Off-road infrastructures send the message that cyclists are second-class commuters.
From the outskirts of Rochester Avenue to heavily-trafficked downtown streets like Burlington or tree-sheltered lanes like Summit Street, “Share the Road” signs suggest that Iowa City is a bike-friendly town. But Mark Pooley, Audrey Wiedemeier and Brad Parsons beg to differ. For these members of Think Bicycles Coalition of Johnson County, an advocacy group for cyclists, signage is not enough. What Iowa City needs, they suggest, is a vision—one that includes key bicycling components cyclists want to see in Iowa City.Although 30 percent of Iowa Citians use their bicycles to commute—making us number eight in the nation per capita—and the City of Iowa City encourages bicycle usage, and we have both Bike to Work Week (May 13-19) and RAGBRAI (the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa, July 22-28), these forward-thinking cyclists invite us to think bigger. They’re asking Iowa Citians to consider two fundamental components of a bicycling network that reflect a metropolitan approach to increased connectivity throughout Johnson County: infrastructure and culture.Infrastructure That Promotes Bike Culture
According to Iowa City’s Metropolian Bicycle Master Plan, adopted in 2009 and online at http://jccog.org/docs/file/transportation/bikePlan.pdf, an integrated bicycle network implements intentionally-visioned infrastructure, increases comfortable and safe connectivity for bikers of all ability levels, revitalizes neighborhoods and promotes the demographic development of bicycle culture, all while transporting more people with less congestion. In spite of receiving a Bronze-level Bike-Friendly City designation from the League of American Bicyclists, Iowa City’s current bicycle infrastructure does not efficiently connect rural, residential and commercial sites.
Kris Ackerson, Assistant Transportation Planner for the Metropolitan Planning Organization of Johnson County, says that community focus groups solicited when creating the Bike Master Plan emphasized the need for education and enforcement. “Motorists, pedestrians and other cyclists are unhappy with people who ride and don’t obey the rules of the road,” he notes. Ackerson points to the innovative ways in which the city is implementing enforcement to meet their educational goals. The Light the Night Program (www.thinkbicycles.org/light-the-night) allows people who are ticketed for not having the appropriate bike lights to disregard the citation if they go to a local bike shop and have front headlights and rear reflectors installed. This kind of enforcement teaches cyclists about the state code and encourages them to utilize local resources.
Several intersections on Burlington Street (like this one on Riverside Drive) would benefit from the use of bike boxes.
In addition, the infrastructure focus of the Bike Master Plan includes installing wide curb lanes, separated bike lanes, “Share the Road” signage, public service announcements, wide sidewalks, multi-use trails, sharrows and bike parking.
To help the city move from a Bronze-level designation to Silver, Gold or Platinum status, Ackerson says, “We could do better incorporating bike boulevards and sharrows.” When the current Bike Master Plan is updated, another round of public input will be solicited. Ackerson encourages citizens to get involved early in the planning process.
Disrupting Car Culture
For Parsons, it is also important to address “how our infrastructure speaks to cyclists and motorists.”
Parsons argues that symbolically, off-road infrastructures say one thing to cyclists and motorists alike—that cyclists should “Stay off the road!” This, for Parsons, is the most significant disadvantage to trails and bike paths. Their imagery and infrastructure do not promote cyclist culture, safety or the normalization of cycling as transportation. Instead, they reinforce the sense that roads are for cars, and bikes and pedestrians should choose another route.
On-road structures, such as bike lanes, work through the psychology of car culture and our conditioning to respect road stripes to influence interactions between cyclists and motorists, as well as specific kinds of passing behaviors. When present, road stripes tend to influence motorists to pass closer to cyclists; whereas when lane designations are not present, motorists generally choose larger passing distances that they personally feel are safe.
“Share the Road” signage has much the same emotional impact. With imagery of a bicycle set at road’s edge and a car taking up most of the sign’s space, the rhetorical effect is to suggest that the cyclist should move over for the car—hardly a depiction that disrupts normal road usage, values and perceptions.
Instead, Parsons argues for a well-thought-out infrastructure to direct, mitigate and divert traffic in ways that promote a bicycle-centric ethos of shared usage, mutual rights and responsibilities and equity of access for multiple modes of commuting.
On-road infrastructures like "sharrows" remind motorists that bikers have the right to be there.
Bike boxes—a cutting-edge infrastructural element used in bike-friendly meccas such as Minneapolis and Portland—provide cyclists with a car-free, safe area to get started in the intersection; a bike box would make a great addition to the intersection of Burlington and Madison Streets in front of the Campus Recreation and Wellness Center.For not much more than the cost of paint and labor, sharrows—or the painted-on shared lane arrow, such as on Market Street—signify that bicyclist belong on the road by reminding drivers that cyclists have the right to the whole lane—and that both bikers and drivers have an obligation to follow all applicable traffic laws. For example, Summit Street is pretty bike-friendly, but the addition of a sharrow could cement this as a bike-prioritized route.Road diets—where the road width or total number of lanes is reduced in order to add a center turn lane—reconfigure the right of way and decrease congestion, increase access to business and improve safety for all road users. This is an ideal infrastructure for wide streets with fast traffic, such as Gilbert Street from Market to Highway 6.Although not emphasized in the Master Plan, bike boulevards are low-speed streets prioritized for bicycles as opposed to cars. In conjunction with traffic mitigation strategies, such as cycle tracks, traffic circles and reduce speed signs that slow traffic down, bike boulevards return residential streets to neighborhood-, kid- and bike-friendly speeds. A great bike boulevard candidate is Bloomington Street eastbound from Dubuque Street.
Envisioning Safe and Comfortable Connectivity
Here is where your vision comes in. How do we connect to the Westside? And what in the heck should we do with Lower Muscatine? Not envisioning what we want gets us less than what we can safely use. For example, think of the North Dodge sharrow debacle, where the current lane is too far over, behaving and signifying more as a restrictive, narrow-minded bike lane.
Each of us should take the time to figure out the natural and intuitive paths we take when crossing town. How can we make these paths friendly and safe for pedestrians, cyclists, kids, people with disabilities and motorists? Share your vision at the next bike planning meeting, which is expected to occur in July or August. To be added to the notification list, contact Kris Ackerson at (319) 356-5247 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Raquel Lisette Baker is working on a PhD in English Literary Studies at The University of Iowa, specializing in Postcolonial Studies with an emphasis in African Literatures in English. She received a BA in Psychology from San Francisco State University and a MFA in Creative Writing from Mills College in Oakland, California. She teaches General Education Literature courses. Her short stories have been published in The Womanist literary magazine and the anthology Crux.