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.

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