalist Jake Mohan talks with marginalized cyclists working out of a community bike shop.

As Koeppel spoke directly to the mainstream bicycle world via Bicycling magazine, he wrote, The men who pedal the streets at daybreak…are invisible in so many ways. Some are here without permission and must hide from the official world. They are not noticed by the cars and buses that roar past, sometimes to tragic effect. They’re not even seen by those of us who claim to love cycling. We’ll pick out a sleek Italian racing bike from across an intersection, but a dozen day laborers on Huffys dissolve into the streets.

Mohan describes this group of cyclists as immigrants who lack the proper documentation to obtain drivers’ licenses; low-income individuals who can’t afford cars; those who’ve had their licenses revoked for DUIs or other offenses; or residents of communities where public transit infrastructure is poor or nonexistent.

Both of these definitions-by-description illustrate a type of bicyclist that often rides when others don’t and for reasons that others don’t. And by “others” I of course mean the white, upwardly mobile bicyclist that, as Mohan argues, gets most of the positive media coverage in both journalism and advertising. So what I saw in Phoenix is an untold story and complicates the notion of the invisible bicyclist.

I do not have pictures of Phoenix bicyclists because, unlike other bike bloggers, I have ethical quandaries taking pictures of people on bicycles without their permission and then posting the pictures online. More on that later, actually.

 

bikes and yarn in Scottsdale

bikes and yarn in Scottsdale

The majority of people I saw riding in Phoenix rode department store bikes, low-end mountain bikes, or in lesser words: nothing fancy. We only saw one group of white, spandex-clad, racing cyclists out in a less-dense area of town. I also noticed a few out in Scottsdale but their numbers were easily squashed by bicyclists in loose-fitting clothes tooling around a mall parking lot.

When I was on the light rail a Latino man latched his bike into the train’s storage area, sat next to it with glazed-over eyes, in an outfit fit only for factory work. Another man of color hooked his bike in, sat next to me and immediately started talking about how hard he works for a measly $10/hour. When I asked about unions he reminded me that Arizona is a Right to Work state. Right.

bike racks in downtown Phoenix

bike racks in downtown Phoenix

 

During a trip to the farmers market, a man approached me about the patch on my backpack. It reads, “Bicycles Allowed Full Lane” with a city ordinance number from, I believe, Portland. The man, who introduced himself as Thomas, told me about his time as a bike messenger in Portland and Phoenix. We quickly got into a discussion about the bicycle laws in Phoenix, something that Thomas struggles with. He told me that the police have asked him to ride on the sidewalk with his cargo bike.

Yes, bicycle fanatics who live in “bike-friendly” places, it is true: bicyclists are encouraged to ride on the sidewalk in Phoenix. This alone troubles a common sign//stereotype of the invisible cyclist riding on the sidewalk, when the assumption is that bicyclists need to be riding on the street. So how can we identify such cyclists when riding on the sidewalk is not a faux pas? This cultural expectation//law was confirmed when Dakota and I took a pedicab across town. The driver picked us up on the sidewalk and stayed on the sidewalk the entire time, scaring me a few times as he zoomed through narrow passages between trees and benches. He confirmed that he has to ride on the sidewalk, but also works in Minneapolis during the summer so he was well aware that riding on the street is a legal possibility.

There were a lot of bicycle lanes in Phoenix as well, so it is not to be assumed that Phoenix is as backwards as the sidewalk law may suggest. The police just do not like large bikes on the road. But as Thomas pointed out, the driving lanes are very wide leaving ample space for bicyclists on the road. Thomas was obviously flabbergasted that the police claim he is “impeding the flow of traffic” by riding on the street. Coming from Portland, he knew this just was not true and that drivers are more than happy (usually) to pass you with plenty of space.

Down in Tempe, there were a lot of signs about how the area was “bike-friendly.” Not such a surprise given the Arizona State University campus is a main draw of the area. And in 2012, Bicycling Magazine actually rated Tempe #18 in its Top 50 Bike-Friendly Cities.

Dakota and I rented bikes in Tempe at the Bicycle Cellar. It was an impressive bike shop in its humbleness and the staff’s friendly demeanor–similar to my favorite shop, The Hub Bicycle Co-op in Minneapolis. At the Bicycle Cellar, I took note of the Cycling Commuter Support Center which includes showers and lockers. I asked Alex of the Bicycle Cellar how the center was funded. He told me that the city funded the commuter center and the bike shop helped maintain its functionality and quality. Partnering with a bicycle shop is becoming an increasingly common tool for cities in their drive to be seen as “bike friendly.” But, the city does not fund the bike shop, and so when the city’s funding runs out for the support center later this year, the Bicycle Cellar intends to move across the street to their own building.

Dakota and a Tempe bike lane

Dakota and a Tempe bike lane

 

biking in Tempe

 

It has been about a week since my return to Phoenix and I am still trying to comprehend the fascinating way that bicycling is understood in Phoenix. I am really interested in travelling to Phoenix again to document this bicycle culture and speak with bicyclists at length. If you have connections in Phoenix or know more about the city’s relationship to biking, please be in touch! I also am looking for funding sources to pay for this research so feel free to share those resources as well. Most importantly, if you have thoughts on Phoenix, who bikes there, and why, please leave a comment or shoot me a note. Helmets, M

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