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"Get out of the road!"

BY WILL MATTESSICH | AUGUST 18, 2011 7:20 AM

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An unidentified young woman delivered this line to me out the window of a shiny Honda Civic on Madison Street while I was biking home. Drivers such as this critic of mine, who rarely understand that biking in the street is lawful and usually encouraged, lead to a hostile and sometimes hazardous environment for bicyclists.

The best environments for cyclists exist when local governments make a concerted effort to create them. Iowa City's efforts to become "bike-friendly" have, so far, been admirable, but more still needs to be done.

Cycling is a form of transportation that every community should encourage. It's better for traffic, for the environment, and for the health of citizens. Yet similar salutations to the one I experienced are hurled at bikers across the country.

Most frequent cyclists have been told to get on the sidewalk or been called "Lance" by automobile-contained comic geniuses at some point. Being yelled at is annoying, but it isn't the most serious danger bike riders have to face. In many areas, the existing roads are not conducive to easy use by both bicycle and automobile traffic, which sometimes results in collisions that usually end badly for the biker.

A 2010 study by the federal Department of Transportation showed that more than 51,000 cyclists were injured in motor-vehicle crashes in 2009. An additional 630 were killed.

Iowa City has made some progress in becoming more bike friendly. Cities across Johnson County are working toward implementing the "Metro Bicycle Master Plan," with the goal of creating a network of trails and lanes for bikers. The bike lane on Jefferson Street and numerous bike racks downtown are encouraging.

Mark Wyatt, the executive director of the Iowa Bicycle Coalition, doesn't think the city has gone far enough. He believes that the city implemented parts of the plan in convenient areas, but it hasn't been truly innovating as much as some other cities across the Midwest.

Jeff Davidson, the director of the city's Planning and Community Development, explains the difficulty of adapting the city's streets to bicycles. "It's a question of balance between traffic and safety," he said. "There were lots of decisions made when roads were built in the 1940s that weren't good for bikers."

Davidson cited road renovations to parts of Sycamore Avenue and Camp Cardinal Boulevard as part of the city's continued efforts at increasing bike-friendliness.

One proposed measure that the city should look into is giving Gilbert Street a "road diet," which involves bringing the road down from four lanes to three and inserting bike lanes on either side.

Creating a major cycling thoroughfare down the heart of Iowa City would be a huge boon to bike traffic, and it would even help drivers. The addition of a turn lane would allow the through lane to move more efficiently, and drivers wouldn't need to worry about being stuck behind slow cyclists. Davidson says it's something the city could look into, but traffic volumes could be too high on Gilbert for a road diet to be effective.

The bike lane on Melrose Avenue could also use work; it ends abruptly after the bridge entering University Heights. Of course, persuading the town of University Heights to be friendlier to any form of traffic will be difficult (unless someone persuades it that the move provides new ticketing opportunities.)

The most important measure is taking serious strides toward implementing a plan. Wyatt told me that Madison, Wis., has a commission specifically to address its bike friendliness. A similar group in Iowa City would be welcome, or even a single official charged with facilitating bicycle traffic.

As long as city and county officials create a bike-friendly environment, a few verbal jabs from cars are tolerable. Some of the jeering drivers may even decide to hop on a bike.


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