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Water, water... where art thou?

By Susan Hering

I’ve had a young man staying with me recently, a college student from Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, a pleasant and bike friendly little city on the mid-California coast. He’s here to complete a summer internship at Sandia Labs. As a devoted bicyclist and a part of his schools team of triathletes, he’s been trying to keep up his riding while here. Between our record-setting, blazing heat and the fact that he’s suddenly coping with altitude, I suppose it’s needless to say he’s been struggling!

He's also pointed out some challenges our city faces with regard to becoming a bike-friendly or at least bike-safe community, some missing and quite easily addressed amenities that we and our city reps/staff might consider. We know we need more shade on our streets, paths, and sidewalks. In a relatively small yet consequential manner, our city government has been working to ameliorate this with an important program of tree planting, done in conjunction with the not-for-profit group TreeNM. Having worked as a volunteer in this effort in order to bring more trees into my central city neighborhood, I can attest firsthand that it’s a really well-run and impactful program! However, as my guest pointed out after just his second ride (on a fixie, no less!) from my house near I40 to the Sandia outpost down on the Kirtland Air Force base, we offer very few places where a rider (or a walker or a wheelchair user or a scooter) can readily access either drinking water or a restroom. However carefully we use our great bike maps or Strava, if we’re doing more than a few miles, in this kind of urban heat environment, we may desperately need one or both.

Ironically, or as my more cosmically conscious friends might say “synchronously,” there was a piece on just this in this morning’s Streetsblog USA Round-Up, "Which Cities Have the Fewest Drinking Fountains -- and what it means for walking and biking" by Kea Wilson. To those of us who bicycle in the desert southwest, it’s already painfully obvious. The usual good guys came in near the top of the list, the known bike-friendly or at least bike-conscious states of WA, CA, OR and MN. The cities that topped the list had some surprises, although unfortunately Albuquerque being among them was not that surprise. Washington DC topped the list, with its 24.83 water fountains/100K people pushing it nearly into the best cities of the world, with European cities dominating that realm. St. Louis and Austin also posted some respectable numbers at the top of the American list. Zurich holds the water trident/scepter, with nearly 222 water fountains per 100K!

From those three cities, among which only one faces something similar to our own climatic extremes, the numbers of water fountains per 100K population falls off pretty dramatically, one is tempted to say in much the same way an exhausted and dehydrated rider or pedestrian might tumble ignominiously and dangerously to the hot pavement without water. At the very bottom is Memphis, providing its citizens with only .09 (!!!!) water fountains per 100K persons. Yikes! Do NOT move to Memphis!

Where are we? As a state, we came in rather middling among the 50, with 5.11/100K. In view of the inequities we see so consistently between our more affluent places like Santa Fe and Los Alamos and our more isolated pueblos and old agricultural towns, I’m guessing those same inequities might be present here, especially given persistent problems of water quality in some of those towns. And our hot and sprawling city of Albuquerque? Let’s give our great city parks some clicks for installing more in the last decade, boosting the availability of drinking water in our parks up to #23 in a national ranking as of this May. Yay! Most of us who are riding any distance aren’t pedaling through our city parks, though. I haven’t yet found data on our city itself. I can guess, given how our urban population dominates and skews our statewide data, that our city is pretty close to the state’s ratio of 5.11. I have an inquiry out to find more specific data, with the group WeTap, whose mission is to research and increase the availability of clean drinking water in the US, along with reducing our reliance on plastic bottled water/waste. They’d be happy to have help charting and identifying public water fountains in New Mexico: Check them out if you’d like to help! There’s also an app you may want to download that can help you find the nearest drinking water: Cool, and cooling! (Caveat: I haven’t used it yet, so can’t vouch for what it knows about Albuquerque.)

One other thing, the almost unmentionable and saved for last thing: Public restrooms. In our national obsession with evicting and controlling how and where unhoused persons camp, we have closed a lot of restrooms. We have lost many in our parks, sometimes replacing them with portable stalls, sometimes not bothering. Private businesses, too, have imposed limitations on who may use their facilities, making it difficult or even humiliating to ask to use a bathroom in a store, restaurant, or gas station. If you are an athlete whose rides or runs takes you more than a few miles, you know that this is a real concern, often an urgent need. I have no data yet. I’ll work on that.

Meanwhile, while we’re all watching with fascination and hope the development of our city’s Railway Corridor, let’s hope when we soon get to ride it that we find water fountains and clean restrooms well dispersed along its length.

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