Walking or biking in Tucson shouldn’t be a death sentence
Every time you look at local news in Tucson, you will find a broken record player that repeats “Pedestrian killed in hit-and-run crash”, or maybe it’s the ubiquitous billboard “Injured? Car accident? Call XX.” Being a pedestrian or cyclist in Tucson is deadly, and it has taken away too many lives.
In 2021, there were 212 pedestrian crashes in the City of Tucson, with 32% of them being fatal or incapacitating, according to TPD data. That is, every 40 hours, a vehicle strikes a Tucsonan walking. As for biking, in 2021, 119 vehicle-involved bicycle crashes happened, with 71% resulting in injuries, possible injuries, incapacitation, or death. Only 15% of cyclist crash survivors come out unharmed, the rest unaccounted for are of unknown outcome to the TPD. The simple act of walking or biking outside of your home shouldn’t entail a death sentence, or a life sentence of physical rehabilitation and therapy.
Tucson was ranked as the 2nd most dangerous city nationwide for cyclists in 2017. Paradoxically, Tucson was also ranked in 2016 as the #2 most bike-friendly city in the nation with several noteworthy bike corridors like the Loop and 3rd St Bike Boulevard.
Bike infrastructure does exist nominally in every neighborhood across Tucson. But outside of tourist-oriented bike paths like the Loop or in select neighborhoods like Sam Hughes or University, bike lanes only exist in name only.
Here is what every cyclist or driver in Tucson already knows. In many parts of Tucson, you will find a fading line of white paint on the verge of roadways that whispers “bike lane” to the free-flowing traffic, offering no meaningful protection to cyclists. Cyclists are scared to use them, and drivers find them annoying. Even on stretches of “protected bike lanes,” the bike lanes barely separated by plastic bollards can be inconsistent and randomly throw cyclists into aggressive traffic like at St-Mary/I-10 intersection. Bicycle gutters are not safe.
If you are a pedestrian or transit user in Tucson, you would genuinely fear for your life in any area of the city that’s not downtown, UofA, or Sam Hughes. Sidewalks too often end unexpectedly and drop you into the roadway or dirt shoulder and put you at the mercy of drivers. Even if there are sidewalks, walking on them feels like a public humiliation. They are narrow and unprotected even on the fastest-driving thoroughfares. Tucson is also in a desert, but there is little canopy covering sidewalks at all. With the intimidating car traffic plus the blazing sun—the safety, comfort and dignity of pedestrians, cyclists and transit users were simply an after-thought.
Tucson’s pedestrian-killing streets are the result of decades of car-centric policies at all three levels of the government—the city, state and federal. To catch up, we are not only paying for what’s needed now and forward, but footing the bills for previous decades’ neglect as well. According to MoveTucson, the city-wide mobility master plan approved in 2021, the price tag to fix Tucson’s streets stands at $13B. The city doesn’t have $13B sitting around. To understand how dire the funding situation is, Biden’s signature Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) allocates $5-6 B over 5 years for safe street investment nationwide. The entire country needs to split that money, and yet Tucson alone needs $13B to retrofit all of its streets to the 21st century.
It is not because of a lack of funding, but because the real money for transportation flows from the federal government to state transportation departments like ADOT, which in turn spend it almost entirely on highways. The state government is investing $7B to build a new boondoggle—Interstate 11 that paves gigantic freeways over natural habitats and destroys communities, while bypassing Tucson and threatening the city’s sales tax revenue. This is in addition to ADOT’s endless laundry list of freeway expansion and improvements that would make Arizona’s highways wider and wider. Unlike municipality-led transit and safe street projects that must beg for funding from several levels of government, state-led highway projects get funded easily with little if any shenanigans. Pedestrians or cyclists do not exist as far as the state capitol is concerned.
Since ADOT is keeping the vast majority of feds money for highways, Tucson needs to look for money elsewhere. Right now, Proposition 411 is being decided at the ballot box, which is likely to pass with little opposition. It’s the result of years of advocacy by local groups like Living Streets Alliance. Even though it still allocates 80% to car infrastructure, with transit, pedestrian and cyclist sharing the rest, it is a major step forward from years ago. If passed, it would generate $740M in projected local sales tax revenue to fund the city’s ambitious mobility plan. 80% would go towards repaving neighborhood streets, and 20% towards pedestrian and cyclist infrastructure.
Proposition 411 is a good place to start, but the 80-20 split is still a continuation of the decade-long car-centric planning. If we really want to imagine a future where Tucson is safe and comfortable for pedestrians, cyclists, transit users, and drivers alike, while working within budget constraints, we need more slow streets, quick-build bus and bike lanes, and realistically speaking, Copenhagenization.
Alexis Zhou is a dedicated SunTran user and a freelance journalist.