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Can Bicycles Save Motown?

I love Google Maps.  I can sit and look at them for hours.  As I do, I learn things.  Take Detroit, for example.  It’s the one place where you have to go south to cross into Canada from the United States.   Most people I say that to look at me like I’ve lost my mind, but here it is.  I’m not making it up.

Detroit from 30,000 feet. Canada is to the south.

Detroit is also one of America’s most sprawling cities.  A lot has been written about population loss and although the city continues to bleed residents (Detroit City now has fewer people than it did in 1850), the metro area continues to grow as it expands outward.   It now extends almost halfway across the lower peninsula of Michigan.   It’s easy to see this from space.

 

Detroit from space. That’s Lake St. Clair to the right and Lake Erie at the bottom.

Population  in Detroit City peaked in 1950.  It’s been all downhill ever since.   It’s not just Detroit, either.   The same is true of Cleveland, Indianapolis, St. Louis, and even Chicago.  Chicago proper has lost over 1,000,000 residents since 1950.   That’s staggering .  What’s even more staggering is that this was mostly self inflicted.  These cities all agreed to let state highway departments carve them up and gut neighborhoods with wide freeways that led out of town.  In hindsight, nobody should be surprised that people chose to take them and head for the hills.

 

Downtown Detroit today. The green areas to the east and west are largely abandoned and overgrown.

This is what they look like when you zoom in.

And at street level.

When I look at maps of Detroit, I see opportunity.   The city sits on shipping lanes and an international border with a friendly neighbor.  It’s a strategic location if there ever was one.   There’s also a lot of prime real estate just waiting to be redeveloped.  Most of it has already been cleared and can be had for pennies on the dollar by people with vision and the courage to act on it.

Detroit is also a nascent bicycle hub.   Shinola has a high profile presence in the city.  Then there’s Detroit Bikes, my personal favorite.  They’ve set up shop in a 50,000 square foot factory on the city’s west side where they cut, weld and assemble frames, forks and bikes from true to their roots American steel.   The Slow Roll is arguably the best urban bicycle event anywhere in America.  What’s particularly exciting is that Detroit is a grass roots success story and bicycles are creating an energy that has been missing here for too long.  I hear it in the voices of the people I talk to here.  They’re excited. They know that they have a chance to do bike friendly right in a way that most cities will never have, and they seem to have embraced it.  That’s awesome.

I haven’t always been a fan of Motown.  I felt that the city wallowed in self pity for far too long after the 1973 Arab Oil Embargo.   The Detroit I remember from my childhood was always tougher than anything life threw at it.  It’s heroes were rock solid guys like Gordie Howe, Al Kaline and  Dave Bing.  It feels to me for the first time in forever like that Detroit is on the rebound, and bicycles have a lot to do with it.  I’m not sure if bicycles will save Detroit or not, but I hope they do.  If so,  they’ll have done something that nobody else has figured out how to do in the last forty odd years.  That would be good for Motown.  That would be good for all of us.

 

Jefferson Iowa: Declaring My Independence Once And For All

Jan and I are in the process of redoing the main bathroom in the early-1960s vintage house we recently purchased in Jefferson Iowa.  This is a big job…not something I do everyday and so it’s very much a learning process.  We still have an apartment in Des Moines and so what we typically do is stop at the big box (Home Depot/Lowe’s/Menard’s) to get most of the stuff we need on the way out of town .  Yesterday it was cement wall board and insulation and screws and such.

But the big box has 200 different varieties of screws and once I started attaching the wall board I realized that I had picked up the wrong ones.  I needed to find replacements.   As it was Sunday, I wasn’t sure if the Ace Hardware store on the square would be  open, but I decided to hop on the bike and find out.  It was my first “official” vehicular cycling trip in our new home town and it was a thing of beauty.  No fuss, no muss.  I didn’t even lock my bike while I went inside.

Jefferson Iowa. Bicycle hometown USA.

We’re close to everything in Jefferson.

How close? Ten minute close.

