An interview with Tempe, Arizona’s transit planner, Eric Iwersen

First of all, congratulations on your ranking of “Silver” by the League of American Bicyclists. How long did it take for Tempe to get on the list?

Our funding and dedicated staff for bicycling has been an ongoing process, but the first stages of our bicycle program really began in 1971 but stopped around 1977. In 1990 the program was revived when we hired a dedicated staff person. It was at this point that the process of changing things at City Hall to raise awareness of bicycle infrastructure began. A greater push to begin installing bike lanes, signing routes, and setting up bike racks occurred after 1990. By 1997, we applied for the League of American Bicyclists designation of a “Bike Friendly” city, and received their “Silver” status.

How did you become the Bike Coordinator for Tempe?

When I was in school, I organized a couple of critical mass rides and began showing up to city hall to inquire about better bicycle facilities. I studied to be a planner, so it was second nature to begin getting involved. After a while, the city started taking note of this involvement, and when a position became available, I was at the top of the list of candidates.

Technically, I’m a Senior Planner and work on bike/ped issues. There isn’t a sole bike coordinator but I’m often considered the point person. Our city transit staff is very versed in road planning as a whole, and bicycles are always given high priority.

What was bicycling in Tempe like prior to your work in establishing bike infrastructure?

There was a growing street network when I started. There wasn’t really any off road pathways…basic infrastructure existed with some limited bike lanes. There were approximately 50 to 60 miles of onstreet bike lanes in the community and when I came on board we started pursuing federal dollars. Shortly thereafter, the citizens passed a sales tax to allow for additional funding of alternative transportation. After this point, the infrastructure ramped up very quickly.

To date, we’ve taken four different major streets and done road narrowing, added more bike lanes and on-street parking. The community has responded well, even though the majority of commuters are in cars. The citizens of Tempe are very environmentally minded and have been great, while seeing the benefits of these changes. We did have some businesses fight our planning early on, but with time, they’ve seen improved opportunities with more on-street parking, and wider sidewalks that allow for more people. At this point, our strongest redevelopment in the community is occurring where multi-modal options are in place or planned.

As you may know, Dallas was recently ranked “Worst City in the US for Biking”. When looking to promote bicycle infrastructure, opponents will often cite things like “It’s too hot in Dallas”, or “Density is too low”. We notice that Tempe has similar density and issues with climate that we do. How has the community taken to these considering these issues?

We do hear that, but interestingly we also hear some people say they prefer to bike here in the Summer over the Winter. But when you look at the 365 days our of the year, we may have a few hot months, but we have 7 months of mild weather. We have a lot of people who will split trips with bus/train trips on hotter days of the year. Also we’re flat…so in a place like San Francisco that’s hilly, we’re much better off.

Is ridership increasing in Tempe, and if so, to what do you attribute this?

We’re waiting for the new census data to find out what our latest numbers are. As of 2005, we’re at a little over 4% modal share for bicycle. This is much greater than the national average which I think is below 1%. We do attribute this higher nationwide ridership to the city’s efforts to place greater emphasis on multi-modal planning.

In Dallas, opponents of Bike Lanes will often cite “Rashes of Deaths” occuring when these facilities are put in place due to intersection problems and increases in uneducated cyclists on the road. Are you seeing this in Tempe?

No, in fact I would say that our accident data has held the same for years. Every one in a half to two years we’ll have a fatality but it’s extremely low. We’ve reduced speed limits city wide, created no road widenings, and improved multimodal transit. All of this has raised awareness, and shown motorist how to better interact with other forms of transit.

Portland Business magazine recently ran a cover story noting the $125 Million bicycle industry which has developed based on the city’s promotion of bicycle facilities and programs. Are you seeing similar economic development based around cycling with Tempe’s recent programs?

Again, our strongest redevelopment areas and the most vibrant parts of the city is where good pathways exist, and strong multimodal connections are.

How many miles of bike lanes does Tempe currently have? What are Tempe’s future plans for bicycling infrastructure?

We have 170 total bikeways. This includes pathways, bikelanes, and routes. Of that number, 110 miles worth are on-street bike lanes that are a minimum of 4 ft wide.

Do you feel a greater bicycling culture has developed due to this infrastructure?

Yes. I can say that definitively. I see it in the community response. The residents have become more vocal and supportive of multi-modalism. Maybe there were some risky processes done earlier like narrowing streets (worrying about traffic backup, etc.) but seeing what’s occured has changed the residents attitudes. Within the last 7 years, there are now 3 non-profits working on bicycle advocacy that have sprung up, I attribute to the awareness.

What advice would you give the city of Dallas to begin removing itself from the “Worst of” lists for cycling?

Find political advocates. One city council member or more that are aware of, if not vocally supportive of bicycle infrastructure. Make sure you have city staff that gets it and start changing city guideline documentation.

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One comment

  1. […] angry at cyclists. The reality follows exactly what we’ve stated all along, and the same that Tempe, and Portland’s planners have noted to us in recent interviews…adding bicycle […]

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