City vehicles are some of the most visible signs of government at work – recycling trucks, fire engines, police cars – but in Scottsdale, you’re just as likely to find city employees doing their jobs a different way – on bicycles.
With hundreds of miles of bike lanes, paths and multiuse trails, bikes are part of this community’s DNA – it’s why the city is among a handful of Gold level bike-friendly places. Combined with Scottsdale’s unique events and bustling downtown, providing service on spokes is a natural.
“Its evolution really comes from the idea that it’s real hard to get fire trucks, ambulances, and command vehicles into big crowds,” said Sasha Weller, a Scottsdale fire captain who heads up the SFD Bike Unit. “It allows our crews to get in and out of traffic in those congested areas in a real quick manner.”
Scottsdale Police also routinely roll with pedal power, which is especially useful at major events like the Waste Management Phoenix Open – the most attended golf event in the world.
“We can get from the 8th hole to the 18th tee in a matter of minutes and seconds as opposed to having an officer that has to walk through the crowd,” said Police Officer Christian Bailey.
Bike units have become part of the scenery at Scottsdale’s crowded special events, where you may see a half-dozen or more two-person bike teams, using their special skills and equipment to get the job done.
“Our biggest enemy in public safety is time. The quicker we can get to our patients the better we can serve them,” said Weller. "So if we can’t get to you quickly in a fire truck … we can transition to a bicycle. It’s a huge advantage to our customer.”
The equipment and learning to use it
They may look like your average mountain bike, but equipment used by Scottsdale’s bicycle units is specialized for the job.
“We carry an entire compliment of what’s considered advanced life support gear,” said Weller. “We have riders working in tandem so you’re going to get the same level of equipment that you would if we sent you a fire truck and an ambulance.”
Even though most people learn to ride bikes as children, riding one in these environments takes special training.
Officer Bailey is not only an experienced operator; he’s an instructor for the International Police Mountain Bike Association. Before they hit the streets, bike unit members complete a 40-hour class to get them used to this unique method of service delivery.
That sort of training is a necessity when navigating crowds that exceed the population of most cities.
“You’ve got to remember at some point we’re going to have 200,000 people out here and you’ve got to weave through all those people, without disturbing someone’s fun, without spilling a drink, without knocking off a person and making sure everyone is safe all at the same time,” said Bailey.
The evolution of a core service
“We started off with a fairly small cadre of people that were qualified on bikes but it’s really become such a bread and butter service for us,” according to Capt. Weller. “We’re in the process of training everyone in the department to be bicycle qualified.”
Scottsdale’s police and fire bicycle units are so successful, they’ve spawned another city service on spokes. The Code Enforcement unit started using bicycles in 2009.
“We were working closely with the Police Department to monitor vacant buildings along the McDowell Corridor,” said Supervisor Mike Ritter., “We just didn’t have access to get our vehicles in there, so they suggested we use bikes – and we didn’t have bikes. They helped us find some and we refurbished them and we have put ‘em to good use ever since.”
A different connection with customers and the community
No matter the department or the activity, Scottsdale’s bike units agree – providing service on spokes is a different and often times better way of connecting with the public they serve.
“The No. 1 priority for us is to get out there and talk to people, and bikes are the easiest way to do it,” says Officer Bailey. “I don’t have windows, or radios or anything like that that to impede me.”
That new connection leads to different conversations and a different relationship between officers, firefighters and the public.
“I’ve answered questions from individuals seeking good restaurants or how to get from here there,” said Bailey. “I’ve answered calls in different languages that I may not even speak, and it’s all because I’m here behind the bike.”
Weller agrees that bikes offer excellent access to the important services firefighters provide.
“That’s a big part of our business. We want to be visible, we want to make sure that everybody knows we’re there, we’re there to help and we’re there to serve them.”
Better access and better relationships often lead to better solutions – that’s certainly been the experience for Scottsdale’s code enforcement officers.
“It lets us move a lot slower and find the story behind the door, that’s the No. 1 thing for us,” says Ritter. “When people feel more comfortable, they’re going to share a little bit more, and then we can help them solve the problem a lot faster.”