My local news outlets recently had a bunch of headlines about the Grand Canalscape bike path. Most were breathlessly impressed by a bike/pedestrian lane that would stretch “12 miles from Tempe to the I-17.”
I’d bet that not a single one of the journalists rode the entire length on a bike. I honestly wouldn’t expect them to. What I wouldn’t mind, though, is if they interviewed a wide swath of users. That would range from people using a bikeshare for a mile to someone working the Grand Canalscape into a larger ride, maybe even in combination with the Rio Salado bike path.
I’m part of that latter group. So I have the info you couldn’t get from the news stories.
Part of a Huge Canal Network
I’ll repeat a key talking point: Phoenix has tons of miles of canals dating back to the days of the Hohokam civilization. They could be much more than they are today, which amounts to unsightly watery alleys.
Back in the old days, huge shade trees lined the canals. Jon Talton correctly points this out and laments the loss. I get it.
Right now, utilities are in charge of the canals — mainly Salt River Project. There are rules about how much unobstructed access utility crews require.
Trees cut into that, which is especially critical in skinner sections of the path.
Obviously, the beautiful tree canopy is history. There’s no bringing it back.
The question is — what’s the best way to use it now? The Grand Canalscape bike path sure beats letting the canal languish.
Phoenix Cyclists are Hungry for Infrastructure
The Phoenix area is a horrible, horrible place to ride a bike near a road (our mountain bike trails are pretty damn fine, though).
Experienced cyclists are scared to become the next Rob Dollar. Authorities have little appetite to protect us, either proactively with bike infrastructure or with arrests and judgments that fit the circumstances; one often-repeated line is “If you want to get away with murder, use a car.”
And make your victim a cyclist.
The plethora of canals presents a nice option for separating bikes and cars. If you can’t make the drivers civilized, get cyclists away from them, right? Tucson showed what’s possible with the 130-mile length of The Loop. Mesa, Tempe and Phoenix have done an alright job with the Rio Salado bike path.
The Arizona Canal is pretty solid, especially since it offers quite a few underpasses for cyclists, runners, walkers, scooters and whatnot.
The Time is Ripe for Grand Canalscape Bike Path
So how was the ride?
Honestly, the Grand Canalscape bike path is a mediocre ride if you plan to cover the entire distance.
It’s as good as it can be, but it has some inherent flaws that prevent it from being world-class cycling infrastructure:
- It’s at street grade with no underpasses. That means traffic signals will stop you often.
- Speaking of traffic signals, some of them are interminably long.
- Since the canal cuts through the city largely at a diagonal, you’ll run into even more traffic signals.
- Drivers are either confused by the HAWK signals at the crossings, or they just don’t give a crap. I saw many blow right through when cyclists and pedestrians had the right of way.
- There are no restrooms or water fountains. My bet is that officials were worried about use and abuse from the homeless. Well, address that situation better and the problem goes away, right?
- There’s one particularly big miss: The Grand Canalscape bike path should be directionally striped like a road. There are way too many people meandering in the wrong direction. Some particularly incompetent riders can’t even seem to stay on one side. At least striping it gives the rest of us a leg to stand on when we say “stay on your side.”
- If you’re trying to connect to the Rio Salado bike path, forget it. There doesn’t seem to be any logical, safe way to accomplish that at this point. I will keep hunting for it and update this post if I find a good way.
- There are few good connections to any good locations or cycling infrastructure, actually. This needs to be a priority with both signage and helpful, obvious ways to connect bike lanes to each other.
Pavement, Amenities and the General Vibe
The pavement is perfect out in the east. I favor rubberized asphalt, but whatever this surface is, it’s pretty nice. It’s seamed concrete, but without the bumpity-bump I associate with this sort of surface.
The seams and the bump get more pronounced as you go west.
There are also no easy-to-see amenities. If you ride the Arizona Canal, you have OHSO Brewery. They’ve rolled out the welcome mat for cyclists.
The Grand Canalscape desperately needs amenities like this. A nearby espresso shop (or even an espresso food truck) would go over well.
Phoenix needs to encourage “a scene” for lack of a better word to coalesce around the canal. Food, beverages, bathrooms, bike shops — any combination of them would be brilliant.
How to Ride the Grand Canalscape Bike Path
The ride begins in the east (as of March 2020) on 56th Street south of Washington Street. From there, it goes northwest before hooking back to the southwest.
On the west side, the pavement ends at Fairmount and 22nd Avenue. It continues unpaved and ends with an exasperated sigh at the I-17 frontage road.
The nicest bits are between 7th Street and 7th Avenue. There are some coooooool homes around the canal in that area.
The worst is currently between 32nd and 16th Streets. 24th Street was entirely closed to cyclists, and 16th Street and Indian School don’t have signalized crossings.
What’s the Best Bike for a Grand Canalscape Ride?
Grand Canalscape is great for just about any bike except maybe traditional road bikes using old-school 23c tires pumped to 120 PSI.
There are still enough choppy parts and the western part has enough bumps in the seams that more-forgiving tire sizes and air pressures will make it a better experience.
Bike shares, mountain bikes, gravel bikes? All perfect. Obviously, some riders will do better on bikes built for the ride they’re doing. I wouldn’t want to ride more than a few miles on a bike share just because the position is so weird.
I also wonder what the rules are for powered. If someone gets on the Grand Canalscape with a bike retrofitted with a gas motor, is that legal? And which types of electric bikes are OK?
The Grand Canal just has too many inherent flaws to make the Grand Canalscape bike path anything special.
No matter how many espresso carts, public art, bike shops or water fountains line the route, it will always have a herky-jerky stop-start nature that drives long-distance cyclists crazy.
But for local commuters and casual cyclists? That’s another story. They should love it. I know it lacks any shade, but that’s honestly OK for short rides. This could get a few cars off the road, and that’s no small matter.
Let’s just hope that better cycling infrastructure like the Arizona Canal and the Rio Salado bike path get the attention they deserve. Those are the real game-changers for serious local cyclists.
And again, I have to credit The Loop as Arizona’s number-one example of prime cycling infrastructure.
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