Letter to the editor: Will the 15-minute city make Iowa City golden in 2021?

Jason Smith/Little Village

By Bob Oppliger, Education & Advocacy Coordinator, Bicyclists of Iowa City; Board Member, League of American Bicyclists

In March, as part of its Science on Screen program, FilmScene aired a documentary, Bikes vs Cars. The film documents the escalating problem for major urban areas like São Paulo, Brazil; Paris, France; and Los Angeles brought on by cars. The film not only highlights the growing air pollution and congestion, but the unsustainable costs to add roads and accommodations for vehicles. By contrast, bikes are increasingly being accommodated.

So, as we begin National Bike Month, May, how does Iowa City stack up in creating an alternative to the need for cars? Certainly, we’re nowhere close to major urban areas and their response to the issue. Fortunately, a recent concept in urban planning, the 15-minute city, offers an eloquent response to the issue.

The “15-minute city” may be defined as an ideal geography where most human needs and many desires are located within a travel distance of 15 minutes. While automobiles may be accommodated in the 15-minute city, they cannot determine its scale or urban form. Based on automobile travel, most metropolitan areas may be 15-minute cities.

Politicians and urban planners around the world are seeing the 15-minute city as an approach to responding to the car-centric ways of the past. This approach puts people and their needs at the center of urban planning by locating goods and services within 15 minutes by walking or biking. Most famously, Mayor Anne Hidalgo successfully won reelection in Paris, France in 2020 by expounding on this idea, and candidates in the current New York City mayoral race have been bandying the idea around, too.

What does this mean for Iowa City, and how do we get the League of American Bicyclists’ gold-level Bike Friendly Community designation later this year?

When I began working at the university, I realized that I could bike to my office and, because car parking was several blocks away, be there in less time than driving. This proved true for many services, like food shopping and banking, too. Even biking to football games was easier than dealing with game day traffic.

This is the concept of the 15-minute city and an idea Iowa City should exploit! Fifteen minutes represents about three miles on a bike. If the center of a three-mile radius was the Old Capitol, the east edge of the circle would be Scott Boulevard, the west edge West High School, the north edge north of I-80 and the south edge the Johnson County Fairgrounds or Trueblood Recreation Area; that’s a lot of our community. For the Towncrest or Mormon Trek shopping areas, a two-mile radius covers a large portion of their shoppers.

If the preferred mode of active transportation is walking, a 15-minute circle one mile from Old Capitol would include Kinnick Stadium, Carver Arena, Hancher, City Park, Iowa River Crossing Park and housing past College Green Park on the east. Our downtown area is only about a mile in diameter.

The League of American Bicyclists created the Bike Friendly Community (BFC) program about 20 years ago. For free, the League evaluates communities on five criteria as well as biking modal share and accident rates. The five evaluation areas include engineering, encouragement, equity, education and self-evaluation. Over 485 communities have received a designation from bronze-level to platinum, but fewer than 40 have attained the gold or platinum designation. It’s important to note that a bike-friendly community accommodates walkers too. Public transportation generally is enhanced by the BFC program.

Iowa City first applied to be a BFC in 2007. Even though there were lots of bike commuters and few accidents, we didn’t receive recognition, primarily because there was no master bike plan. Two years later, with the master plan completed and bike education rodeos being offered at local schools, Iowa City received a bronze-level recognition. More progress was made, and in the 2013 evaluation, the recognition was bumped up to silver-level. Fewer than one-third of the BFCs have done that well, but in the 2017 evaluation, the progress was insufficient to merit gold-level.

Over the past few years, Iowa City has gone a long way to accommodate active transportation. For example, a new master plan was rolled out in 2019, and many new miles of bike lanes, trails and side-paths made available about 115 miles in Iowa City and an equal number of miles in the remainder of the metro area. All the schools are doing bike rodeos and a range of biking opportunities are being offered to disadvantaged members of the community. Our bike modal share remains high and accident rates low — key factors in the evaluation.

Will it be enough? We’ll see. We still do not have a bike/pedestrian coordinator in our community or an active transportation advisory committee. All the gold-level communities do. Their purpose is to evaluate progress and devise ways to motivate education and participation. While the bike rodeos offer bike education for kids who show up, there is no system-wide mandatory curriculum that includes a component for secondary schools, another important characteristic at the gold-level.

Why sweat being bike friendly? There are at least two good reasons. First, increasing active transport will reduce air pollution. More than a quarter of air pollution is attributed to auto exhaust, the single highest source. Iowa City has made a commitment to reduce its carbon footprint by half over the next 30 years. This will only occur with a commitment to active transportation.

Bike friendliness adds to the quality of life and enhances economic development. A 2016 study by the American Institute for Economic Research identified the 40 hottest job markets during the early years of the last decade. They were stratified into four levels by size, i.e., very large to small. Thirty-two (80%) were BFCs, and the gold- and platinum-level BFCs were overrepresented. In other words, business development was enhanced by active transportation.

With the summer of the bike upon us, dust off your bike, join some of the events and use active transportation a couple times a week to run errands.

This article was originally published in Little Village issue 294.

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