I got started riding bikes as an adult when I visited my family in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. I was staying with my aunt and uncle, and my uncle offered to let me use one of his older road bikes while everybody was at work and told me about a trail that followed the Big Sioux River through town. Okay cool, whatever, I could use the exercise. So I jumped on the old blue 9-speed and headed to the nearest park entrance.
I had to ride along some pretty standard suburban, oversized roads but it was only about a mile and a half. I don’t remember if I was wearing a helmet or not but I’d imagine not. When I got to the trail, I relaxed and rode at a pretty comfortable pace. The trail wasn’t any different than many of our canal trails here, about 8-feet wide and paved with some occasional cracked pavement. But two amazing features stood out. First, the entire trail was grade separated from street traffic. Occasionally there were some underpasses with a scant 8-foot clearance, but there was absolutely no interaction with people driving cars on the trail. The second amazing thing about this trail was it encircled the entire city. Cutting through downtown and with plenty of park space along the trail there were places to rest, to eat, to get coffee, to people watch, or go to work in theory (I was on vacation, so I didn’t actually go to work; it’s just an option for people).
This was my first adult experience on a bike and it was incredible. My legs couldn’t take it and I almost fell down the stairs when I got back to the house after a 20-mile ride, but it was incredible. I saw the sights of the city and toured the entire city at my pace.
Fast forward four years and I’m getting my wife on her bike and out running errands. I’ve got her riding on side streets, bringing her on bike lanes on major arterials, and generally having to coax her through anxiety about riding on high-speed streets and with mixed traffic. She doesn’t get the luxury of a low-stress, low impact ride to get acclimated. The closest thing I can think of right now is the Indian bend Wash in Scottsdale which runs about 15 miles from Tempe Beach Park to 92nd Street and Shea in Scottsdale. Unfortunately, that’s 14 miles away for us and 9 miles from downtown Phoenix. While this facility is great, and it really is, Sioux Falls is about the land area of Chandler and the population of Tempe, and their stellar bike facility is 3 miles longer than the best facility in a metropolitan area 17 times bigger in size and 20 times larger in population.
We have an amazing canal system that could easily offer over 100-miles of continuous trail separated from car traffic, but I’ll never be able to get my wife to cross 32nd Street on Grand Canal. There is a section of Consolidated Canal south of Guadalupe in Gilbert where the trail disappears for about 150 yards as users are expected to take the sidewalk down the street or join traffic on Lindsay. Cooper and Chandler as well as Warner and Gilbert intersections are very similar in design as the one at 32nd Street and McDowell, even if the traffic volume is much lower but faster. None of those is too terrible and can be worked around, but it shows that even on our best trails there are barriers to people who want to ride.
It’s good I guess that bike lanes come standard on most new road designs, but I’m not convinced that I can get my wife to fall in love with cycling if her experience is relegated to constant stopping and being next to high-speed traffic. We need something to take our kids on to get them comfortable on a bike and someplace to introduce people who haven’t been on a bike for a decade to how great cycling can be.
We have the available facilities, to use the canals, to connect the entire metropolitan area to safe, comfortable bike facilities. These facilities will connect parks to one another, give commuters long stretches of stress-free riding, and a place for us to take our kids to learn to bike or our friends and family who have forgotten just how fun it is to ride a bike and how great it is to be outside with the wind in their hair and enjoying our beautiful winter weather. Now we just need the cooperation between our cities and utility companies, and the money to create safe crossings and close the gaps.