• Mon September 14 2009
  • Posted Sep 14, 2009
Des Moines, IA Tensions triggered by plans for bike lanes on two busy Des Moines streets could forecast future discord if city leaders cannot achieve stronger community support for efforts to expand capital city bicycle facilities. Proposals rolled out this summer to install bicycle lanes on Ingersoll and Urbandale avenues come with organized support from cyclists, although they've created a rift between the city and some residents and business owners. The Ingersoll proposal, which comes up for another debate at tonight's City Council meeting, along with the Urbandale Avenue project, are part of a broader push to attain a council goal for a "Bicycle Friendly Community" designation from the League of American Bicyclists. Fewer than 100 cities bear the title, and those that do, such as Cedar Falls and Columbia, Mo., have endured debates similar to those embroiling Des Moines. "There is some controversy at times," said Ward Stubbs, director of Human and Leisure Services in Cedar Falls. "I think we've kind of created it ourselves in the last 30 to 40 years by building trails. We've kind of gotten out of the mode that bicycles are legal and can be ridden on city streets." The debate over whether Ingersoll should be equipped with bicycle lanes has caused some to raise safety concerns comparable to arguments for and against cycling on rural roads in Iowa. "A lot of people who are non-bikers think that bicycles don't belong on the streets," Stubbs said. "There's also an educational process in the other direction, in that bicyclists need to understand that if they're going to be riding on the streets, they need to obey the traffic laws just like a vehicle would." The city of Des Moines is in the midst of a $100,000 study to create a bicycle and trails master plan "to increase the use of bicycles as a legitimate form of transportation that reduces the reliance on the automobile," according to a Parks and Recreation department report. The Ingersoll "restriping" plan would cut the number of vehicle lanes from four to three - one lane in each direction with a center lane for left turns - and add bicycle lanes. It will also change how cars, buses and bicycles intermingle on the roughly two-mile stretch of Ingersoll between Polk Boulevard and Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway. Councilman Chris Coleman, who has twice voted to advance the Ingersoll proposal, said there are still unanswered questions about the plan, especially over how the changes would affect traffic flow among cars, buses, and bikes. "There are legitimate concerns," Coleman said Friday. "I think some of the concerns are hyperbole. At the crux of things, I've told people all week long that I still have concerns about the bike route being between traffic, buses and parked cars. ... We need to handle this with the utmost caution." Steve Switzer, who cycles along Ingersoll and elsewhere around Des Moines year-round, said during a recent public hearing on the issue that he thinks the plan will help alleviate traffic issues. "Bicyclists are going to be real safe on Ingersoll with this new plan," Switzer told council members. The proposal for bicycle lanes along Ingersoll is part of a strategy that aims to calm traffic and reduce accidents along the corridor. In support of the proposed changes, city officials cite a 2006 study by Iowa State University of 12 conversions to three-lane streets that showed a 29 percent reduction in crashes. Changes along Ingersoll are also part of a council- endorsed "complete streets" policy geared toward making Des Moines streets usable for more than cars and trucks. Coleman said the "complete streets" philosophy makes sense during construction of new streets, but he isn't convinced it always relates well to older corridors like Ingersoll. "This is completely untested territory for us as a city," he said. Councilwoman Christine Hensley has urged people to give the proposed changes to Ingersoll a chance. She points to recent improvements to Interstate Highway 235, Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway, Gray's Lake and the Western Gateway as examples of things that turned out better than some thought. "There was significant opposition to those projects," she said. "I know it's hard, but look where we're at now as a city because of those projects." Tim Brien has nothing against bicycles. In fact, he thinks he should ride more often. He learned how to ride a bike along Urbandale Avenue on the city's northwest side, the very he street he has lived on since 1955. Brien was among the homeowners concerned about a plan to "restripe" Urbandale Avenue between 34th Street and Merle Hay Road, and take away street parking in the process. "To lose your parking privileges for 365 days a year, 24/7 is a big chunk to swallow," Brien said. Brien said he was concerned he and other homeowners didn’t know about the plan to install bicycle lanes and cut off parking along Urbandale until a week before the council was set to debate the plan in late July. Ingersoll business owners have voiced similar concerns. That plan has been delayed. City leaders acknowledge that insufficient communication helped fuel opposition to bicycle lanes on Ingersoll Avenue. Some business owners worry that less vehicle traffic will mean less revenue. Jim Luksetich, an Ingersoll Avenue businessman, said it seemed like city officials already had their mind made up about changes to the street before they came to most businesses. "Some of these businesspeople are very unhappy," he said. "This isn't academic with them. This can cost them money and possibly in some cases their business." City officials say the traffic changes along Ingersoll will aid revitalization efforts and help businesses. Switzer agrees with that prediction. "Ingersoll is coming back, and I think this is part of bringing it back," he recently told council members. Columbia, Mo., is one of four United States communities that received federal money to make the city more bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly. So far, Columbia has around 20 streets equipped with bicycle lanes and about 30 others where vehicle and bicycle lanes are shared. Related projects are under way. Jill Stedem, spokeswoman for the city of Columbia's public works department, said many of the issues under debate in Des Moines have cropped up in her city. "It's been across the board, and with all of the projects, there has been some opposition," Stedem said. "It definitely changes over time with people's thoughts on it, and it gets easier." In Cedar Falls, City Councilman Frank Darrah said they've worked over the last several years to build upon the area's trail system to make better connections and compatibility with roadways. "We've had people come to public meetings who are opposed to it, but just not the volume you'd probably get in Des Moines," Darrah said. "It's been a very public process and people have been heard. What I've learned is that whether people get what they want or not, if they've been heard, there's a degree in satisfaction in that. Public participation and not moving too quickly are key."

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