Robert Henderson bikes to get around Iowa City. It’s his main transportation. He works at Carlos O’Kelly’s cooking, washing dishes and bussing tables. He locks his bicycle behind the building by the dumpster. There’s a locked gate, too, just in case. But one night after finishing his shift, his bike was gone. Someone had cut the bike lock; it was laying on the ground.
“When I do work at night, there’s no buses running so I had to walk home,” Henderson said. “It’s very frustrating cause I had to walk home at night, and I’m coming off two broken toes that I dropped the dresser on.”
Unfortunately, Henderson isn’t alone. In Iowa City, where biking is as ingrained in the culture as Saturday football and statues of books, bike theft is a persistent feature of life.
At the Bike Library, reports of stolen bikes are a daily occurrence.
“It’s nearly every day, and it has been that way for a long time,” said Audrey Wiedemeier, the Bike Library’s executive director. Wiedemeier started out as a volunteer at the nonprofit almost 10 years ago. Now she runs the place.
“Once I had told someone to go get the most expensive lock that they could, and it was half the price of their bike, and it got sniped like three weeks later. And it was the big, thick chain, Kryptonite Lock.”
During a recent Women Trans Femme Night at the Bike Library, everyone had a stolen bike story. Jenna McCoy, a Bike Library volunteer, had her bike stolen when she lived in the residence halls on the University of Iowa campus. Someone stole Annette Vernon’s boyfriend’s bike, too. Sneha Bhansali, a graduate student at the UI, had her bike stolen three times.
Between the three bike shops on Gilbert Street, thousands of university students, recreational paths and weekday commuters, the city is filled with the jingle of clicking freewheels.
Around 2.5 percent of UI students and 6.25 percent of faculty and staff bike as their primary mode of transportation; 76 percent of students and 41 percent of faculty and staff use their bike as an alternative mode, said Michelle Ribble, commuter programs manager at UI.
There are just over 5,600 bicycle parking spaces on the university campus, and on average, 2,200 are parked on campus at midday. High bike traffic at the university, downtown and throughout Iowa City gives bike thieves all the opportunity they need.
Since 2016 the Iowa City Police Department have had 1,180 reports of stolen bikes. Of those, police recovered 148, about 12.5 percent, said Lee Hermiston, public safety information officer for Iowa City.
Hermiston recommends registering your bike with ICPD, writing down the serial number, taking a photograph, and if it’s stolen, report it immediately.
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“We really want to emphasize that it’s really important for bike owners to keep note of the serial number on their bike,” Hermiston said.
The police rely on serial numbers to find and return stolen bikes. It also helps to have unique markings and features on your bike to help identify it, he said.
Stolen bikes are sold online or at pawn shops. Hermiston said expensive bikes are usually “taken out of town.” Those are harder to track. Cheaper bikes are typically discarded, and it’s easier to recover them. These are “crimes of opportunity,” so thick locks and other measures with help deter theft.
“It’s not the sort of crime where an officer is going to drop everything that they’re doing and go patrol the town for a missing bike, right? They’re hard to find,” he said. “I think we would advise folks if your bike’s been stolen to be, you know, checking the Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace.”
But thieves don’t have to take the entire bike. Other parts — the chain, seat, lights, handlebars, wheels and derailleurs — are easy targets. Unlike the frame, which has the serial number, these parts are untraceable.
There’s a chance you might find your bike in police’s abandoned bikes storage area. Since 2016, they’ve collected 425 abandoned bikes. ICPD keeps the bike for at least 90 days. After that they are donated to the Bike Library, which refurbishes the bikes and make them available for anyone interested in checking them out.
Nationally, an average of 174,000 stolen bikes were reported every year between 2015 and 2019, according to the FBI’s most recent crime statistics.
Those are the reported numbers, but not everyone contacts the police. Only around 1 in 5 stolen bikes are reported, according to 529 Garage, a Seattle-based program designed to help reduce bike theft and make communities more bike friendly.
529 Garage says over 2 million bikes are stolen every year in North America, but less than 5 percent are recovered and returned.
Robert Henderson never contacted the police to report his bike.
“It is pointless. They won’t do anything,” he said. Instead he went to the Bike Library, and they replaced his bike.
Michael Chamberlain, owner of The Broken Spoke, said entire bike racks have been stolen in the past. At the beginning of the fall semester, he noticed an uptick.
