Iowa City officials plan to renew "Bicycle-Friendly" designation

BY MATT STARNS | AUGUST 27, 2012 6:30 AM

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City officials are planning to renew Iowa City’s designation as a Bicycle Friendly Community this winter, but some local bicycle advocates say there’s room for improvement in the city’s existing infrastructure plan.

The League of American Bicyclists offers the Bicycle Friendly Community Program as a way to recognize communities that actively support bicycling. The program offers four levels of designation: bronze, silver, gold, and platinum. Iowa City’s current bronze-level designation is due for renewal this winter, and city planner Kristofer Ackerson said the city hopes to obtain a silver designation after the reapplication process.

“Every three years, you have to renew your designation,” Ackerson said. “Hopefully, in another three years, we’ll be a gold, and then a platinum.”

Ackerson also said the city will cite recent improvements in bicycle infrastructure in its application for renewal, including the reversion of Washington Street to accommodate two-way traffic downtown, as well as the elimination of moped parking on downtown bike racks and the addition of more covered bicycle racks in downtown parking ramps.

“The Washington Street one was an important change,” he said. “Prior to that being converted to two way, there was no convenient way to get through downtown to Madison Street.”

Another improvement highlighted in the reapplication process has been the addition of “sharrows,” or shared-lane arrows, on Dodge Street, though this has been the source of some frustration in the local cycling community.

“The first time I rode down Dodge [after the sharrows were installed], I was like, sharrows, that’s cool,” said Michael Chamberlain, the owner of the Broken Spoke, 602 S. Dubuque St. “But they’re all the way against the curb. A bike has no problem going 20, 25, 30 down Dodge, and they’re expected to be like 6 inches from the curb with cars that are also going to be passing?”

Chamberlain, whose shop sponsors Think Bicycles, a coalition that promotes bicycle culture in Johnson County, said he called Ackerson that morning when he arrived at the shop.

“It turns out that the contractor they hired to paint the sharrows did it wrong,” Chamberlain said. “What they were doing was putting the stencil right up against the curb.”

Pete Hartley, a mechanic at The Broken Spoke, said he was also taken aback by the placement of the sharrows.

“Sharrows are cool,” he said. “We like sharrows. The thing about sharrows, they’re supposed to say this is a good route, this is a safe route — but on Dodge, you’re riding in the gutter.”

Chamberlain said guidelines state that sharrows are to be placed a minimum of 4 feet from the curb, measured from the center of the sharrow, but he emphasized that’s the minimum requirement.

“There’s no reason those sharrows shouldn’t be smack dab in the right lane,” he said. “That’s one of the things Think Bicycles is going to push for, having the Dodge sharrows fixed, just having them bigger and in the middle of the lane.”

He said after his call, the rest of the sharrows were painted the correct, 4-foot distance from the curb.

Ackerson said the city has more improvements planned, including a recommendation for a “road diet,” or the transitioning of a roadway from four lanes of traffic to three.

“Going from four lanes down to three reduces collisions and doesn’t reduce the capacity of the roadway,” he said. “The benefit for cyclists is, when you remove that extra lane, you’ve got extra room you can set aside for bike lanes. That’ll be a pretty visible improvement that we’re going to do this fall.”

Ackerson also said one recommendation in the city’s plan is for the installation of designated bicycle routes, which he said would be chosen based upon their suitability.

“We’re not going to make a bike route on Burlington,” he said, adding part of the problem concerning bicycle traffic is the influx of new students each fall, who may be unaware of traffic patterns and may therefore find it difficult to ride their bikes around town.

Ackerson said new students tend to ride where they would drive, which may not always be the safest bicycle route.

“Riding on the arterial streets isn’t the best or most comfortable,” he said. “The bike routes will help get people to those parallel routes.”

Ackerson said he remains optimistic about the city’s chances at a more prestigious level of designation from the League of American Bicyclists.

“I feel confident that we’ll be able to get this [silver], and maybe the gold here soon,” he said.

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