Iowa’s capital city is never on anybody’s “Best Places to Cycle” shortlist but it should be.  I’ve cycled in a lot of places that are on these lists and it’s just better here.  I found myself thinking about this again recently because a huge mixed use development on the edge of downtown is about to break ground. Dubbed Gray’s Station, this project is nestled along an existing bicycle route that connects the urban core to the suburbs.  New residents will undoubtedly find it easier to cycle than drive to most nearby destinations.   This is good.  This is the way it’s supposed to work.

Gray’s Station, just southwest of downtown, sits in the middle of a web of protected bicycle infrastructure including side paths into downtown and the vibrant East Village neighborhood.

MLK sidepath into downtown from the southwest. Gray’s Station will rise in the empty space visibile over the right railing.

But it wouldn’t be possible if folks in Des Moines and throughout central Iowa hadn’t already created a pretty solid network of bike routes, side paths and trails that help people on bikes get around here.   They have.  When we first moved here and had an apartment in Waukee on the far west edge of the metro, I routinely rode into downtown and beyond.  I have the pictures to prove it.  Try doing that in some of the headline-stealing bike friendly cities .  You can’t…not easily, at least.  Here it’s a breeze.

Part of this is connectivity.  Folks here have managed to connect far flung suburbs to the core in a way that seems impossible elsewhere.  The fastest growing parts of the metro lie to the west (Dallas County) and the north (Johnston, Grimes and Ankeny) and every last one of them is connected to downtown Des Moines via trail or side path.   It’s even possible to get into the core from our new home in Jefferson, some sixty miles to the northwest of the big city.  This is part of the reason we chose to live here.

Another part of the magic in central Iowa is redundancy.  There are multiple routes to most destinations, even from way out here in the country.   I know of no other city in America where I could live sixty miles out of town and have three different trails into the city.   By the way, these trails are world class.  They’re mostly poured concrete and smooth as any I’ve ever seen.

Iowa practical. This old county road bridge was kept when the road was turned into a connector between the Clive Greenbelt and the Raccoon River Valley Trail on the metro’s west side.

Wayfinding signage, like everything else here, is first class.

This underpass in Urbandale is pretty typical of how major road crossings are handled here.

The Douglas Avenue sidepath nests through the exit and entrance ramps of IH 35/80 and makes crossing here a breeze.

Some bicycle routes like this one along the Raccoon River heading into downtown are lit for safe night passage.

The Iowa Women of Achievement Bridge connects downtown to the East Village.

None of what we have here is especially  flashy or cutting edge in terms of urban design.   I suspect that’s why it’s not on anyone’s “best of” list.  I’m okay with that.  So what if my bicycle infrastructure doesn’t make urban planners swoon?  I’d rather it make  cycling easy, convenient and safe.  This is where Des Moines shines.   That’s not to say we don’t have more work to do here in central Iowa.  We do, but  we’re already miles ahead of most places.  Gray’s Station and an even stronger downtown can only help.



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