Efforts to make Des Moines streets better for bicyclists have hit speed bumps that reflect broader debates about cycling safety in Iowa.
The City Council has pledged to make Des Moines a “bicycle-friendly community” through adoption of a program dubbed “complete streets” that aims to focus on cyclists and pedestrians rather than only motorists.
The initiative has not been fully embraced by the public. Plans to reconfigure traffic lanes for bicycles along Urbandale and Ingersoll avenues have stirred opposition.
“There’s a tremendous amount of benefit to be had here,” Tim Lane, an avid Des Moines cyclist, said. “I wish we had a greater opportunity to tell everybody that, but I also know that some people we’ve explained it to don’t want to hear it, and they’re stuck on their position.”
The effort comes as opposite forces in Iowa work on separate initiatives:
• Leaders of the Metro Advisory Council have begun to explore a regional ordinance that could include elements of the protections for cyclists that stalled in the Iowa Legislature earlier this year. A bill that would have expanded required passing and following distances was pushed after a number of high-profile bike-vehicle accidents.
• A group called Citizens for Safety Coalition of Iowa wants to prohibit bicycles on farm-to-market roads, which include paved county roads and some of the more heavily traveled gravel roads.
Elements of those statewide debates have also crept into the controversy in Des Moines.
“I am just amazed by the level of animosity between some people,” Councilwoman Christine Hensley said. “We need to think about how we can eliminate that, because it’s not healthy right now.”
City leaders acknowledge that poor communication continues to fuel opposition to bicycle lanes on Ingersoll Avenue between Polk Boulevard and Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway.
The plan would cut the number of vehicle lanes from four to three — one lane in each direction with a center lane for left-hand turns — and add bicycle lanes. Business owners worry that less traffic will mean less revenue. Opponents submitted a petition with a reported 552 signatures.
“It’s going to be a mess,” Lois Copple, an Ingersoll business owner told council members. “I do not think this is the best situation at this particular time. I think we need more counseling and more design.”
City officials say the traffic changes along Ingersoll will aid revitalization efforts and help businesses. A 2006 study by Iowa State University of 12 conversions to three-lane streets showed a 29 percent reduction in crashes.
The Urbandale Avenue project calls for up to $25,000 to create bike lanes between 34th Street and Merle Hay Road. Street parking would be eliminated, a notion that has riled some homeowners and bred skepticism from City Councilman Tom Vlassis.
“I have no problem with bike trails,” Vlassis said. “I do have a problem with eliminating parking.”
City officials estimate it will cost roughly $10,000 to remove Ingersoll’s lane stripes, repaint them and change street signs. They also say traffic lanes could be changed back if the plan fails. The Urbandale Avenue proposal, meanwhile, is on hold.
Under a compromise, council members voted to support the changes to Ingersoll, but the lanes will not be reconfigured until spring. Hensley said the delay will allow opponents of the plan more time to ask questions and adjust to the change. The plan faces another vote Sept. 14.
“We have to do a better job on education,” Mayor Frank Cownie said. “Good information is out there; we just have to communicate better.”
Hensley said starting a six-month review in the spring would give officials a better opportunity to assess whether the changes have worked.
A panel that will include business owners will establish criteria to assess the impact. The effort will include data from traffic monitoring equipment.
Hensley said city officials should host forums in coming months to develop a stronger understanding of the “complete streets” program. According to city records: “Providing a complete street will expand the capacity to serve everyone who travels, be it by motor vehicle, foot, bicycle, or other means.”
“It really became very clear to me when we had public meetings at Plymouth Church and somebody said: ’Would somebody explain what a complete street is?’ ” she said. “Sometimes you’re so close to it that you forget other people do not understand what you’re talking about.
“The thing that has become very evident as we’ve had discussions about ’complete streets’ and what that means is the animosity between car drivers and cyclists.”