Crosstown Traffic

Crosstown Traffic
Originally uploaded by heinemanfleck.

I had a friend years ago in California, Victor, who was fun to talk to because he was so bafflingly smart. Among his many interests (he also imagined the Internet before there was one) was the way we map our personal geographies of the world around us.

I was thinking about Victor today as I took a shambling bike ride around Albuquerque.

When I started riding, an old-school roadie named Jim (they called him “the wedge,” a nickname that played up the cognitive dissonance between his apparent body type and his ability to ride) taught me some fine tricks for getting around, and for nostalgia’s sake I sought out some segments of Jim’s old routes.

bicycle with a flat tireOne in particular picks up a leg of bike trail skirting the edge of one of Albuquerque’s many golf courses, then (and this was the masterful bit) darts through an apartment complex parking lot to avoid a busy intersection. I hadn’t ridden this route for years, but found it easily. My old mental map worked. But here’s the funny part. If you asked me to find the apartment complex while driving my car, I’d have a hard time doing it.

A few miles later, after getting briefly lost (my mental map failed me – I was riding the route backwards), I found myself stopped at a stoplight next to a music store Nora and I had driven to a few nights ago. I was totally surprised. I had two clear mental maps working here – how to get to the music store in a car, and how to get across town on this particular street on a bike. But even though the physical space described by the two maps coincided, the mental space did not. I had no idea this bike route took me past the music store. So there’s something clearly functional about the information we annotate on our mental maps.

skateboarder in the flood control channelI was thinking about this later as I was taking Mom and Dad out for a drive to see the new housing complex going up at the south end of Juan Tabo, in the far southeast of Albuquerque. I’ve got two overlapping mental maps here. One follows the bike trail, just to the south side of the freeway. It’s a bike map. One that map, there’s a big cell phone tower at Juan Tabo, which I always remember because I rode past while they were building it. The second is the mental map associated with driving. It follows exactly the same route – the bike lane is just 20 feet from the freeway lane I was driving in. But from the car I’d never noticed the cell phone tower. Same place, but different purposes, different experiences, different resulting mental maps.