It was exactly a year ago today that Stuart Anderson took the last bicycle ride of his life.
As an eye witness recalled, it was still dark around 5 a.m., Nov. 7, 2017 – three days after his 54th birthday – when Anderson and about a dozen other cyclists were riding down Chandler Boulevard near South Central Avenue.
Suddenly, Anderson pitched forward off his bike, his body violently skidding some 50 yards along the pavement.
He never regained consciousness and died 21 days later, felled by the condition of Ahwatukee’s streets.
“His front tire hit a hole or something and he went forward and just hit the ground,” recalled Mark Schmisseur, a longtime Ahwatukee cyclist who was riding right behind Anderson. “I mean it was scary and there were people around on their bikes trying to break, to avoid him and avoid whatever cracks or whatever he hit.”
Every day cyclists in Ahwatukee say they take their lives in their hands as they pursue what should be a pleasant pastime.
Speeding motorists, some of them aggressive, pose one danger – but not as constant as the condition of Ahwatukee’s streets, say Schmisseur and other cycling enthusiasts.
“The city is not being responsive to the biking community,” said Laurel Arndt, another veteran cyclist who sees “a whole deterioration of the road system in Phoenix.”
But while the condition of streets in Ahwatukee and the rest of the city might give motorists more than a few headaches, it is even more dangerous for cyclists.
“If you’re driving on, say, Desert Foothills Parkway in a car, you see a lot of cracks and you drive over it and might feel a little comfortable but on a bike with a one-inch tire at 100 PSI, it’s a different road there,” explained Schmisseur, a nine-year cyclist and Ahwatukee resident who has put in 6,000 miles of cycling this year alone as he prepares for an Iron Man competition.
“A car can go over a one-inch or inch-and-a-half crack and might not be impacted by it,” he added. “But when you’ve got a one-inch tire, and it gets caught in a one-and-a-half-inch crack, that could be disastrous.”
Worse, both Schmisseur and Arndt said, is that all too often, the city makes things even more dangerous because the Water Services and Street Transportation department crews each appear to do their own thing and don’t seem to coordinate their work.
Street Transportation spokeswoman Monica Hernandez disputed those claims.
“We have a hotline that’s open 24/7 and within 24 hours an issue is reported, we have rapid responders who are able to go over and assess the issue,” Hernandez said. “They are tasked with deciding how and when to address the issue, depending on its severity and if it’s a danger to the traveling public.”
As to what that public constitutes, she said, “Our traveling public is anyone in the roadway, whether they’re driving, walking or cycling.”
‘Disjointed and uncoordinated’
Schmisseur and Arndt complain regularly to the city about specific conditions along Ahwatukee streets and include photos of the hazards they encounter. Dangerous areas also are reported on the Phoenix Metro Bicycling Club’s blog.
Many times, those complaints are not just about road deterioration but also about how the city Water Services Department actually creates dangerous spots by replacing manhole or water valve covers and leaving them protruding above the surface of the road.
Schmisseur recalled how Water Services crews came out three times to even out the surface around one valve cover and still have failed to do it properly.
“They sometimes make the issue worse,” complained Arndt, adding that when it comes to any coordination between Street Transportation and Water Services, “there doesn’t seem to be any quality control or oversight as a whole. They’re disconnected and disjointed.”
Sam Stone, chief of staff to city Councilman Sal DiCiccio, agrees.
“The coordination between streets and water has been horrific,“ he said.
While utilities such as APS may do a somewhat better job, he added, city crews have been known to create dips and other potentially dangerous obstructions while they’re “fixing” another problem.
“I don’t think they’re doing such a great job policing these other departments,” Stone said of Street Transportation.
Hernandez, the Street Transportation spokeswoman, disputed that assertion.
“Street Transportation and Water Services collaborate on a number of coordination efforts to ensure projects are properly scheduled, designed, inspected and delivered,” she said. “While we try our very best to ensure roadways are properly inspected, we do encourage the public to please contact us if they see an issue affecting the roadway.”
“If and when anyone sees an issue on the roadway, we want to know about it. We do have inspectors and their goal is to inspect each project,” she said.
“Our goal is to ensure we’re able to maintain our roadway to allow the traveling public to move is in a safe and efficient manner,” Hernandez said. “If we’re not taking care of a problem, we want to hear about it.”
She said anyone may call the hotline anytime at 602-262-6441.
Arndt and Schmisseur say they are sensitive to the fact that the city has a major funding problem when it comes to streets repairs – an issue that has come up in the mayoral campaign.
The condition of Phoenix streets also could lead to a vote in late spring on whether the city should cancel further light rail expansion and put that money into infrastructure repairs, mainly streets and sidewalks.
“There’s a massive shortfall in funding,” Stone said. “We’re at a point where we can pave 30 miles a year.”
With 5,000 miles of streets in Phoenix, he said, “we’re lucky we get to a street once every 20 years.”
That means that when the city can’t more readily address surface conditions, the streets further deteriorate and create a need for more expensive repairs later, he noted.
