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Cover Story

Takin’ it to the streets


There’s no way around it: Iowa loves bicycling.

Hoping to raise money for a charity event? Host a moonlit pub-to-pub bike ride. Want to take a relaxing day trip? Pedal the scenic High Trestle Trail. Taking a week off work in July? Must be for RAGBRAI. No other place in the world actually considers the oldest, largest and longest bicycle tour a vacation.

But Iowa does. Here, biking is the pastime of choice… as long as you can get to the trails.

“We like to think of ourselves as the capital of recreational trails here in the state of Iowa,” said Jeremy Lewis, executive director at the Des Moines Bicycle Collective (DMBC), a bike co-op group that’s moved toward being an advocacy association, educating on biking in general. “We’re blessed, in our particular region, to have excellent access to multi-use trails.”

Gunnar Olson, communications director at the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO), firmly agrees.

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A Des Moines cyclist crosses an intersection in a “designated” or “conventional” bike lane.

A Des Moines cyclist crosses an intersection in a “designated” or “conventional” bike lane.

“There’s a really robust and vibrant culture around trail biking,” Olson said. “It’s abundantly clear. We see it every day, and I think you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who wouldn’t say that the network of trails is a very valuable asset for the region. You can’t put a dollar figure on it.”

Why, then, is the Greater Des Moines area considered less bike-friendly than other cities — not just in the United States, but in Iowa, too?

As fantastic as the 600-plus-mile trail system is, that’s all it is. Consider those trails an attraction, not necessarily a benefit to daily life.

The League of America Bicyclists, a bicyclist advocacy group charged with creating safer roads, stronger communities and a bicycle-friendly America, releases a national list of all the communities, businesses and universities that apply to be rated on their bicycle-friendliness. The five E’s make up the different pillars for scoring: engineering, education, encouragement, enforcement and evaluation. These determine where applicants fall into one of five categories: diamond, platinum, gold, silver and bronze.

According to the League’s reports, as a state, Iowa is ranked No. 28 out of the 50 states, with only five Bicycle Friendly Communities (BFC) to speak of. Des Moines scored only 2 out of 10 in the education and evaluation categories, 3 out of 10 for engineering and enforcement and, our saving grace, encouragement scored 6 out of 10.

Des Moines scraped by, planting itself into the bronze category in 2014, but it was close. The majority of players are in the silver category. Less than two-dozen communities are in the gold ranking and only four made it to platinum. No community has ever been at a diamond rating, introduced in 2012, though Boulder, Colorado, and Portland, Oregon, have their sights set high and have made implementations to achieve it by 2018.

“There are various things we can do along those five pillars to increase our city’s rankings from bronze to silver,” Lewis said.

“We’d like to see a bicycle and pedestrian advisory committee,” he continued. “We are striving to increase the amount of high-quality bicycle parking in downtown Des Moines, and we’re also interested in introducing more protective bike lanes.”

Using turn signals while biking is critical, just like driving a car. This cyclist’s extended arm means he’s turning left. To indicate right, raise the same arm at 90 degrees, like a high-five.

Using turn signals while biking is critical, just like driving a car. This cyclist’s extended arm means he’s turning left. To indicate right, raise the same arm at 90 degrees, like a high-five.

Being cautiously optimistic, he adds that the DMBC is “advocating and trying to educate the public on those three things and why that will make it a safer place for people to ride.”

Not that biking around Des Moines is unsafe. It’s just about knowing the rules and following the laws and signs. Lewis can’t stress enough that “education is key for motorists, as well as bicyclists.”


Rules of the road

“Anytime a bike is on the road, it follows the same rules of the road as a motor vehicle would,” said Lewis. “As a cyclist, you can choose where it’s possible to ride in what we call ‘dedicated bike lanes.’ And I emphasize ‘dedicated,’ because they’re designed for bikes only and not for cars.”

There are a variety of bike lanes to choose from in the metro, with different levels of protection, but not all lanes are for all bikers.

“It has a lot to do with the perception of safety,” he said.

Olson says the Portland Department of Transportation created a poll regarding biker confidence and the likelihood of the population biking to commute more often. The poll was based on four criteria: “strong and fearless,” “enthused and confident,” “interested but concerned” and “no way, no how.” Less than 1 percent was totally fearless and ready for anything, 7 percent was interested and 33 percent were not interested at all. This left what Olson considers to be an overwhelming 60 percent of people who wanted to bike but were too hesitant to

Mike Armstrong, associate transportation manager at the MPO, says this Portland survey has been done again and again in other cities and now nationally with similar results.