Most people I know are car-dependent.  I was for a long time.  I’m working on that.   I want to be car-independent.  I want to be able to go just about everywhere I need to go without a car.  I don’t dislike cars.  They are useful in some circumstances, but more often than not there’s a better way that costs a lot less.  That’s what I’m after.

Most everything in Jefferson is either on the square or within two blocks of it one way or the other.  This includes the four “not-so-big boxes” of Hy-Vee, Fareway, Bomgaars and Shopko.  Our phone company, insurance agent and the recreation center are there.  That’s also where all the city & county offices, restaurants, banks, library, movie theater and the bowling alley are.  It’s a surprisingly healthy and vibrant square for a small town on the edge of the Great Plains.  So many similar towns are drying up and blowing away.  Not Jefferson, at least not yet.

 

The square on Sunday afternoon.  It’s actually quite vibrant during the week.

Shopko, our local equivalent of a big box store, is located just across the tracks from the square. There’s a wide side path on the bridge and several alternative routes as well.

The local Hy-Vee is built into the street grid just north of the square instead of out on the highway like so many other places.  This makes cycling here a breeze.

The Raccoon River Valley Trail starts just east of our home and extends all the way to Des Moines some 60 miles to the southeast.

The front of the Ace Hardware store was partially blocked with plywood yesterday.  This was new.  They’ve started to renovate the facade.  This is going on with a half a dozen buildings on the square right now.  It’s a beautification project that will make it even nicer and more pleasant than it already is.  There’s a local not for profit group that is spearheading this effort.   My new neighbors drive process.  I like that.

The square will soon be the epicenter of our universe.   This is a good thing.  We’ve wanted to live closer to home for some time now, and this is absolutely the best opportunity we’ve had to do so.  It’s only one-half mile from our front door.   The simple truth is that it’s really faster to cycle most places in Jefferson  than it is to drive to them even before you factor in things like parking and buying gas and manufacturer recalls and everything else. The roads here are quiet.  Speeds are low.  It’s a good environment.  No special infrastructure is required in order to feel safe here.

If we  want to go further afield, the Raccoon River Valley Trail runs two blocks east of our front door.  It connects us with the state capital in Des Moines and about 15-20 other towns along the way.  It’s a 100+  mile round trip to the edge of the metro, fully paved and in really good shape for the most part.   The RRVT is a big part of the reason why we bought a home here.

But there are also hundreds of miles of virtually deserted gravel roads to explore as well.  They start right at the edge of town and will take us to any point on the compass.  We could head east towards Ames, west towards Omaha or north towards the Twin Cities.

When I started on this journey a little over four years ago, I had no idea where it would lead me.  I knew I wanted to move better…car-independent, so to speak.  I know you can do that anywhere, but most people don’t and I can’t help but think that environment has a lot to do with that.  In Jefferson, the environment is right.  I can’t imagine an easier place to cycle rather than drive.  Who knew?

Happy Independence Day to you and yours.

 

 

Playing in Traffic

“You’re not stuck in traffic.  You are traffic.”  -source unknown

Thoreau is purported to have said that most men lead lives of quiet desperation.  Women, too, for that matter. This is not to question Thoreau’s  inclusiveness.  Times were different.  Some things change.

Others, not so much.   Both men and women seem pretty desperate these days, especially when they’re crawling down the road in their automobiles.  You see it etched in their faces and, truth be told, it’s not always quiet.

Traffic is costly and stressful. The solution is not to create an environment where there’s more of this. The solution is to opt-out to the fullest extent possible.

The folks at the Transportation Institute  at Texas A&M University (TTI) in College Station have a lot to say about this.  I’ve respected their work for a long time, mostly because they’re all about safety and they don’t seem to have some hidden political agenda driving their findings like so many other folks seem to nowadays. The Aggies just gather data and then slice and dice it in various ways. What you see is what you get.  You don’t have to dig too deeply to come to the unmistakable conclusion that:

  1. Congestion is bad and…
  2. It’s getting worse.

The average urban/suburban American spends over 40 hours (one work week) per year stuck in traffic.  This compares to 18 hours back in 1982 shortly after I graduated from college.

