For bicyclists, the Fourth Avenue underpass offers a lane to nowhere

I was out of town when the new Fourth Avenue underpass opened to a fair amount of hoopla in late August. After many years of dithering and delay, this keystone project was supposed to finally become part of the solution, rather than part of the problem.

Pardon me for pooping on the party, but I think it's still a great example of the problem.

The first time I used the underpass, I was on a bicycle, headed to a friend's house on South Fourth Avenue. As I breezed down the slope, the first thing I noticed was the fresh, smooth pavement. As a bicyclist, you appreciate those routes that don't loosen your teeth as you rattle over the cracks and craters that plague so many of Tucson's excessively topographical road surfaces. The bike lane was a bit wider than usual, also much appreciated by bicyclists, who understand the life-threatening combination of careless motorists and miniscule margins for error. So far, so good.

When I emerged from the south end of the underpass, the cruel joke of this seemingly bicycle-friendly amenity became apparent: It delivers you to a death trap at the intersection of Toole Avenue, Congress Street, Fourth and Broadway Boulevard, where the bike lane ends, and the same old motorhead mentality reigns. I was faced with several compromised choices for continuing on my chosen path, none of them safe, let alone convenient.

The sequence I chose went like this: I waited for the cars in the underpass to make a right turn onto Toole; I looked every which way to make sure I wouldn't get crushed, then zipped across the no-bike's land of the intersection and headed into the old bus-station lot, where I slowly snaked through pedestrians and cars, giving plenty of space to each. Finally, I made a sketchy, indirect crossing of Broadway onto Fourth Avenue going south.

I suppose I could have taken a right onto Toole and gone around the block on Fifth Avenue. While this may be a legal way to proceed, it certainly is no safer, considering the construction that creates dangerous narrows and terrible sightlines in that area.

Don't get me wrong; I had no illusions about the ease or advisability of bicycling through downtown. I knew someone who was killed bicycling in the very area that I avoided in the above scenario. And I know that the underpass was not intended to be a miraculous panacea for the downtown clusterfuck. But come on—yet another bike lane to nowhere?

We've seen this phenomenon before, most notably with Mountain Avenue, a major bicycle route just north of the university. I appreciate the explanations provided to me by some nice folks who work for the city on this stuff—transportation projects are expensive and usually done in segments, which often results in a patchwork of bike lanes—and I appreciate the "Bicycle Boulevard" project they are undertaking, an effort to encourage biking with some propaganda and a few bones thrown to cyclists.

Still, I have to ask: In this age of diminishing oil supplies and global climate disruption, when are we going to stop letting automobiles rule our society? Why do we always settle for baby steps? Why can't we come up with a design for downtown that encourages positive civic behavior?

There are a number of cities in the West with designated pedestrian zones—usually several blocks of a downtown street closed to cars—that provide pleasant, attractive public spaces and a boon to nearby businesses. Congress Street would be perfect for this, with foot traffic from the bus station, bars and clubs, and the theaters at each end. Block it off from Toole to Stone Avenue, and instead of frightened (or dead) bicyclists and wary pedestrians competing for space with auto traffic zooming through narrow lanes on its way to the interstate, you would have a destination, for everyone, including bikes.

What a concept. An early proposal for the underpass would have preserved the historic structure for use by bicycles and pedestrians while constructing a separate space for cars. That idea was rejected due to the cost (never mind the hugely bloated price tag of what we ended up with) and objections by "downtown interests," who don't seem to understand their own interests.

In any event, Tucson is literally decades behind the rest of the world, and even some U.S. cities, when it comes to transportation policy. But, hey, not all is lost. I am told that the underpass will soon display a water feature of some sort. Well, ain't that the frosting on the turd? Nothing says "idiotic American policy" like a perpetual evaporation device in a desert, right next to a bike lane to nowhere.