“There’s that strong and fearless like, ‘This is who I am, I’m gonna bike. Anywhere. I’ll bike on Merle Hay. I’m proud of it.’ There’s that sort of enthusiastic group below them that also very much love biking, do it pretty often, but they’re more comfortable in certain situations. Then, the kind of important group is this enormous section that is interested but concerned. There’s some kind of barrier keeping them from trying it,” he explained.

At the MPO, they don’t believe everyone needs to bike to work five days a week. However, being able to bike to dinner with friends — that should definitely be an option. But Armstrong says he is all too aware of the group of people who just won’t start for various reasons.

“ ‘That sounds really fun, but I’m kind of nervous about it,’ or ‘I don’t feel comfortable or safe,’ or ‘It’s too far; there’s nothing near my house,’ ” he listed off. “So that’s really the group, I think, that we’re trying to address. So many people would be willing to bike if just one or two things were different. We just need to figure out what those are and put them on the streets.”

The ever-confusing streets. Questions always arise about biking regulations on busy streets, and Armstrong helps to explain the different bike lanes from least protection to most:

  • Normal streets with nothing on them, including residential roads with no speed signage. “Outside of highways, you’re allowed to ride your bikes on any streets, whether it has markings or not,” he said.
  • Slightly faster streets with wider shoulders. Bikers should stick to this shoulder when possible.
  • Sharrows. It’s possible you’ve seen this symbol downtown on Locust Street. The biker painted on the road with two chevrons over it indicates motor vehicles and bicyclists should share the road simultaneously. “Largely it’s just a reminder. Expect bikes — be on the lookout.” Armstrong warns, though, that there’s little to no separation or protection there.
  • Standard bike lanes, or dedicated bike lanes, are the most protection currently in Des Moines. Grand Avenue is a prime example. Armstrong says that they are “sometimes on the left side, sometimes going against traffic,” and anywhere from 4-6 feet wide.
    “All of these are very important parts of an overall network,” he said, “but they can have a hard time bringing in new riders that feel less comfortable.”
    There are other bike lanes that offer much more protection, and there are plans to get some of them into Des Moines in the near future.
  • Buffered bike lanes have two feet of painted separation on the road. “Nobody’s supposed to travel there, so you have a little space between the cars and the bikes.”
  • Protected bike lanes consist of having some sort of vertical element. “So they could have planters, they could have little plastic cones, they could be full curbs. They could look a lot of different ways, but they are the most protected for on street.”

Lewis adds that these protected lanes “are the key to getting newer users, more vulnerable users, feeling comfortable with the idea of riding with the flow of traffic.”

The road to change

Another safety suggestion for bike lanes is to paint them green, drawing motorist attention to the lane, reminding them to look for cyclists. This has been done, with much success, in some of the higher-ranked BFCs in Iowa.

Knowing how much safer some of these lanes are, it’s reasonable to question why we don’t have them already.

“A lot of what the Bicycle Collective now is focused on is the issue of connectivity,” said Lewis. Yes, there are more than 600 miles of central Iowa recreation trails, but there’s not always a good way to get to them.

According to MPO research, in the Greater Des Moines area, there are 61 miles of gaps between trails, residential areas, urban areas and other trails.

“We’d like to use those trails that crisscross our region, but also make safe and acceptable connections so people can leave those trails and get to area businesses,” he continued.

“Our local governments have been fantastic with continued investments trying to address those gaps,” Armstrong added. “The rec trails are fantastic, but you’re kind of doing them a disservice if you’re not connecting them to homes, to businesses, to schools.”IMG_6342

He addressed a big part of the lack of support outside of the biking community, saying Des Moines needs to work on “the perception of what biking is and what biking can be,” among other reasons.

“A very common misperception is that bike culture is very monolithic, that it’s one group of people, and planning for biking is just planning for them,” continued Armstrong.

But that’s simply not the case.

“Some people hear ‘bike culture,’ and they hear ‘anti-car’ — and it’s not,” Olson said. He believes that it’s critically important to retain street parking, and finding equilibrium between car and bike. “I think it’s about restoring the balance of all uses, not just about giving dominance of one use over another. Just accommodating them all.

“But there’s a series of things happening where the street aspect of it is going to take off. And there’s some overlap between those groups, but as (Mike Armstrong) so eloquently put it, it’s not a monolithic culture. It’s not one culture; there’s a million bikes for a million different people, and they all bike for different reasons.”IMG_6208

“We’re a rapidly growing region,” Armstrong said. “We know that the demographics are going to change; we’re going to become more diverse, we’re becoming older. But there’s also this influx of new people as well.”

