A while back I wrote on Bike5 that small towns could potentially lead the way in terms of showing the rest of America what it means to be truly bike friendly. I really believe this. I’ve seen it for myself. Many smaller places, especially those removed from large metros, are fully self-contained. I’m talking about towns and small cities with populations from 5,000 to 50,000 and not just those with a college. It takes less than five minutes to get anywhere in these places and so people are generally not in a hurry. They don’t need to be.
That’s a big part of the reason that Jan and I chose tiny Jefferson Iowa (pop. 4,200) as our new home town. It just felt right in a way that those who tell us what it means to be bicycle friendly just don’t seem to understand. There are no protected bike lanes. There are no sharrows. There’s no Vision Zero or Safe Routes to School…mostly because those things aren’t needed. They’re not needed because nobody’s in a hurry and all the major destinations are easily accessible by bicycle.
The house we purchased is less than four blocks from the town square. There are four not-so-big-box stores (Bomgaars, Fareway, Hy-Vee, and Shopko) in town. All are easily accessible by bicycle. We’re connected. Sure, we’ll occasionally have to drive to Ames (45 miles) or even Des Moines (60 miles), but it will be once a week or once a month instead of every day. For every day transportation, a bike will work best.
Anyway, I caught some flack for extolling the bike friendliness of small towns. I never figured out why. I wasn’t looking for a fight. I readily admit I’m not an urban planner or an engineer. Guilty as charged. I really don’t have an agenda other than to get people to think about how they move about and choose bikes when it makes sense to do so. It was just an observation.
If we’re honest, this isn’t rocket science. I know that there are those who want it to be, but it really isn’t. It’s not about money or concrete or safe spaces or any of that other nonsense. There’s absolutely nothing in life simpler than riding a bicycle. When we make it harder than it needs to be because we want federal dollars or whatever, well, that’s self defeating. Maybe it’s time to slay some sacred cows. Sorry if that offends you. That’s not my intention.
Be that as it may, I was real happy to see that the smart people over at People for Bikes came to the same conclusion that I have, which is to say small towns are often better places to bicycle than big cities. Here…
“There’s a handful of kind of small towns, unusual suspects that do really well. In all of those places, you have a ton of low stress connections in big bulk right in the middle, and that’s where all of the destinations are.”
Wow. That’s my new hometown. That’s Jefferson. That said, they’re not 100% correct. It’s more than a handful. There are hundreds of places just like this all over the United States. It’s much bigger than they think. They’re too focused on what they know, but at least they’re on the right track.
If you know of one of these places, I’d love to hear about it from you. We can learn from them. They can make a difference. They can lead America to a more bicycle-friendly tomorrow.