So it makes sense that people in cars are stressed out.  What doesn’t make sense is the “not-so-quiet” desperation part.   Why do they continue to put up with it?  There’s always an alternative to just about any problem we face, so why don’t they figure it out?  Many motorists complain to high heaven about the lack of roads and yet most don’t want to pay the freight required to get the few that actually do exist fixed….never mind building more.  If you build them, you have to maintain them.  Where’s that money for that going to come from?

That’s the crux of the matter right there.  It is yet another of life’s great paradoxes that we don’t have too few roads…we have too many.  Most of these roads sit empty most of the time.  We build for peak demand, those two or three hours per day when traffic is the heaviest.  If we could somehow reduce that peak demand, we’d save billions of dollars and have more livable communities to boot.

Then there’s this.  Most new roads are not even built for the convenience of motorists.    I’ve been wanting to say this publicly for a long time and now I have.  It’s true.  It’s the proverbial Big Lie that sways public opinion in favor of more roads.  In reality, roads are built to unlock raw land for development.  It’s obvious from a bike.  Then, once that land is developed, we call it sprawl.  Nobody likes sprawl but everybody with a car likes new roads.  Go figure.

This is why it is so important to live consciously rather than sleepwalk through life.  The solution is not more roads.  The solution is to choose to opt out of the destructive “all-car-all-the-time” culture.  The solution is to tie the costs of human mobility to the benefits…something most of us don’t ever do.  If we did, we would choose to move smarter and that, in turn, would lower peak demand.

Fortunately, more and more communities are giving people the option to leave the car in the garage.   It’s not just big cities, either.  Suburbs and even small towns are becoming more bicycle and pedestrian friendly.  Many are taking unorthodox approaches.   It’s not about pavement.  It’s bigger than that.  Nor is it social experimenting as some cynical naysayers claim.  What it is, is common sense.  It’s a way forward.  It’s a solution in a way that doing more of what we’ve been doing for the last sixty years isn’t…

…and never will be.

 

The Road to Grimes

The road to Grimes, Iowa isn’t a road at all.  It’s a side path.  It extends north from Urbandale, a suburb on the edge of the Des Moines metro area, along Northwest 128th/South James streets.  The Urbandale end is quintessential suburbia.  Grimes is rapidly suburbanizing small town America.  In between there’s corn and Dekalb seeds and not much else.

The side path runs north from Urbandale to Grimes along NW 128th Street.

As far as side paths go, this one isn’t very long.  It’s only about 3 miles from Meredith Drive in Urbandale to downtown Grimes.   It’s not the length that makes it special.  It’s what it signifies.  It’s connectivity.  It’s an easy way for people in Grimes to get to jobs in Urbandale in the morning and then back home after work in the evening.  I wish more people used it.  Maybe they will in the not too distant future.

I cycled this route this morning.  The wind was blowing steady out of the north at 20 mph as it often does around here, and it was still a piece of cake getting to Grimes.  As I pedaled along, I couldn’t help but thinking that this wasn’t all that different than what they have in the Netherlands.  I thought I’d Google it to see if I was right.

Rural side path in the Dutch_province of North_Brabant. Picture_by_Hullie © April_2006, Public_Domain

Rural side path, Iowa, USA

Yep, just like I thought.  It’s no different at all.  Sure, they have more of this than we do, but they’ve had a head start.  Interestingly enough, our pavement is a little better than theirs, not that it matters.  The Dutch are the best in the world when it comes to bicycle infrastructure and they have my undying respect.

But this is really, really cool and here’s why:  The road to Grimes isn’t a recreational trail and doesn’t pretend to be.  There’s no fancy bicycle-themed signage or benches.  There are no curves thrown in to make it “interesting.”  It’s as straight as an arrow.  It’s a bona fide sidepath built to serve bicycle commuters.  Most “bicycle paths” are built for play, not transportation.  This one’s different.   It’s what lots of  cyclists tell me they want.

I want to share a couple of observations from riding this that may not be readily apparent.   One, the rural highway here is curbed.   That’s extremely rare in these parts.  Usually in Iowa, roads like this have loose gravel shoulders.  The curb suggests that they’re expecting rapid growth here.