“There’s always rumors of professional bike theft groups and stuff. And with how much I heard that first week when students came back, it would be hard for me to think otherwise,” he said.
Since January 2020, there have been 112 bike thefts reported to the University of Iowa Police Department. Eight have been recovered, according to Ann Goff, university transparency officer.
Chamberlain has been in Iowa City for 18 years and has degrees in computer science and criminal justice. He said his ex-girlfriend had a custom bike that “some jackass” stole. She gave a detailed description of every part, but the report merely listed a white bike and green saddle.
“If only there was something they could have done with a little bit more effort,” he said. “It’s also very frustrating that they are way too focused on serial number.”
Luckily, a friend saw her bike chained up outside of City Hall, close to the police station. It took around two hours for the police to unlock her bike.
“The police really don’t seem to care too much,” he said.
When Chamberlain buys used bikes, he keeps a copy of the seller’s driver’s license. Sometimes he discovers that these bikes were stolen. He also keeps his own log of stolen bikes, in case one appears in his shop.
“If your bike is stolen, chances are minimal you’ll see it again.”
How to avoid getting hit by a car
Bike theft is only one problem for Iowa City cyclists. There’s also vehicle-bicycle accidents. Since 2016, there have been around 150 collisions in town, said Hermiston. Nationally, around 857 cyclists are killed every year, and over 47,00 are injured, according to the most recent statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Highway Administration.
“Do you have the dreams about throwing your bicycle through the windshield of a car? ‘Cause that’s a very reoccurring dream [of mine], if I were to get hit,” said the Bike Library’s Wiedemeier, who had been buzzed by a motorcycle the day before. “So maybe I need to work on my anger.”
Sarah Walz, an assistant transportation planner with the Metropolitan Planning Organization of Johnson County, said the county is expanding bike lanes and its trail network. But most riders don’t feel comfortable riding on the street, according to a MPOJC survey.
“I’m a commuter so I bike to and from work and grocery. I do a little recreational riding, but I’m just around town,” Walz said. “Even I find portions of Gilbert Street a little bit daunting.”
Part of Metro Area Bicycle Master Plan is closing the barriers, the “uncomfortable intersections” at high traffic areas, and closing gaps in the network between communities and facilities. Some of these include extensions along Highway 1 and Highway 6, and improving the bike lanes throughout the county.
Sitting on the patio behind The Broken Spoke, Chamberlain talks about his “love-hate relationship” with bike lanes.
“Firstly, I’m a full believer that every lane is a bike lane because the rights to use the road belong to the individual, not the vehicle,” Chamberlain said. “Iowa City unfortunately has a very, I don’t know, strong belief in paint-on-the-road counting as infrastructure. Bike lanes, sharrows, any of that stuff.”
Bike lanes in Iowa City give bikers a sense of “perceived safety.” On Clinton Street, for example, the bike lane runs next to the doors of the parallel parked cars with no buffer zone.
“Anything that allows a car to also occupy the same space as a bike lane is not good, so a protected bike lane eliminates any of that being a possibility. Look no further than Clinton Street bike lanes and how commonly they’re blocked by delivery vehicles.”
While experienced cyclists may feel more comfortable taking the full lane, Wiedemeier likes that bike lanes can help cyclists gain confidence riding alongside cars.
“I still get nervous riding in traffic. I definitely take different routes because traffic is bad, or because it seems unsafe,” she said. “We cater to cars with an insane amount of parking everywhere. It’s the first thing that, you know, we think about when building a space, which is fine. But we can do that for bikes, too, and bike lanes are part of that.”
When Henderson bikes around Iowa City, either to work at Carlos O’Kelly’s or make his medical appointments on time, he avoids the roads and cars.
“I just don’t feel safe riding in traffic. Some people can’t drive,” he said. “I don’t want to take the chance of getting hit by a car again. I’ve been hit by a car before. It didn’t do me well. I had to have knee surgery and everything. So I just ride the sidewalk.”
Beyond bike lanes, the county and city have been implementing other bicycle road markings and signs. Wiedemeier and Chamberlain both like sharrows, a marking that indicates which part of the road cyclists should use when motor vehicles share the road. But this sign can be confusing for drivers.
“I personally like sharrows when they’re implemented correctly,” Chamberlain said.
In Iowa City, sharrows are often pushed close to the curb, he said. But when they’re in the middle of the road, it encourages full lane use, so cyclists can share the road with motorists, without sharing the lane.