The only solution, he and his boss have maintained, is to junk light rail and put more money into street maintenance. Supporters of that move have until Nov. 15 to get enough petition signatures to put that question before voters in March during the mayoral runoff.
Lack of prioritization
Even when Water Services hasn’t made conditions worse, cyclists in Ahwatukee face problems that are squarely in the jurisdiction of Street Transportation.
Arndt got so frustrated that she wrote the department earlier this year:
“I appreciate that your resources of staff/money are stretched thin and you are trying to be responsive to many residents. I hope that my request can be evaluated and prioritized as the deterioration is alarming and significant and has been ongoing for the last three to four years. I have seen other resurfacing projects on minor and collector streets in Ahwatukee that do not merit the attention that these major arterials do.”
She told AFN that she is frustrated with the lack of prioritization in repairs, noting that city crews often address problems on little-traveled streets while ignoring bigger problems on more frequently used ones.
“I think their priorities are mismanaged,” she said. “I understand they don’t have resources, so why wouldn’t they prioritize their work?”
While many Ahwatukee cyclists acknowledge that the condition of the streets is a citywide problem, they also feel conditions are felt more keenly in Ahwatukee.
“Maybe it’s because Ahwatukee has a high percentage of cyclists, probably more than most other city neighborhoods, Arndt said.
Asked why cyclists here simply don’t go somewhere else, Arndt replied, “I don’t feel like people should have to leave their community to ride their bikes. The bonus of Ahwatukee is that you can leave your garage and have some wonderful rides.”
Many problems unaddressed
While Arndt and Schmisseur commend the department for quickly addressing complaints of potholes, they are equally critical of its response to less obvious but still dangerous conditions such as cracks and chunks of asphalt washed out onto bike paths by the kind of heavy rains the region sustained last month.
“With potholes, they’re responsive,” Schmisseur said. “I’ve never had a problem getting potholes repaired.”
“But the other stuff – I think they require different crews, different set of equipment or whatever – those have not received quick attention,” he added.
Even when crews do address cracks in bike pathways, they often go up only to the white line between the path and the car lane – basically leaving a potentially dangerous condition for any cyclist who veers into the streets by even an inch.
Some cyclists take the matter into their own hands – literally.
One cyclist posted on the Phoenix Metro Bicycling Club’s blog in June:
“I put a new spin on riding sweep yesterday. I stuffed the business end of a push broom into my commuter bag along with a dust pan, strapped the broom handle to the top tube and rode out to the corner of Chandler Boulevard and Market Place Way West. It is believed that now three skilled club members have hit the ground on that corner this year, while making what should have been a routine right turn.”
“I scooped up 5 or 6 steel dust pan loads that felt around 5 pounds each,” he continued. “That exposed some very rough pavement underneath made up of larger stones that are still embedded. I don’t know what else to do other than be very wary when taking corners on old, deteriorating pavement.”
Schmisseur and Arndt said road deterioration in Ahwatukee seems to have accelerated over the past year as South Mountain Freeway construction sends more traffic on top Chandler Boulevard and Ray Road, aggravating the already worn road surfaces.
Ironically, the freeway construction also costs cyclists a safe thoroughfare since many used the wide path along Pecos Road before construction began.
More than nine months after the accident that claimed Anderson’s life, Schmisseur wrote the city that the problem at Central Avenue and Chandler Boulevard “remains hazardous to cyclists.”
“I have continued to point out problems in this area as noted in the attached emails,” he wrote the Street Transportation Department. “The repairs that continue to be made lack a comprehension of what would be a danger to a cyclist. This lack of awareness, education, training or quality is inexcusable after the death of Stuart Anderson, who died from his injuries in a crash on Chandler Boulevard due to cracks in the road surface.”
Anderson moved to Ahwatukee from California a few years before his death.
A moving YouTube tribute to his life, put together by family members and friends, at one point says, “He found his greatest joy in his children and in his bicycle rides.”
His death shook up a broad segment of the cycling community – and rattled Schmisseur.
“I was directly behind Stuart when his wheel got caught in a longitudinal crack on Chandler Boulevard and he crashed in November 2017 after the city had already been notified of poor surface conditions on Chandler and the expected increase in cycling activity due to the construction on Pecos,” he wrote Streets Transportation earlier this year.
“I watched him slide for more than 50 yards as I tried to brake to a stop from about 35 mph without hitting him or other cracks or cyclists. I sat with him as he lay unconscious bleeding in the streets as we waited for fire and paramedics to provide aid,” he continued, adding:
“Stuart’s crash was preventable and It is unacceptable for the city to not direct existing maintenance funds to remedy known hazards, especially in an area where those hazards have a high impact on safety.”
Schmisseur told AFN that to his knowledge, Anderson, a father of three, was divorced.
“So that was the other thing we realized: that there was nobody who was going to sue the city,” said Schmisseur. “I mean there was no motivation on their part to do much.”