Small Towns, Big Ideas

It’s RAGBRAI week in Iowa and that means that cycling is leading the news cycle right now.  There are a great many multi-day tours these days but there’s something about Iowa’s that remains special.  I think it’s our small towns.  I get the feeling that there are an awful lot of people who live in big cities and endless suburbs who would love to move to a more right-sized place if only they could.  RAGBRAI is a temporary escape to a simpler and (in many ways) better time.

Anita was the first Iowa town I cycled through when we moved here in 2017.  It was a pass through town on Day 2 of RAGBRAI this year.


And so they continue to come.  By some counts, 18,000 rode on Wednesday when the tour skirted the Des Moines metro area.   Last summer we had over 30,000 visitors stay with us in Jefferson when RAGBRAI passed through.  These are serious numbers.  It’s really a shame the buzz doesn’t last into August.

Be that as it may, Iowa small towns and cycling really do go together and not just for one week each summer. I have this theory that life in the city is too fast paced and hectic for most people to consider cycling as transportation.  It is perceived as too dangerous or too time consuming.  Out here in the boondocks, the pace of life is more aligned with how our brains are wired.  Distances are shorter.  Traffic is relatively light.  Speeds are low.   It’s often easier and faster to cycle than drive, and it leads to all sorts of serendipitous outcomes.

I was speaking with Lesley Bartholomew of Le Mars earlier this week.  She’s on the Executive Board of PlyWood Trail, Inc, a not-for-profit whose mission is to build a connecting trail from Le Mars to Sioux City. I am especially intrigued with this particular project because it’s being promoted not only as a recreational resource but also a transportation corridor.  Maybe someday in the future it will be as natural to cycle between these two communities as it is to drive today.  You have to start somewhere, and the folks in Le Mar are thinking big.  I like that.

le mars
Iowa BBQ Company, Le Mars.   Unlocked bikes outside businesses are a common site in Iowa’s small towns.

Le Mars is already a pretty connected place for cyclists.  Jan and I were there earlier this year and had the opportunity to cycle around town on existing trails and streets.  It was clear that a lot of thoughtfulness had gone into the design of the local trail system.  Stores and businesses (including the giant Wells Blue Bunny complex south of town) were all connected.  It was very easy to get around by bike.   If I was looking for a new home…a place where I could bike everywhere…Le Mars would be on my short list.

Much has been written about the resurgence of cycling and how it’s mostly a big city thing, but all across Iowa small towns are busy making themselves more connected and more bicycle friendly.  Infrastructure is the easy part.  I like to tell local leaders in Jefferson that every street is a bicycle route here.  There’s really no reason you can’t cycle on even on the busiest streets in town.

The real challenge for our small towns isn’t to build bike lanes, but rather to change the way people think about bicycles and how they fit into the community.  We humans don’t much care for change.  It’s easier to accept it after it happens than on the way in, and so I think that  people who just get out and cycle and show everyone else how to do it are doing far more good than they realize.  This is especially true in small towns where one more bike and one less car is statistically significant and noticeable.

Regional trails that parallel highways and connect communities are already common here in Iowa.

If there’s a fundamental difference between big cities and small towns when it comes to cycling, it’s this:  Big city advocates are working hard to separate cyclists from other forms of traffic.  Small towns, on the other hand, offer the opportunity to integrate cycling into the very fabric of the place.  The former is divisive.  The latter is inclusive.  Big difference.

My goal is not to live in a community where I am walled off and herded into bike lanes for my own good.  My goal is to live in a place where cyclists are everywhere.  Iowa’s small towns are closer to that than any other place I’ve been…at least in the United States.


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