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Iowa City: Building a Bicycle Friendly Community
This article about a Bicycle Friendly Community originally appeared in the League's Bicycle Friendly America magazine, in the Winter 2017 edition. For a look at the latest Bicycle Friendly Communities, check out this blog.
The only UNESCO City of Literature in the U.S. and home to the University of Iowa and its nationally regarded medical center, Iowa City offers small town ambiance coupled with vibrant arts and entertainment. In addition to the university’s Hancher Auditorium and 10 local performing venues, the community sponsors Summer of the Arts which offers free Friday night concerts on the downtown pedestrian mall, Saturday night movies, and three music festivals. It’s no wonder that in 2015 the American Economic Research Institute ranked Iowa City #1 among small cities as a hot job market.
Iowa City has the reputation as a for being bike friendly as well and was recognized by the League of American Bicyclists as a Bicycle Friendly Community (BFC) in the 1990s. With the university and many businesses centrally located, work is often a short bike commute for many people. For decades, the area has ranked in the top 20 nationally for bike commuter share. Since the ‘70s the community has hosted the Old Capitol Criterium bike race, supported a handful of locally owned bike shops, and a number of active bike clubs. Its first Bike to Work Day events began in 1990.
In 2006, after the League revamped the BFC program, biking advocates encouraged Iowa City to reapply. Much to the community’s chagrin, The League awarded it an honorable mention. Quickly, the city allocated resources to develop a bike master plan and bike advocates began a campaign to become a more bike friendly. In 2009, their efforts were rewarded with a Bronze designation. In 2013, Iowa City advanced to a Silver-level.
Today, more than 50 miles of trails, bike lanes, and sharrows have been added with more in the planning stages. Two contiguous towns, University Heights and Coralville, have become Bronze-level BFCs and the UI is a Silver-level Bicycle Friendly University. In 2011, the county received super-majority voter support to allow up to $1 million in bonding authority for trails and parks. It has provided a significant inducement as the county bids for additional funds for trails.
A new bike master plan is in the works. Working with the Iowa City Downtown District and the advocacy coalition Think Bicycles of Johnson County, , the city incorporated bike friendliness in updates to the downtown and the new River Crossings District development, less than a mile from downtown. The joint city-UI bike share program is scheduled to roll out in 2017. A new parklet in the middle of downtown offers efficient storage for 40 bikes, an eye-appealing, playful design and reflects the community’s commitment to enhancing and supporting a biking culture. Nancy Bird, the Downtown District’s Executive Director, believes the City's support of bike infrastructure is important for the economy as well, “Research has shown that the cycling community tends to make more trips downtown than those in cars — and they spend money on each trip, pumping more total money into the economy over time. It makes perfect sense to improve bike and pedestrian access where ever we can."
In 2013, Iowa City received a Blue Zones Community grant to work toward aligning the community with the goal of making healthy choices the easy option. A primary tenet, Moving Naturally, aligns with the League’s bicycle-friendly initiative and encourages active transportation. The city offered a program called Move Naturally to the Farmer’s Market, which rewarded over 800 bikers and walkers with a $2 “market bucks” coupon the past two Mays. Thriving racing groups for men and women ride the road, off-road and gravel, and women only rides happen several times weekly. A fall Culinary Ride celebrates Iowa farming/food connection and because of the easy availability, Iowa City is a mecca for gravel rides and off-road biking.
The metro area is not without its special events. In addition to the 40-year-old Old Capitol Criterium and periodic visits from the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa (RAGBRAI), the community hosted the late fall Jingle Cross cyclocross race for the past 13 years. In 2016, Jingle Cross gained international notoriety as one of two U.S. stops on the Telnet UCI Cyclocross World Cup. It drew competitors from 15 nations as well as several thousand spectators.
Opportunities for bike education are expanding. In cooperation with Bicyclists of Iowa City, the University of Iowa Children’s Hospital Safety Program, AAA and area bike shops, schools annually host bike rodeos. During the past three years, more than 2,000 kids have attended over 40 rodeos. Recently, using bikes donated by the Iowa City Bike Library, a pilot study taught low-income 5 to 7 year olds how to ride a bike in five one-hour lessons. Plans to expand the program community-wide are under consideration. A competitive youth racing team formed by the area’s neighborhood center includes a dozen active racers.
In addition to checking out bikes for six months at a time, the non-profit Iowa City Bike Library has a rent-a-bench program, a women only repair night, workbench rental, and periodic repair courses. World of Bikes, a locally owned bike shop, hosts Women with Wrenches, and is opening an online bike academy that plans to offer tips on all aspects of biking from repairing a flat to self-contained touring. For a decade, BIC has held a bike expo to kick-off the biking season. The University of Iowa’s Art and Art History department offers a unique bike building class which has attracted attention from the biking industry.
There’s reason for optimism among bicyclists in Iowa City. Mayor Jim Throgmorton stated “that the Strategic Plan we adopted early in 2016 commits Iowa City to achieving Gold Bicycle Friendly Community status by 2017, with an ambition to achieve Platinum status. This commitment is part of our effort to forge a city that is inclusive, just, and sustainable."
Bike advocates have embraced this challenge by initiating the Going for the Gold: Bike Friendly Iowa City Campaign. Funds have been raised to provide seed money to promote the biking culture through events that promote the League’s five “Es” (Engineering, Education, Encouragement, Enforcement, Evaluation and Planning) in creative new ways. The campaign seeks to expand Bike to Work Week into a year round event. Like the mayor, a bicyclist himself, enthusiasts see not only gold but also platinum in Iowa City’s future.
Bob Oppliger is a Lifetime Member of the League of American Bicyclists and League Cycling Instructor #3876. An avid touring cycling and bike commuter, he founded Iowa City’s Bike to Work Week.