The curb also poses a  risk to cyclists.  If a motorist tries to squeeze through, there’s nowhere to go.  Traffic is often heavy.  This is a major commuter route.

The side path makes sense here.  It’s well done.  There aren’t many driveways or road crossings.  I’m afraid that will change with time, but for now it’s great.   You can make good time.   The  buffer between the traffic lane and path isn’t as wide as it might be, but speed limits along this stretch vary from 40 mph in the country to 25 mph in town, so it’s not a huge threat.  It felt right on the bike.    That’s usually the best indicator of all.

Heading north from Urbandale to Grimes, Sunday June 25, 2017

 

Grimes Iowa

Warehouses…Urbandale. Suburbia encroaches…

…with more to come.

I’ve made no secret of the fact that it was this type of resource that brought Jan and I to Iowa. I’ve been riding a lot of it in the two months we’ve been here and I generally like it.  I’d like to see more of it.  The very essence of bike friendly is to be able to get from where you are to where you want to be safely.  That’s connectivity and this is what it looks like in America’s heartland.

Bacoon Ride 4 (Iowa) Recap, Saturday June 17, 2017

I joined about 3,000 other cyclists this past Saturday for the Bacoon Ride 4, a 75 mile jaunt along the main loop of the Raccoon River Valley Trail northwest of Des Moines.  The ride is billed as a RAGBRAI tuneup.  Almost the entire route was on trails so there were very few interfaces with automobiles.  State troopers were positioned at most major road crossings.  The route included over one thousand feet of climbing (Iowa isn’t as flat as many think!) but since it’s along a railroad right of way it was barely noticeable.  There were also lots of stops for bacon and booze along the way.   It was pretty informal in terms of organization.

One thing that took me a little by surprise is that there were no aid stations.  Lots of enterprising folks set up tents and tables and were willing to sell you water, but the organizers provided none.   The only other organized cycling event I’ve ever participated in is Colorado’s Tour of the Moon, and they offer lots of opportunities to hydrate.  Seems like that just makes sense when you fork over a $50 entry fee and are covering this kind of distance, but maybe I’m being unreasonable.  I don’t know.  It wasn’t a big deal.  I carried plenty of water to get me home.

Temperatures were cooler than they have been recently, topping out in the low 80s.  There was a light cloud cover that kept the sun at bay and it only sprinkled a little along the route.    All in all, another great day on the bike.  Here are some screen grabs from my GoPro.

Waukee, 700 AM

Mile 2. Goodbye roads, hello trails.

 

Dallas Center

The trail to Minburn

Raccoon River crossing, just past Perry

Dawson

Guthrie County line

 

Halfway point between Jamaica and Yale

Yale

The trees were thick between Panora and Linden and the trail was covered with berries that made quite a little mess!

Linden

 

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Des Moines Side Paths and Regional Trails

When it comes to cycling, I’ll pretty much ride anywhere.    I like pavement and I like gravel.  Trails rock.  So do city streets.   I love riding downtown by any available route.  I usually don’t mind sharing my space with cars.  As a general rule, most motorists are good, fair and decent.  There are, of course, exceptions to the general rule.

That brings me to my point.  A lot of people I engage as a cycling evangelist tell me that they won’t ride unless they have side paths and protected bike lanes just like their brethren in der Nederlanden.  Never mind that this isn’t exactly correct.  Plenty of Dutch boys and girls ride in traffic. Sexy as it is, there’s only one Hovenring in the whole country.

Since Jan and I arrived here on the western fringe of Iowa’s largest metro area  early last month I’ve come to appreciate that this is the epicenter of the side path movement in the United States.  Nowhere else I’ve ever cycled comes close.   I’m not talking one or two paths.  They’re everywhere and they connect everything.  They’re well thought out.    They tunnel under or fly over major roads.  They’re smooth and safe.   They make it easy to get everywhere on a bike.

Here are two examples of what I’m talking about.

Des Moines’ upscale mall, Jordan Creek Town Center, is totally accessible by bicycle. At the intersection just NW of the mall,  side paths tunnel under both Jordan Creek and EP True Parkways and deposit cyclists at the mall’s main entrance.