Chamberlain thinks road markings and signs should reduce confusion, so he prefers the “Bicycles May Use Full Lane” sign. It is a black and white regulatory sign, like a speed limit, riders must follow to help regulate traffic.
A “Share the Road” yellow and black warning sign doesn’t have the same authority. There are two versions of this sign, one shown above, and another that bears the image of a car next to a cyclist may give the wrong signal to drivers.
“It implies that ‘Share the Road’ means ‘Share the Lane,’ and that is nonsense,” Chamberlain said.
The best road sign in Wiedemeier’s opinion is more paint, especially bike lanes painted completely green.
The quest for platinum bike-friendliness
But for riders like Henderson who don’t feel comfortable on the road with cars, there are alternatives like paved multi-use trails that run separate from roadways, and paved sidepaths that run adjacent and parallel to roadways. The bicycle network in Johnson County spans 231 miles, and has 118 miles of trails and sidepaths.
“Bike paths are fantastic, but they don’t go everywhere that you’d want to go. And so if you are recreational riding, then they’re great. If you’re actually riding your bicycle for transportation, to use it as your vehicle, then bike paths quickly become very limiting,” Chamberlain said. His store primarily caters to those who bike as transportation.
“Money and effort tends to go towards recreational trails and stuff, and Johnson County has been pretty good about that,” he said. “Having these little connectivity pieces of the bike path as it grows is definitely, definitely a good thing.”
Expanding the network and passing public safety measures help contribute to Iowa City’s bike-friendly score. One of the Bicycle Master Plan goals is achieving a platinum score from the League of American Bicyclists, a nonprofit bicycle advocacy organization. No communities in the United States have the highest rating, diamond, and there are only five platinum communities.
In the 2019 state report cards, Iowa ranks in the bottom half of the country at number 26. Our lowest scoring category is infrastructure and funding. There are only eight bike-friendly communities, and three of them — Iowa City, University Heights and Coralville — are in Johnson County. Iowa City has a silver rating, the highest in the state, while everyone else has bronze.
“Iowa City is definitely more of a bike-friendly place than many other places. And again it’s mainly because of the sheer necessity,” said Chamberlain, admittedly being pessimistic. “It’s not like the ‘build it and they will come’ mentality. It’s like ‘oh well, they’re already here, so I guess we can build it.’”
The league’s criteria is based on The five Es: equity, serving everyone in the community; engineering, creating a safe and convenient environment; education, providing skills and confidence to ride; encouragement, creating a strong bike culture; and evaluation, planning for biking as a safe and viable option. The sixth E, enforcement, was removed in 2020.
The Iowa City Bicycle Master Plan, which runs concurrent to the Metro Area’s plan, uses these categories to set its goals and objectives, like expansion and improvement of the network.
Iowa City’s report card recommends increasing the total network mileage, passing more bicycle-friendly ordinances and increasing funding for bicycling and bike program staff.
Wiedemeier, who often works with Walz, agreed that county and city staff should have more funding.
“If we wanted to maybe take something seriously, we would hire more people to do the investigating and research as to how we can become more of a bike-friendly community, instead of just relying on the League of American Bicyclists,” she said.
“Sarah Walz has a really good job of doing bike education, but she already has a crazy busy job, and so bike education videos and outreach and PSAs can’t be her number-one priority. She still tries to do it as much as she can, but that’s another reason why we should hire more people.”
Iowa City is getting a bike share, at some point
One of the long-term goals of Iowa City’s plan is creating a bike share program. A bike share was originally supposed to launch in 2018, and then again in 2019. But the industry is rapidly changing, said Iowa City Transportation Director Darian Nagle-Gamm.
When Nagle-Gamm came into her position around three years, the city had already been planning a bike share for years. At the time, the industry was transitioning between docked and dockless bikes.
A dock system requires riders to begin and end their trips at static docking stations. Dockless bikes can be left anywhere and are cheaper, but can cause issues of littering and general congestion.
“One of the biggest complaints you hear from communities is that the bikes and scooters are parked all over the place,” she said. “The geofencing technology is pretty impressive because you can send messages to users’ phones that this is not an area that’s authorized for parking.”
Another persistent problem is vandalism, which not only damages the equipment but also creates a staffing demand, Nagle-Gamm said. “There has to be somebody to get them.”
By the time the city released a request for proposal (RFP) for dockless bikes, the industry was changing again from regular bikes to electric bikes. And now, many companies are moving away from bikes to electric scooters.
