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Underpasses Smooth Bike Route Perils

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — I  would like to personally thank the taxpayers of Albuquerque for saving my life.

The four new underpasses you built for me on the North Diversion Channel bike trail are lovely. And so safe! A ride up the Diversion Channel trail used to be a great pleasure, interrupted by four somewhat disconcerting street crossings.

Now it only takes a mile-and-a-half of neighborhood streets and just one deadly intersection (OK, two. Three?) to get to the car-free safety zone the bike trail provides. With only a handful of small, secondary street crossings left, I can now easily get from my house near the University of New Mexico to Balloon Fiesta Park or the Rio Grande on two wheels.

City officials will gather this afternoon where the bike trail crosses beneath Menaul NE to formally dedicate the new underpass system.

If you spend much time traveling Albuquerque on two feet or two wheels, you know that nagging feeling of vulnerability as you traverse spaces designed solely for easy automobile access.

When I started riding a bike in Albuquerque 15 years ago, a friend taught me a marvelous little trick to bypass the rivers of cars that crisscross the city’s Northeast Heights. The patchwork of side streets, bike lanes and a trail through a park was capped by a short cut through an apartment building parking lot that allowed us to avoid one of the city’s busiest multi-lane intersections where Osuna and San Mateo meet beneath I-25.

The writer and urbanist Jane Jacobs, in her epic “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” nailed it when she wrote, “City streets are broken down into loose sprawls, incoherent and vacuous for anyone afoot.” Or on bike.

The Osuna/San Mateo intersection is fine in a car. If you’re looking for a route to traverse it on foot, Google Maps has this advice: “Use caution. This route may be missing sidewalks or pedestrian paths.”

On a bike? I’ve only ridden it once, when I foolishly thought it would be the easiest way to go pick up my car at a nearby repair shop. Never again. It is nothing if not “incoherent and vacuous” if your route from point A to point B requires you to navigate it without benefit of steel cage and gasoline engine.

Every Albuquerque bicyclist, I have learned, has a mental map full of quirky detours, eagerly shared alternatives to the city’s most dangerous streets. I’m a bit of a numbers nerd, which is why I can tell you (with a precision limited only by the accuracy of the various bike odometers and GPS units I’ve used over the years) that I’ve ridden 29,410 miles in the last decade, most of them on Albuquerque’s bike trails and streets.

I’ve got a lot of quirky detours on my mental map, plus more than a few parts of town marked with big red X’s.

I’ve framed this in terms of safety for obvious reasons. When I ride from my house to get on the newly improved North Diversion Channel bike trail, I pass a “ghost bike” placed in memory of Matt Trujillo, killed at Indian School and Washington NE when a woman blew a red light in May 2011.

A second ghost bike, where 43-year-old Roy Sekreta died in 2008 while crossing Comanche NE on his evening commute home from work, has long been a jarring reminder, perched at a bike trail-street crossing I’ve likely ridden through a thousand times.

Today, one of the four new underpasses drops the trail beneath Comanche, allowing me to avoid car-space entirely. When I thank you for saving my life, this is what I’m talking about.

I don’t want to overstate the danger. I love riding my bike around Albuquerque, and if I pick my routes carefully, I usually feel pretty safe. But that nagging notion of vulnerability is always there and it’s a problem for the life of our city.

The perception that pedestrians and cyclists risk injury in a world built for cars means some people simply choose not to get out of their car. The new North Diversion Channel bike trail is an important contribution to safe non-automotive navigation of our city. But if I really want to get somewhere, I sooner or later have to re-enter car space to get the last mile to my destination. (I literally cut through the neighbor’s parking lot and the back hedge to get to my office at Journal Center. Can you imagine trying to ride a bike on Jefferson NE in weekday traffic?)

And therein lies the key. Creating a car-free space on the North Diversion Channel trail is a great improvement. But, as an urban planner familiar with the city’s problems noted recently, it’s not about creating car-free spaces, so much as creating spaces in our city where cars, bicyclists and walkers can comfortably and safely co-exist.

The North Diversion Channel underpasses are a great step forward. Last year’s Albuquerque Bikeways and Trails Master Plan lays out plans for improvements, and we’re starting to see new street designs that better incorporate usable, safer-feeling sidewalks and bike lanes alongside cars. I love the newly redesigned Lead and Coal one-ways connecting the University area and Downtown.

So we are making progress. But my mental map still has a lot of big red X’s.