The sidepath navigates the highway intersection with no road crossings. It tunnels under both ramps and crosses the main lanes in a protected format.

So even though I currently live in deep suburbia, I can ride everywhere in metro Des Moines or (if I head the other way) out into the countryside and I seldom, if ever, have to share my space with a car.  When I do, motorists are among the most generally considerate.  So what does it look like?  I’m glad you asked.  Here you go…

 

 

Oregon’s Proposed Bike Surtax Will Cost Taxpayers More Than it Raises

The Oregon state legislature is currently debating whether to tack on an additional tax on bicycles, ostensibly to fund bicycle infrastructure like off street bike lanes.  This is a really bad idea hatched by lawmakers who are probably convinced that we cyclists are getting a free ride at the expense of the motoring public.  Nothing could be further from the truth, but that’s beside the point.   This law, if it passes, will do little other than harm Oregon’s bicycle dealers, many of whom are already struggling to make ends meet in today’s  contracting retail world.

There’s a simple, real world reason that bicycles aren’t licensed and taxed.   Due to their relatively low economic value, the costs of administering such programs would typically far exceed the revenue brought in.  Besides, bicycles offer all sorts of economic benefits.  They are lightweight and don’t damage roads the way cars do.   They also don’t have tailpipes, so there are no expensive emissions to mitigate.

Laws  that raise the cost of cycling serve as a barrier to entry for people who can least afford it.  Lawmakers in this case acknowledge as much.  That’s why bicycles that cost less than $500 are exempt.  I wonder how many bicycles are sold in Oregon each year that cost more than $500.  The state’s population is just over four million people, which means that roughly 400,000 Oregonians bicycle regularly.  If 10% of those people buy a $1,000 bicycle next year, that would be 40,000 bicycles subject to the tax.  That seems high, but we’ll run with it.  Given a surtax of 5%, that means the tax will raise a measly two million dollars and I think I’m being way generous here.  It’s simply not worth it.  This law has nothing to do with raising money.  There’s no money here to raise.   It’s about something else.

Oregon claims to be bicycle friendly, but this law is about as far from bicycle friendly as you could possibly get.   Taxes like this are not only spiteful, they’re also short-sighted and self defeating. If Oregon is serious about funding transportation, the solution is to encourage rather than discourage people from getting on a bicycle.

We are Ambassadors of Bicycling

I read a story this morning out of suburban Indianapolis about a bicyclist who attacked a motorist in a roundabout.  There’s no excuse for this sort of garbage.  You just don’t do it…not ever.  There are too many reasons to mention, not the least of which is self-preservation.  The motorist has a significant size advantage.

IMG_20170504_122140153_HDR_2 (1)

The object of the game, first and foremost, is to have fun.

That said, I have the feeling we’re only hearing one side of the story here.  It’s possible that the motorist just maybe might have used her car as a weapon to squeeze the cyclist in the roundabout and “forgot” to mention that to the reporter.  I only say this because it has happened to me many, many times.  It’s usually not a judgement error on their part, either.  I make eye contact.  They smirk back.  They know what they’re doing.  I don’t know if that was the case here, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it was.

Still…

Some cyclists are jerks.  I run into them from time to time.  You probably do, too.  They terrorize pedestrians and slow moving families along multi use trails.  They ignore traffic signals and laws, putting themselves and others in harm’s way.  Most are male.  Some are not.  Many appear to have an epic chip on their shoulder.   They act in a manner as arrogant and entitled as any motorist ever.

Roughly 90% of the US population never gets on a bicycle, so when something like this happens it feeds a very ugly stereotype about bicyclists that many non-cyclists are already predisposed to believe.  That’s why it’s newsworthy.   Never mind that most of us are the nicest people you’d ever want to meet.  This is what sticks with the general public.  This is our image and it’s ugly.

Like it or not, every time we get on a bike we become ambassadors of bicycling.  We can win people over to our way of thinking or we can cause them to dig in their heels and fight us.   When they fight us, some of us are going to end up getting run over.  That’s how important this is.

