Meditiations on bicycles and uligness in the city
Sri Lanka 2012
In my humble opinion, Albuquerque, New Mexico, does not rank as one of the more liveable cities in the US, though it has improved since the years I lived there as a child. But despite its low-density sprawl and the priority given to the car, even when I lived there back in the 1970s, it possessed a cycle path that led from near our home all the way to the University of New Mexico, where my father taught. As he did not enjoy being in a car, considering them a necessity to get out to the wilderness he loved but a detriment in the city, my father cycled to work everyday.
The cycle path he took runs along one side of the Hahn arroyo (a cement drainage ditch for run-off from spring snow melts); on the other side is a dirt path for walking and jogging. I had only used the dirt side, mostly during my brief high school running career, but for years have wished to experience the commute my father took. He died shortly before I left Albuquerque for college in Boston. It was in Boston I first discovered the joys of life in a city that, to a large extent anyway, makes it easy to get about without a car, and rewards those who do so with interesting and attractive vistas.
Not having access to a bicycle, I finally made the trip on foot during a recent visit. I've been back to the arroyo many times over the years, and am aware it is not one of the more scenic spots, but the section near our house goes past people's backyards, so at least there are some trees. The government has also recently started a project to improve the arroyo, giving the ditch itself a more attractive and environmentally-friendly surface and adding attractive landscaping and benches. So for one brief stretch, the arroyo is actually attractive.
It does not, however, take long to get beyond that stretch, and then the full brutal ugliness of the trip becomes evident, as these photos should help illustrate. Perhaps I was feeling particularly sensitive, having just been in Ottawa where the bicycle paths along a canal and a river are beautiful; I am also aware that desert landscapes need not be quite so ugly and barren.
The worst part of the walk ran parallel to the highway, where a billboard suggested that a simple emissions test will transform driving into an environmentally-friendly activity:
Some bad things do come to an end; in this case, the arrival at the university, which has a fairly attractive campus, the adobe buildings giving it much character and the many trees some welcome shade. Leaving the bicycle path to walk through the campus was a pleasure, as was breakfast at the famous Frontier restaurant on Central.
Although I did not walk all the way home, the couple of miles I did walk along Central and then through urban neighbourhoods was far pleasanter than the walk to the university, with much more to look at (window shopping on Central; beautiful desert landscaping in many of the front yards once I veered off into a residential area).
The walk also provided an opportunity to ponder various issues, including how my father could bear such an ugly commute for the many years he taught at UNM. A few possibilities: on a bicycle, the landscape would go by faster and thus the desolateness would be less soul-scarring; in a car-friendly city, the convenience and safety of a bicycle path with tunnels under major roads (though the tunnels were all being renovated during my walk; let's hope they are normally open) would be much appreciated; and the compensation of weekend hikes in the mountains just outside the city. There is also the physical pleasure of being on a bicycle, despite the unattractive setting, and of course the friendliness among the bicycle commuters. (Various people smiled and greeted me on the walk; some of the friendliest were a group of homeless men sitting under a large bridge.)
Bicycling infrastructure in the US has of course improved dramatically in the last several years; city bike programs have also taken off. There are other improvements as well: Albuquerque, for instance, is slowly beginning to acquire a downtown. The area around the central bus and train station now has many amenities, and it is possible to fly into Albuquerque, take a city bus to the station, and then take a free bus downtown or hop on the train to Santa Fe and other places.
I'd like to believe that my father would be pleased with all the improvements. He always preferred the mountains to the city, and knowing that he was riding that path every day, I can understand why! Even vastly more pleasing to him would be more changes to the city to make it more like liveable cities elsewhere, where going about by bicycle is the commonsense, natural way. In Ottawa I rode with friends to and from downtown, to a museum, to restaurants; everywhere we rode there were many cyclists, and the trips were safe as well as pleasant. There seem to be far more bicycle commuters in Albuquerque than a few decades ago; in the future, I hope that there too cycling will be the mode of choice, and those engaging in it will feel not punished but rather rewarded for their urban-friendly behaviour.