Saturday, January 2, 2010

Borges and I Connecting Urban Canyons in Phoenix

"In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of the Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; and in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography." -Borges 

On a 70 degree January afternoon in Phoenix, I set out to explore the map v. territory relation, comparing what the MAG bicycle map says about Phoenix with what the streets actually do, while heading downtown on the light rail system. This was a sightseeing and exploration trip, with the goal of answering one other question: is this a cycling trip I could take with one of my children?

I love detailed maps. But even on my relatively powerful computer (quad core, 4GB RAM, fast graphics) zooming and panning around a 16MB PDF super-detailed map is a painful experience. The MAG map illustrates the central challenge of my planned route (see below): there is no obvious connection for bicycles coming from the north to get to the light rail on Washington. There are no routes to get there all the way from downtown Phoenix to Mill Avenue in Tempe. Nothing. The light rail is the blue line with the yellow dots on it. 40th Street is the blue line that appears to stop in the middle of the Loop 202 freeway overpass. The first clip in the video above shows what this actually looks like when you ride it.

Some interesting ("interesting" like waking up to find that you're a giant bug) routes suggest themselves: under the 202 freeway on 40th Street, which is the way I opted to take South, and back up 48th Street, the way I took back, mainly because I wanted to check out the 48th Street bikeway. In between those two, I noticed that the map shows a paved shoulder (the parallel purple lines above) along what used to be SR 153 (but I think now is just considered a continuation of 44th Street) as a way for bikes into the Sky Harbor Aiport. This situation may improve once they complete all the construction, including the people-mover, along this cooridor, but this territory is nothing like what is shown on the map. You would probably get a ticket just for attempting it on a bicycle.

You really just have to check out the video I shot to see the craziness of the disconnectedness of this zone from a cyclist's perspective. The light rail itself is fantastic, once you get to it. Getting to it in the eastern half of Phoenix is best attempted with Borges or Kafka in hand. And Washington Street appears not only to host the light rail, but also a bike lane both ways, so I gave that a spin, too. Not bad, really, although the sensation of riding along on a wide open racetrack with two ton steel death machines racing to get on the freeway interchange just ahead is a bit unnerving. The bike lane is very welcome, but I also understand the psychological need for physical separation from traffic to feel safer. At the end of the video, to get back to the haven of the blue line that is 48th Street, you can see where I transit the industrial area around the Phoenix main post office, sans bike lane. The routes safer for bikes start and stop in high traffic zones, and are separated by freeways and major construction zones. Not sure I want to ride with my kid through that. But, I really do want my kids to get used to taking the light rail, as well as riding their bikes. They have already braved worse, so why not. Get up. Go ride (with the kids).


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