Eventually, the city signed an agreement with Gotcha Mobility to establish an e-bike share. In August 2019, they said they couldn’t supply bikes for the fall, so they pushed the launch date back until the spring.
In December, OjO Electric, a scooter share company in California, bought Gotcha. OjO later told the city they couldn’t purchase the e-bikes. In January, the manufacturer Gotcha worked with halted production due to the pandemic and the Trump administration’s trade dispute with China.
“It is really frustrating. We’re in this strange land in between multiple problems with the pandemic,” she said. “It is complicating every facet of business that we work in as well. Every supply chain is being impacted by it. But also the rapidly changing industry itself.”
In late 2020, Gothca was bought out again. It’s currently owned by a company named BOLT Mobility, a Florida-based company co-founded by Usain Bolt. The company has not given the city a new launch date, and Nagle-Gamm said the city is beginning to explore other options.
“Our next step is to regroup,” Nagle-Gamm said. “And determine whether or not our current contracted organization can do it, and we’re just not really sure right now.”
Moving forward, Wiedemeier thinks that a bike share program should cater primarily to working people, instead of tourists. It could have free kiosks downtown, near main business hubs and apartments.
“I’ve thought that maybe we could work with the city to do some sort of free bike share thing. So, like, instead of buying brand new computer e-bikes, we could start with just employing people here, or through the city, to fix up old bikes and just get those out,” she said.
While Wiedemeier was speaking to Little Village in the lounge of the Bike Library’s new building, across the room Jeff Fishers chimed in.
“The only place that I’ve seen any kind of bike sharing that really seems to work is high density, like downtown Chicago [and] Shanghai,” he said. “But then you have that infrastructure of people that drive around and pick up e-bikes and take them back to the place to charge them.”
He said that any bike sharing system would have to rely on self-powered pedal bikes, since e-bikes are limited by the life span of their batteries, which can cost hundreds of dollars. Micromobility companies like Gotcha, BOLT and others in the industry revolve around e-bikes and e-scooters.
“It’s just very expensive. Very, very expensive endeavor for the size of Iowa City,” Fishers said. “It seems like the money would be so much better to spend if it was on a traditional style of bicycle.”
Breaking into the bike culture
With the pandemic and rising gas prices, more people are out on their bicycles, Walz said. For her, local groups, organized rides and programs define Iowa City’s bike culture.
“I think no matter what kind of bicyclists you are, there’s something for you here. I’m amazed at the number of events,” she said. “There are pretty much rides every day of the week. Group rides, things that target women, things that target senior citizens, kid neighborhood rides. So, you know, something to get everybody going.”
Iowa City hosts the Jingle Cross Cyclo-cross Festival, which has been part of the Union Cycliste Internationale World Cup five times. Thousands gathered over three days in the middle of October to cheer on domestic and international cyclists, shake loud cowbells as riders navigated sharp turns, and eat as much festival food as possible.
Iowa is, of course, also home to RAGBRAI, the week-long, cross-state ride that has been a major cycling event for more than four decades. Chamberlain has ridden RAGBRAI seven times.
“One thing that is fantastic, fantastic, fantastic about RAGBRAI is that cyclists basically own the road for a week,” he said. “At any point, you can stop and look any direction at the horizon to see nothing but bikes.”
Chamberlain could’ve chosen a different career, putting his computer science background to work, but he wanted to open his own bike shop.
“Not to sound all self-righteous … the bicycle is basically the solution to a lot of problems as far as obesity, exercise, traffic congestion, parking, CO2 emissions, oil consumption. Like all these things are minimized greatly,” he said.
Letting his pessimism show again, he said he knows riding a bike won’t save the planet. “But it’s good for the environment. It’s good for you. And it’s good for everyone else.”
Wiedemeier feels more connected to the community when she bikes.
“When I’m out riding around everybody that I meet that rides is usually a lot of fun. And I love waving at neighbors or like business owners,” she said. “You don’t really get that same kind of experience in a car.”
“You don’t,” Henderson said in agreement. He prefers to bike, too.
“I like riding. I’d rather take the bike than drive a car. Fresh air.”
Adria Carpenter is a mutli-media journalist at Little Village. She appreciates everyone who worked with her on the story, and who shares her love for biking. In August, three weeks after moving to Iowa, some jackass stole her bike. So if you see a red, black and white Schwinn Solara, let her know.