Tucson Quietly Emerges As A Viable Place To Live Car Free

Under its blazing sun, Tucson has always been way cool, at least in the barrios that stretch from its western buttes to the University of Arizona’s humble surrounds. The west side of Tucson has long distinguished itself as one of Arizona’s sanctuaries from the state’s dry hate, but in recent years, that same quarter has emerged as a place where it’s not just possible, but preferable, to live car free.

This beneficent district is traversed by Sun Tran buses, sprinkled with Tugo bikeshare stations, and bisected by the Sun Link streetcar. I recently spent a month in Tucson testing these modes while living the car-free life in the Old Pueblo.

Tucson also has shared scooters operated by Razor and Spin. I didn’t use those, dissuaded by negative reviews on their apps and by gaps in their coverage (the University of Arizona, for example, threatens to confiscate scooters left on campus), but mostly because I didn’t need them. The public options were enough.

It was August, one of three months that Weather Spark identifies as “sweltering,” but the biggest challenge wasn’t the heat, it was maintenance and management, which humans could easily improve. When those improvements arrive, Tucson may start to appear on the lists of best cities to live car free.

Tugo Bikeshare

Bikeshare is even more important in Tucson than in Chicago, a larger metropolis that uses the same bikes and same basic infrastructure. Bikeshare matters more in Tucson because Tucson buses run less often and less reliably (more on this below), so it’s crucial for commuters to be able to grab a bike when a bus is delayed, has already passed, or is not coming until tomorrow.

Bikeshare is also crucial for environmental sustainability. A recent study in Edinburgh found that city’s bikeshare system prevents up to 4,300 tons of CO2 emissions per year. Tucson’s system is about a third that size, but it has the potential to liberate a lot of Tucsonans from their internal-combustion engines by providing last-mile connections to buses and trains.

Tucson’s cheery orange Tugo bikes are well placed downtown and along 4th Avenue, the city’s hippest district, but the maintenance of the system is so poor that I wondered at times if someone wasn’t sabotaging it.

I routinely came to stations with 10 bikes and found only one or two with sufficiently inflated tires. That happened more often than not. Tucson’s heat causes air to escape from tires faster, and tires may need to be kept below full inflation, but many of these were completely flat, others soft enough to affect steering.

If only 20 percent of bikes are fit to ride, ridership statistics—which inform city officials and city councils about the value of bikeshare programs—will never exceed 20 percent of their potential.

Ridership stats take another hit from offline stations. I parked a bike at a station called Lost Barrio, only to discover the app showed I still had the bike out. The Lost Barrio station, it turned out, was offline. Truly lost. I reported it through Tugo’s 800 number, and they ended my ride for me, but they didn’t send anyone to fix the station. A month later the station was still offline. Ten bikes were stranded there, bikes no one could use for more than a month.

During my month in Tucson I encountered three stations that were offline, none of which were promptly repaired when I reported them. That’s 30 bikes in the 330-bike system that no one could use. And all of them continued to appear as working stations on the app, misdirecting riders and potential riders to stations they couldn’t use.

Meanwhile, the sun is baking those idle bikes. The fiberglass caps on the end of Tugo’s handlebars suffer from “fiber blooming,” in which fiberglass degrades under the relentless bombardment of UV rays, freeing microscopic glass particles that abrade the hands of riders. Some of the glass stays in our hands. After I dismounted a Tugo I felt like I had shaken hands with a prickly pear.

Nonetheless, every Tugo station is a blessing, saving commuters from long walks or long waits for buses under that same relentless sun. Tugo cost me $18 for the month, and I used its bikes an average of four times per day, usually on designated bike routes, sometimes on protected bike lanes, sometimes on the city’s 131-miles of car-free paths.

I could have used them even more.

Chicago’s Divvy system struggled in its early years until the city increased the station density in the urban core from every half mile to every quarter mile. Tugo is most successful where it approaches that density, mostly downtown and along Fourth Avenue. Density needs to be increased at the outskirts (and there must be a station to serve The Loft Cinema, Bookman’s, Whole Foods—a glaring omission).

The National Association of City Transportation Officials recommends even higher density: 28 stations per square mile.

“To increase ridership and system utility,” according to a NACTO issue paper, “stations should be placed no more than 1,000 feet apart across the entire program area.”

When cities expand the program area before achieving density, ridership lags and city officials get reports of low ridership.

Once Tugo enjoys improved maintenance and viable density, it can expand, station-by-station, into other parts of the city. Chicago was able to add electric pedal-assist bikes through a partnership with Lyft. The e-bikes are fun, addictive, wildly popular, free in underserved areas, and Tucson might consider a similar partnership to add appeal to its system.

But first: maintain the bikes and stations we already have.

Sun Tran & Sun Link

Tucson benevolently waived fares on its Sun Tran bus system—including the Sun Link streetcars—during the COVID pandemic. They remain free through the end of this year. This was a crucial move because even though much of Tucson is designed for automobiles, a large population lacks access to them.

Sometimes, however, it seems like the bus system was designed by people who’ve never taken a bus.

Buses display their destination rather than their route, and a lot of them are going to the same place. A rider on a street corner downtown might encounter the 4 Houghton, the 7 Houghton, and the 8 Houghton. There’s also a 17 Houghton and a 108x Houghton.

What riders really need to know, unless they’ve already memorized the system, is that the 4 travels on Speedway, the 7 on 22nd Street, the 8 on Broadway, etc. Most riders probably aren’t going all the way to the Houghton Park & Ride lot at the end of the line. Most are getting off somewhere along the way. If it’s important to indicate destination, buses could display both route and destination, as they do in other cities: 4 Speedway/Houghton etc.

If a bus has two possible destinations: 8 Broadway/Houghton and 8 Broadway/Udall.

Once you find the right bus, it becomes a challenge figuring out where to get off. Once someone requests a stop, “Stop Requested” flashes on the onboard display, eliminating all other messages, including the names of upcoming stops.

Buses aren’t updated for detours, either. I was on a bus crossing 3rd Avenue that announced its next stop at 5th Avenue, but it turned on 4th Avenue and went all the way downtown without another stop. In most cities, detoured buses make stops parallel to the stops on their regular routes, but not this one. Detours also weren’t posted at stops nor indicated on the app. Passengers have to rely on word of mouth.

Tucson buses have tracking GPS, but it’s updated so infrequently that sometimes GPS shows a bus approaching a stop when it has already passed. The SunTran app has GPS tracking in a separate portal from its trip planner, which means the trip planner relies on the schedule, uninformed by actual conditions on the street.

I’m offering this criticism not because the system is poor, but because it’s good and could be great. These are relatively simple problems to solve. Car-free living is possible in West Tucson, and it could easily be better than possible.

It’s more difficult to find fault with the Sun Link streetcar (except that there don’t seem to be any stop-request buttons in the middle of the car?), which began service in 2014 and has seen the city develop—for better or worse—all astride its tracks. It glides through this district, humming its soft electric hum and ringing its trolley bell.

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