So how are we supposed to manage all the new and different trends?

His answer: “Making sure that we have choices.”

He’s found that regions that have a lot of traffic problems or roadway problems usually rely heavily on one option. He praises Des Moines Area Regional Transit (DART) and the trail network as great resources. He said expanding those to not just recreation aspects, but also to daily life aspects, “would be a fantastic first step at addressing these changing demographics.”

And so enters the Complete Streets Project, designed and operated to enable safe access to the street for all users, pedestrians, bicyclists and motorists alike.

The MPO might collectively coordinate the 20-member governments and agree upon a vision toward what the Greater Des Moines area should become, but Olson says “it’s up to the individual jurisdictions to act on them.”

“What we see for the region, and what we want to help with, is providing those resources,” Armstrong said. “Providing that long-range vision and making sure that we’re all working together toward that same vision.

“We talk about the safety of our streets, that we want our communities to be family-friendly or age-friendly,” he continued.

That’s something Lewis wonders about.

“Do I feel comfortable with my young children on the road? Would I feel comfortable with my mother or my grandmother on the road as well?”

He says that what the region and city needs to do is “make the roads safe for cyclists at any level, whether they’re 8 or 80.”

What lies ahead

Armstrong believes that health is important to Iowans. “Making it as easy as possible for people to fit (fitness) into their daily lives is really important.”IMG_9126

He believes you shouldn’t need a gym membership to achieve it. “If you want to ride (your bike) with your kids to school, that should be within everybody’s reach, and I think that’s a big part of making our streets safe enough and healthy enough, so that we can achieve that.”

The MPO says the city of Des Moines, Norwalk and Carlisle adopted Complete Streets policies some time ago, and in the last month Windsor Heights began one, with very clear execution stages. West Des Moines has a Complete Streets draft available for viewing in conjunction with its Bicycle Master Plan, and several other cities aren’t far behind.

“Des Moines had a pretty good policy, but they didn’t have clear implementation steps, and so it’s something they’ve had to address since adopting it,” Armstrong said.

Over the next year, many studies and projects will begin in regards to Complete Streets policies, Mobilizing Tomorrow, the Tomorrow Project and Des Moines Bicycle Master Plan, among other area ambitions.

According to Jennifer Dakovich, a Principal Traffic Engineer with Iowa’s Traffic and Transportation Division, the city of Des Moines is hiring a consultant to conduct a Downtown Walkability study.

“As part of that study, the consultant will be identifying both pedestrian and bicycle needs within the downtown area and providing recommendations to best meet those needs,” she said.

Dakovich said those assessments will be used to determine what updates could be made to meet the city’s goals.

“The city currently looks for opportunities to provide bicycle and pedestrian facilities where feasible as part of planned road construction/reconstruction projects consistent with our Complete Streets Policy and current Bicycle Master Plan.”

That current plan should bring more bikers from the trails to the town, thus more interest in biking and more bicyclists overall.

“I think we want to get to the point where ‘bike culture’ is like saying ‘car culture,’ ” Olson said. “I have a car. Does that define who I am? No, it’s just one of the ways I get around. You have a bike, does that mean you’re part of the bike culture? Nah, that’s just how you get around sometimes.”

Armstrong agrees.

“I think there are a lot of fantastic things about bringing this amazing joy and experience of biking on our trails,” he said, adding that he wants to bring those bikers and that joy to our streets as well, “so it can be part of our everyday life.” CV


Bike lane symbol glossary

ThinkstockPhotos-187334380A Conventional Bike Lane is generally 5 feet wide and marked with a bicycle icon and solid lines on one or both sides. These are a designated space for bicycles, and solid lines signal to cars to stay out of these lanes.

ThinkstockPhotos-478319588A Sharrow is the symbol used for the shared lane for bikes and cars in a roadway. A bicycle symbol with two chevrons above it is marked periodically on the lane. The symbol is usually painted in the middle of the lane so that cyclists know to ride there and not along the right side. This is because drivers opening left side doors to exit parked cars could be a danger in these lanes.

Dotted Line Markings on bike lanes usually occur before an intersection, with about 100 feet replacing the formerly solid lines. These indicate that cars can cross the bike lanes. They may also indicate that bikes may need to merge into another lane to turn. Cars traveling adjacent to a bike lane should never turn across the bike lane to make a turn.

ThinkstockPhotos-478339982A Contra-Flow Lane goes against oncoming traffic. Like on highways, double-striped yellow lines separate the cyclists from oncoming traffic and signal bicycle traffic to motorists. Contra-flow lanes are 6 feet wide.

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