On Getting Around Tucson//A Love Letter to my Blue Bianchi

A couple days after our late August arrival in Tucson, us Border Studies students learned that we would have two main modes of transportation for getting around Tucson: a bus pass for the SunTran, automatically refilled by the BSP, and a Bicas bicycle on loan to us from the BSP. In the first week of the program, we got fitted for our bikes (I ended up with a handsome blue Bianchi!) and were also informed that a bus strike was taking place. As a person with a lot of experience relying on public transport to get around Boston and the suburbs and most of her biking experience on flat Ohio roads or clear Massachusetts bike paths, I was initially pretty nervous about biking around Tucson. Over and over again, the instructors assured us that “Tucson is one of the most bikeable cities!” and that we would, “totally get the hang of it and feel like you OWN the bike lanes by the end of your time here.” Nonetheless, I figured that I would be happier taking the bus to get around rather than biking on busy roads.

It turned out that the bus strike limited service more than I anticipated and busses only ran between 8:00am and 6:00pm on very few routes. At first, the strike was predicted to only last a few days, as SunTran bus strikes had been fairly short in the past. In actuality, the strike ended up lasting for over a month (find more information here) and had a much bigger effect than just pushing me to get on my bike.

I found it really interesting hearing two different sides of the conversation centered on the bus strike. Talking to people in class, both students and professors proclaimed their support of the strike in favor of gaining fairer wages for SunTran employees and announced when there was a need for more bodies to show up at a Ronstadt Center protest. In contrast, on the actual bus I heard regular riders expressing their upsetness that they had to alter their work schedules to make the bus on time, or that their walk to work was lengthened because their usual transfer route wasn’t running. One woman expressed to me that she definitely wanted SunTran drivers to receive fair wages, but that she also wanted to be able to make it to work in a timely and convenient manner.

Even though the extra walking and waiting that the strike caused regular SunTran riders, I experienced much kindness from people on the bus. People offered me a seat when I was standing, pointed at the books in my hands and inquired about where I went to school, and warned me about soaking wet seats on a rainy day. Even though I liked seeing the same folks on the bus every morning, after a week or two, I decided that riding my bike might make my commute to the classroom more swift, especially during the bus strike.

So, I ended up converting from a busser to a biker and making the Blue Bianchi my primary form of transportation around Tucson. When I expressed my nervousness about riding a bike around a city after having most of my bike experience on a smooth path or on flat Ohio roads to Rachel, one of my supervisors at Mariposas Sin Fronteras, she gave me a great, bite size piece of advice. She told me that it would be unfortunate to let feeling intimidated by my bike get in the way of going to the places and doing the things that I wanted to do here and that a good way to get used to biking around the city is to make the time and mental space to get lost. She reminded me that I’m lucky to have a GPS on my phone if I got seriously lost, and if not, I can just treat getting lost as an unexpected way to see different parts of Tucson.

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For the most part, I took Rachel’s advice. I got lost many, many times and as a result ended up on Tucson streets I would not have seen otherwise. I eventually got the hang of my daily routes from my host family’s house on the South side of Tucson to my field study at Casa Mariposa and the classroom in the Historic Y downtown. And biking became something that I looked forward to in the mornings. My bike made  me feel very independent in a way: with a little bit of time, I can get almost anywhere that I want to go and put almost anything that I want to take with me in my basket. And it feels good knowing that my bike is powered by my own two legs that get a little stronger every time I pedal! I’m really fortunate that I have the physical ability to be able to ride a bike to transport myself and my backpack around Tucson to pretty much wherever I want to go and whenever I want to go there. I am also lucky to be able to move around Tucson in public without constantly feeling fearful for my safety, as many people who live in this city –whether it be because of race, documentation status, or gender identity– might not feel safe doing.

Although my Blue Bianchi quickly carved out a place in my heart, relying on a bicycle has its shortcomings. Biking home at night still really freaks me out. I’m not a huge fan of the dark and it can be scary feeling like cars speeding by might not be able to see me. It’s a bummer to show up to everywhere I go sweaty, to have big dogs barking at me behind fences and small dogs chasing me down the street, to encounter near misses by car mirrors passing me by, and experience unwanted catcalls and whistles as I’m trying to concentrate on staying upright and peddling straight. Sometimes, biking feels like a huge inconvenience and other times when I’m riding I feel weightless and carefree. Often, my daily bike ride feels like 40 minutes of me-time; time to process the day before and gear-up for the day ahead. I love being the only person on The Loop and belting a song with the mountains as my audience during a solo bike trip, having a 10.5 mile bike workout built into my daily routine and accidentally catching a purple and orange sunset behind the Tucson Mountains on my way home.

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My Blue Bianchi has trudged through El Niño rainstorms with me, has taken me to beautiful neighborhood streets, has been the recipient of my butt sweat, has been patient with me as I cried over being far away from my friends and family, has chased the ice cream truck with me because it’s worth it for the coconut popsicle, has listened to me sing, has taken a major tumble in a pile of sand with me and encouraged me to get back on the saddle afterwords, has carried my books every day, has felt with me as I sobbed after visiting Streamline proceedings and Florence Detention Center, and and has waited for me as I ran into Epic Cafe to buy my morning coffee. My Blue Bianchi has been a dear friend to me here in Tucson.

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-Gabriella

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