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Old Pathways [Grand Canal, Phoenix]

Nothing says "you are NOT a transportation priority" like arriving at intersections with major roadways and encountering ZERO crossing aids. :-P

I only say this because today I have taken an old route up to Lux Coffee* in Phoenix, the Grand Canal.

Years after moving to Arizona, I encountered a zine-like book written by someone about the area's canal system. The canals originally date back to a prehistoric period, and here, the Salt River Project talks about the period where they have been developed by Westerners.

The canals introduced me to an alternate way of viewing movement through the city. They don't follow the same grid layout that most of the streets use, and are blessedly free of motorized traffic. In the past, most of them were lined with shade trees, and in the period before air conditioning became common, people used them as swimming areas to cool off.

At some point, someone decided that the shade trees used too much water, so they have been removed along much of the system. The Salt River Project does a lot of work to maintain the canals, so they have vehicle access roads along the sides, some paved and some that are gravel, which are thus incidentally available to people for non-motorized transportation and recreation.

In the period while I was living in Tempe, Tempe had recognized the canals as a great transportation asset for cyclists, and was in the midst of redeveloping the Western Canal to better accommodate bicycles and pedestrians. As with every cycling infrastructure project in the City, this one led to complaints by many people: it took a while for motorists to figure out how to use the HAWK crossings, and many residents with houses along the canal worried that increased canal traffic would lead to increased problems with crime (never mind that the canal would encourage increases in LEGITIMATE traffic, not just people skulking about). Change is hard.

It felt like it took forever for SRP to open up a crossing over the Loop 101 highway to connect the Tempe and Mesa stretches of the canal, but upon doing so, the Western Canal now provides great regional connectivity and is a wonderful asset on a piece of land that couldn't really be put to use otherwise.

In contrast, the Grand Canal, which runs between Tempe and Phoenix, hasn't seen quite as much progress. When I first started riding along it, largely to travel between my house and S's apartment, there were still large gates blocking access at the roadway crossings, forcing cyclists to swerve around onto narrow strips of dirt. More recently, the City of Phoenix has begun stepping up by converting the gates into "semi-permeable membranes" (as sytharin puts it). Today, riding along, I also observed that the city has put in a really nice connection point at Garfield Street, which should help people trying to travel between Tempe and downtown Phoenix.

And yet - it is still stressful to navigate all of the major roadway crossings along the Grand Canal, all of which feature at least 4 lanes of fast-moving traffic. I had forgotten about having to rely on the center turn lanes as a refuge to cross halfway, then finish crossing. Nerve-wracking. And I'd forgotten about the spots where it's necessary to jog over to the closest pedestrian crosswalk, push the beg button, cross, then ride the wrong way on a narrow sidewalk back to the canal. There's zero indication for motorists zooming along at 45 mph or greater that they might encounter people trying to cross the street or in the middle of the (unprotected) road at the canal intersections.

Still. Despite the difficulties, despite the degraded state of the canal, I've missed this ride. There's something magical about looking over into the canal water, watching the light ripple across the surface, watching the ducks paddling on top and diving down to eat algae, watching the schools of large fish hold themselves in place, heads pointed upstream.

As with the train, the canal offers a different view of the city from what can be seen from cars. I passed by multiple homeless encampments, saw the occasional overturned shopping cart in the canal, and observed one of those collection points where used beverage containers accumulate in the canal. I'm grateful for the interactive experience I've had in bicycling in the Phoenix area, and I know that the experience will continue to improve for future cyclists because this is a dynamic urban place.

Grand Canal, Phoenix

*This place has changed! Paine Bianco has taken over the whole old building (rightly so), and Lux is now next door. Improvements all around. Phoenix hipsters are still more tolerable than Tempe ones.


( 1 remark — Remark )
Jan. 1st, 2016 03:32 am (UTC)
I hadn't thought about hipster microclimates before.
I've ridden a bit in Phoenix but didn't realize the history of the canals along which I was riding. (It was august so I didn't ride a LOT, but it was quite nice -- and, in august, quite empty.)
( 1 remark — Remark )

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