Letter to the Editor: For cyclists, Iowa City offers so little, so late

By Ofer Sivan

The new $20,000 bike “parklet” selected “by a committee made up of city staff, local bicycle advocates, Downtown District staff and downtown business owners” is a well meaning but misguided attempt to do something positive for bicyclists and the community at large. I myself sat on the committee. The winning design was my favorite, although I was against the whole thing, and here’s why.

First of all, what is a “parklet”? It is mini-park, as in a little park to play on — not to be confused with a bike parking rack, but, also, in this case, meaning a bike parking rack. That is a little confusing, like the idea itself.

We do need more bicycle parking in Iowa City. When I biked to the meeting to vote on the winning design at the Iowa City Downtown District current offices on North Clinton Street, there were only three legal bicycle parking spots on the entire block — all taken — so I locked my bike illegally to a street sign. A regular bike rack which can park 6-12 bikes costs about $300-$1000, or between $25-$150 per parking spot. The winning design provides 40 spots for $20,000, which is about $500 per spot. So yes, this design will add some badly needed bike parking, at a price which will embarrass the bicycle advocacy community.

The parklet will take away two commercial vehicle loading zones which serves dozens of nearby businesses, forcing their suppliers and vendors to load/unload while double parked. To reduce traffic congestion and car trips by citizens, the parklet should have taken away two metered spots, as it is well known that reducing parking availability reduces traffic. This is a missed opportunity. All bike parking should be placed on streets at the expense of car parking. This will also reduce the number of bicyclists on the sidewalk.

Does the parklet raise awareness of bicycles in Iowa City? Er, sort of. It will unify the pro and anti bicycle communities in opposition to the waste of money, embarrassing the bicycle community while not actually addressing any of the community’s most important issues. The only other thing which unites pro and anti bicycling communities are the hated “sharrows” which, as best I can tell, are designed to enrage drivers and endanger bicyclists. The sharrows are the “share the lane arrows” painted on many streets. Like you, I don’t know what they mean, although I know if I am riding my bike on a street with a sharrow I will got honked at and swore at. They are a complete waste of paint.

The new parklet is described as the ‘cherry on top’ because look at all the great bike infrastructure projects ready to get started. So if the parklet is the cherry, what is the sundae? Press releases point to upcoming road diet projects. But here’s what I found out when I attended a meeting about the 1st Ave road diet project: It seems that the city staff and the engineers from the firm hired were generally supportive of the road diet, which will be good for bicycles. However in their presentation and as admitted by the engineers, any benefit to bicycle users is incidental, if welcome, as the main reason for road diets being a reduction of traffic accidents. So that’s the sundae, incidental benefits to bicyclists based on what’s best for cars.

On-road infrastructures like "sharrows" remind motorists that bikers have the right to be there.
On-road infrastructures like “sharrows” remind motorists that bikers have the right to be there.

One engineer said, “Look, Iowa City is a bike friendly community” then she was rudely and appropriately booed by the many bicycle advocates in the audience. I wonder how much time she spends on her bike in Iowa City, because there are not many bicycle users who would say “Iowa City is a bicycle friendly community.” Self congratulatory street signs and meaningless precious-metal-awards notwithstanding.

So what should be done to increase bicycle ridership and reduce car trips? First, reduce the available parking. Put bike parking where car parking is now. Second, provide cyclists with real bike lanes, not sharrows. There are many streets such as Muscatine and North Dodge where the car lane width is inappropriately wide for a 25mph speed limit and at the same time does not leave room for bike lanes. There are many streets like this such as Broadway and Court Street east of 1st Avenue, where there is no street parking, the speed limit is too low for the lane width and there is ample room for solid bike lanes. Third, the city should convert some streets into “bicycle boulevards.” It could be as simple as removing parking from one side of the street and painting two bicycle lanes, one for each direction. This should be done on College, Lucas, and Linn streets to start.

Johnson County continues to lag behind neighboring counties, with precious few miles of trails. They say they are acquiring land to link up trails with the impressive trails system found in Linn County. But this is taking too long and bicyclists are dying on Johnson County roads while bicyclists risk their lives on 55mph roads, looking for a place to enjoy their hobby and make their commutes.

Planners and leaders are still thinking that it is possible to have a bicycle and car friendly community. This is wrong. Cars are bad for health, as it is well known science that people who commute by bike are healthier and happier. Streets with no car parking have more foot traffic and cleaner air. Foot traffic downtown will increase when the only available parking is for commercial vehicles and disabled citizens. Right now, it is too easy for citizens to drive a mile or less and park downtown. Transportation planners should try to do their commutes exclusively by bicycle for one week, and experience the difficulty of finding a safe route. They should take up a full lane on Gilbert Street from Highway Six north to Market Street as is their legal right and suffer the yelling, honking, and threats from multi ton vehicles, see what the sharrows do and don’t do (hint: they do nothing). Our well meaning planning professionals need to do more for bicycles, and do it faster.


  1. I’ll never forget the Iowa City PD officer who told me that he, too, was a cyclist. He was a cyclist who told me if he was me, he’d ride to the point on a multi-lane road where I needed to turn left, dismount, then walk my bike across six lanes of traffic–all to keep me safer than using the hardly used left lane on Burlington Street. Has this man crossed the Iowa River bridge on a bike? No. Has this man ever ridden his bike to work? No. Has this man ever pulled a bike trailer to get his weekly groceries? No. But he’s ridden a cop bike around on the pedestrian mall, mostly in places where only pedestrians should tread. That makes him a “cyclist.”