It’s not enough just to cycle.  We have to cycle in a way that encourages other people to show us the respect we deserve.   That means being friendly and courteous and following the laws.   It doesn’t mean rolling over and letting them run roughshod over us, but it does mean slowing down when conditions warrant, especially around the elderly, children and people with dogs.   It means smiling even when we don’t feel like smiling.  These are little things but I think they are necessary if we’re going to win the battle for hearts and minds.  That’s a battle we absolutely must win.

Ride on.

Rightsizing Transportation

If you want to change things in your life, your neighborhood, and your world, you have to learn to ask questions.  Answers always appear on the far side of questions.  The trick is to ask the right questions.  I can’t speak for you, but I can tell you that with me the right questions are never the first questions, so I’ve learned to ask early and often.

Heading into Adel on the bike. Most streets are mostly empty most of the time.

It’s not enough to just ask, though.  You have to learn to answer your own questions.  This is something that doesn’t come natural to me.  I had to teach myself to do it.  I prefer to ask and answer out loud, even though it sometimes makes people think I’m crazy.

But I digress.   What I’m trying to say is that I became a vehicular cyclist  only after learning how to answer my own questions.   Maybe you’re already familiar with that term, vehicular cyclist, but if you aren’t it means someone who chooses a bicycle as his or her primary means of transportation.  That’s me.  That’s who I am…now, anyway.

I wasn’t always.  Like a lot of people, I once was all car all the time.  I lived in the far suburbs and went everywhere by car.  Even now I still own a car because sometimes (not often) it’s more practical than a bike.  Besides, it blows the whole argument that some anti-bike people like to make about me being a freeloader and not paying my fair share of taxes.  As a matter of fact, I do own the road.  I just don’t pay as much for it as they do.  That’s my choice…theirs, too.

Back in the 1980s, Mrs. Sharpe and I lived in the Mission Viejo neighborhood in Aurora Colorado.  We were about thirteen miles from my office in downtown Denver.  The two things I remember about Mission Viejo are the street lights (they looked like bells) and the connectivity.  There  was this awesome bike path behind our home that connected to the one along Cherry Creek that ran to within a half mile of my office so when I worked on weekends I started cycling into Denver.  I could also cycle around the neighborhood and go to grocery stores and the library but  I never really thought of my bicycle as a vehicle back then.  It was just fun.  I wasn’t asking the right questions.

That all started to change in 1990.  I can tie it back to a single event.  I had taken a job in the Twin Cities and one cold, snowy December morning  as I parked and headed into the office, I happened to catch the sight of a guy riding a bicycle down University Avenue.   It was still dark and dangerously slick but he was moving at about the same pace as the cars around him.  That raised a few questions, let me tell you…

  • What the heck was he thinking?  
  • Why wasn’t he in a car?
  • Couldn’t he afford one?
  • Was he cold?
  • How deep was the snow on the road?
  • How did he keep from falling over?
  • Isn’t that dangerous?
  • How is it even possible?

Looking back, that was the catalyst that caused me to think differently.  Up until then I thought of cycling as strictly a summer pursuit.   If you could do it year around, well, why wouldn’t you?  That was the biggest question of all.  The answer was obvious.  You could.   He was doing it.

By asking a lot of questions, I’ve come to the realization that there’s a right vehicle for every trip we take.  Sometimes the right vehicle is a jet airliner.  Other times it’s a bus or a train. Often it is a car.  But it can also be a bike or our own two feet.  If we ask enough questions we will reach the completely logical conclusion that a bike is often absolutely, positively the best vehicle choice for the trip we’re about to take.   When it is, we should choose it.  I call this process “Rightsizing Transportation .”

The challenge is that most of us have been so conditioned to choose cars that we don’t really think about it at all.   We don’t ask the right questions.   That’s what we need to change if we’re going to move forward.   When we rightsize transportation, we recognize benefits for ourselves, our community our world.  There aren’t many things we can do that have this level of impact.

So let’s do it.  Together.  Please share this with your friends who don’t yet ride a bike.   They’re the ones we need to reach.   Let’s get them asking questions.  Let’s get them answering them.   If we do, they’ll end up out there with us, all saddled up.  More soon…

 

 

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