At one point, Iowa was the 6th most Bicycle Friendly State in the US. The annual ranking from the League of American Bicyclists has been steadily declining since 2009. Iowa has occupied spots at 9th, 16th, 21st, and now 25th position. Iowans who like to ride bicycles in Iowa should be disappointed and concerned.
Bicycle Friendly does not evaluate how much Iowans like bicycles, even how friendly of a wave they give as they pass bikes on the road, or how many crashes occur over the course of a year. The evaluation considers policies and practices in engineering, education, encouragement, enforcement, and evaluation against the other 50 states. Those five words that start with E are known as the 5 E’s and are the national strategy for improving conditions for people riding bicycles.
Iowa is tackling some things that will result in points during the next evaluation. At the same time, other states are improving conditions for cyclists. If Iowa doesn’t decide to tackle some big issues soon, we will remain at the same rank forever.
This just doesn’t seem right. Iowa hosts the largest, longest, and oldest statewide bicycle touring event. RAGBRAI makes Iowa known around the world as a great place to ride a bicycle. The HyVee Triathlon is one of the greatest multisport events in the country and it is hosted right here in Iowa. We refer to Iowa’s trail system as the world capital of trails.
The truth is, Iowans are reluctant on making things better for bicycling. In 1988, 49 states adopted laws that gave bicyclists the same rights and duties as the drivers of vehicles. Iowa was the last state to adopt such legislation.
I could give you a couple of health statistics or environmental impacts to support the reason to invest in bicycling. However, the more powerful reason is economic. People are dropping a lot of money in association with bicycling. It is the “staycation” strategy on steroids. An innkeeper in Northeast Iowa told me bicycling is driving his business.
Workforce development is the other powerful reason. This week, headlines spoke about young workers who will relocate to areas with more transportation choices. Young professionals are relying upon transit and bicycling more and more. If Iowa doesn’t adapt, our talent pool of young workers will shrink. Investing in bicycling is one solution to the brain drain.
There are some great things going on in some great communities. Mason City is poised to invest $1.8 million of local money in their bicycling network. Johnson County is investing in their rural trails with funding from a conservation bond. Waterloo has passed a complete streets policy honored as one of the top policies in the US.
What does the State of Iowa need to do to return to the top 10 Bicycle Friendly States?
1. Infrastructure Investment. We need to stop siphoning money normally dedicated for trails into highway and bridge projects. We need to fund bike projects from the Traffic Safety Improvement Program, Air Quality, and other eligible programs. We need to expand the use of the trails funds for other bicycle facilities and maintenance.
2. Pass some common sense bike safety laws. If a bicyclist is turning right, they should be able to point right with their right arm and signal a turn, right? A person riding a bicycle should be able to move to the center of the lane if there is a pothole, or a right turn-only lane, correct? Should a motorist be allowed to open a car door before it is safe from being struck by other vehicles? Can we allow speed limits in certain areas to be below 20 mph? Not right now in Iowa.
3. Adopt A New Bike Plan and Complete Streets Policy. This project is underway at the Iowa DOT. I am certain the plan will be well written and impactful. Implementation will be the key to benefiting Iowans. Formal adoption of the plan by the Iowa DOT Commission will be the first sign of implementation.
4. Increase the amount of people riding bicycles. We need to raise the bike commuter percentage to 1%, almost double from where we are. Modest efforts in Iowa communities could yield big impacts to that number. We move the needle over 1% when bicycling becomes an easy and convenient choice.
I attended two Blue Zone kickoffs and another Blue Zone progress update last week. One of the top recommendations was to buy a bike or dust one off and use it. The Blue Zone Project knows bicycle facilities are impactful on the health and economics of our communities.
We need the State of Iowa to embrace bicycling as an opportunity. Invest in bike infrastructure, pass better laws, adopt an effective bike plan, and put more Iowans on bicycles and we will be racing towards the top 10 Bicycle Friendly States again.