    We may all by bike riders, but we are not the same people with the same experience. I try to ride my bike when I think driving a car is inappropriate for me–those trips of five miles round trip or not that in my mind don’t justify the use of my car (yes, I own one). Iowa City *wholly* fails commuter vehicular cyclists like me. Bike Parklets are “happy talk” that make the people who pass out what sure be our “Lead” level bike friendly status but that might soon by silver love to see. God only knows who would pass out such an award to this community but if you take it seriously I’ve got a parklet to sell you on Linn Street.

  2. I wish that I could get the city to force taxpayers to pay $20,000 to support one of my stupid hobbies. And none of my stupid hobbies involve intentionally pissing off everyone that doesn’t participate in my stupid hobby or flagrantly breaking every possible law that could apply to my stupid hobby while also demanding the summary execution of anyone that gives me a dirty look over either one. As a bonus, if the city will support one of my stupid hobbies, I promise not to write a letter to the editor sobbing because the city only did most of what I asked them to do.

    If the cycling community collectively had an ounce of integrity (hahaha!) they would return that money and insist that something useful be done with it, like giving it to the Crisis Center, and raise their own funds to pay for their own stupid hobby like everyone else does. Or we should enforce Stupid Hobby Equality and tear up one of the parklets and build a basketball card parking facility.

    1. Nobody in the bike community – at all- asked for this $20k bike rack. This is the main point of the article. As for the accusations of lawlessness, you are probably referring to biking on sidewalks, and is pointed out in the article, bike advocates are against on-sidewalk bike parking. Bikes, being vehicles, should park on the street like other vehicles, but again these decisions are not being made by bicyclists.

    2. Wait.
      Are you telling me your car isn’t one of your hobbies?
      That the city hasn’t spent (probably) millions of tax payers’ money on parking garages and roads for your hobby?
      Like, you actually rely on it for transportation, to and from work, the grocery store, (the bar), etc.?
      Huh. Who would have thunk it?

      1. I am perfectly aware that my hobbies are considered stupid by other people, which is why I ask no one else to subsidize them, unlike cyclists.
        So, you’re a cyclist, you’re on the committee that chose this thing, it was your favorite, but none of you asked for it? That makes about as much sense as the plot to The Force Awakens.

        The laws that I am referring to are:
        * Not running red lights
        * Not running stop signs
        * Not passing vehicles on the right in an intersection
        * Not yielding to pedestrians in crosswalks
        * Not yielding to pedestrians on sidewalks
        * I don’t know if there’s a law or not, but whenever I see a bicycle and bicycle lane, there is maybe a 1 in 250 chance that they are together. If they are, it’s probably because there are 5-10 riders abreast and they have one token guy in the bike lane.
        The bike parking thing isn’t even on my radar of concerns. If even 1/10th of you would obey all the others, I wouldn’t care if you chained your stuff to literally any immobile object that is out of pathways. Heck I would even campaign on your behalf if I never again had to sit at a green light while you run your red light at the minimum speed to keep your bike upright with that middle finger waving.
        Dear RC: If I rely on it, it is not a hobby, now is it? Not that I have anything against people that do consider their car to be a hobby, but probably because none of them have ever gotten the city to spend my tax dollars on them. I use my car exactly as much as necessary to get me from where I am to where I need to be. Yes, I do use roads, but I also put fuel in my car which incurs a fuel tax which pays for those roads. So, hobby or not, I am paying for what I use and, the more that you bike, the more that I am paying for what you use as well.

  3. Can someone please stop all the restaurants from putting sidewalk seating out which ends up killing bike parking? Please? I ride my bike all the time and I hardly ever eat outside. Plus, bike parking is a public good and sidewalk café seating a private benefit!

    1. Two good points you raise Brian.
      1) bike parking shouldn’t be placed on the sidewalk. If bike parking were located in the street where it belongs then restaurant seating would not interfere with bike parking.
      2) If there were less car parking downtown there would be less cars driving downtown (this is literally established science) and outdoor dining would be that much more pleasant.

  4. Excellent letter Ofer with intelligent points made clearly. I hadn’t put my finger on why the so-called parklet was bugging me even though it represents ‘progress,’ but you nailed it. It is WAY too pricey and making it a show-piece when half the same amount of money could have been spent on normal bike racks in different locations around town would have been much more practical. I also completely agree that the bike sharrows are poorly named, confusing to drivers and cyclists, and cause more irritation than anything else. Finally, you make a great point about how long it’s taking to develop a trail system that truly supports commuting and long-distance recreational riding by linking it with trails in neighboring counties. The increasingly frequent news stories about cyclists dying while riding on unsafe roads that aren’t meant for biking–even if we have the right to ride on them and own the lane–is becoming intolerable.

  5. All things that need to be said, Iowa City is only prepared to offer those who use their bicycles for a sensible, inexpensive (both in hardware and facilities requirement) transportation option the least consequential options possible. We might be the last college town of our size to offer protected bike lanes or really, any bike lanes at all that actually go places commuters might find useful. Oh wait, we do get debris-filled too narrow bike lanes on the Jefferson/Market pairs that force cyclists to be adjacent to what drivers here mistakenly call the “fast lane” on a city street where cyclists should probably just be provided the second lane that drivers actually don’t need that is used for increasing the average speed of drivers. I’m not sure who calls this positive urbanism but it’s not me.

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