Des Moines Scraps Protected Bike Lanes

It was big news in Central Iowa yesterday that the city of Des Moines has decided to remove protected bike lanes through the East Village, a vibrant, urban neighborhood that connects downtown to the state capitol.   It was the lead story on the evening news.  With the exception of RAGBRAI, I can’t remember the last time bicycling led the news cycle.


The “protected” bike lanes on East Grand Avenue are no more.

I suspect that I’m a minority voice in the cycling community here, but I don’t think this is such a bad thing.  These lanes were poorly executed right out of the gate.  Motorists weren’t given any warning when they went in and many drivers found them to be confusing as a result.  Count me among them.  When I drove through this area, they were very hard to see and understand.  The cyclists who used them were virtually invisible from the traffic lane.   I say this as a cyclist myself.  I knew what to look for and still struggled.    If you’re not a cyclist, I suspect you wouldn’t have a clue.

There was also a constant stream of people walking in the lanes as they parked their cars and headed for the shops and restaurants on the other side of the bike lane.   Most didn’t realize they were crossing a traffic lane, even if the traffic was people on bicycles.   Add it all up and you have a scenario that’s far more dangerous for cyclists than riding along with cars on a street when nobody’s going more than 20-25 mph.

I went out and looked on Google Maps and before these lanes were built there were sharrows here.  Sharrows were perfect for this location in so many ways.   The street is almost always crowded and speeds seldom exceed 30 mph.  There are numerous stop lights and motorists are always weaving in and out of parking spots.  It’s the perfect environment for everyone to share the road.  In fact, the absolute safest place for a cyclist in this environment is in the middle of the traffic lane where he or she is most visible.   I’ll never understand why the city felt compelled to mess with it.

I realize that a lot of cyclists like their safe spaces and I don’t mean to step on anyone’s toes, but poorly designed infrastructure like this doesn’t make anyone safer.  It frustrates motorists who then take reckless chances.  It mitigates one set of risks and replaces them with another set…one that most cyclists never think about.  Yes, Virginia, there are crashes on the cycle path.

Our elected officials and advocates need to do better.  You can’t just slop this stuff together and expect it to work.  These folks need to recognize that for the most part protected bike lanes belong next to high speed arterials where the speed differential between motorist and cyclist is the most extreme.  As average speed differentials fall, the need for protection falls right along with them.

I doubt this is going to happen.  The people who advocate the loudest for protected bike lanes are almost always the advocates, consultants and engineers who benefit financially from building them.  They exploit (whether intentionally or not) the typical cyclist’s fear of being struck by a car or truck and sell it to the cycling community as “safety” but this is not necessarily the case.  The biggest risk we cyclists face is not that we might be hit by a motor vehicle, but rather we might fall or crash into an inanimate object. Poorly designed infrastructure like these protected lanes makes this kind of crash more likely.

For those who view this as a loss, I’d like you to reconsider.  All is not lost here.  The plan is to replace the protected lanes along East Grand with more traditional striped lanes.  They will be buffered to greatly reduce the risk of dooring, but not protected.  Speeds in the adjacent traffic lane will remain low.   Cyclists will be more visible than they were hiding behind a row of parked cars.  It’s less likely that clueless pedestrians will stagger in front of us as we pass.  Buffered lanes are a better treatment for this particular stretch of road than protected bike lanes.   A return to the original sharrows would have been even better still.


Mind Numbing Pain

The muscle that lives under the shoulder blade (I think it’s one of the Rhomboids) has been giving me trouble the last couple of days.  It started as a dull ache late Tuesday night and by 3:00 AM Thursday had grown so painful that I needed to go to the Emergency Room at the local hospital.  That’s kind of a big deal.  I haven’t been to a hospital or even to see a doctor in decades.


So this is how my consecutive days streak is going to end, I remember thinking to myself as I sat waiting for the doc.   I also remember thinking that it would be okay.  After three sleepless nights, the last thing I cared about at that particular moment was getting on the bike.  I just wanted the pain to go away.  I just wanted a little sleep.

For those of you who don’t know, I’ve gotten on the bike and gone at least five miles for the last 860 days.  Most days I’ve gone considerably more…a total of over 28,000 miles which averages out to about thirty three miles per day.  This is my resume on the bike.   I’ve never accomplished anything of any significance that a lot of other people haven’t accomplished and that’s okay.  The streak is mine and I like that it is.

We were home from the ER by 4:00 AM…an hour door to door.  That’s yet another advantage of living in a small town.  When we got home I managed to get a few hours of sleep, thanks to the combination of Flexeril and Toradol.  I don’t do drugs, prescription or otherwise, and so I can’t tell you which was the pill and which was the shot into my left cheek.  It didn’t matter.  The combination worked.  I got a little sleep even if it meant that I missed my first predawn ride since way back in late January when the temperature plunged to -26 degrees F.

Later, after I woke up, I asked  Jan if she’d go for a walk with me that afternoon.  I had no intention of getting on the bike and hunching over the bars.  No, she informed me.  She was going to ride.  I was welcome to tag along if I wanted to, and so I did.  It was nothing fancy…just a quick seven miles down to the Raccoon River bridge and back and then around the neighborhood.   Consecutive day 861 was in the books.

Today will be 862, not that it matters.  My shoulder and back still ache this morning, though not as badly as they did.  I’m slowly recovering and that’s good.    I’m not going to push it.  Seven to ten miles is just fine.  We’ll worry about tomorrow when it rolls around.

I have felt a little self-conscious about the streak for some time now.  I worry that people might have the wrong idea, that it’s some sort of macho, ironman thing with me.  It’s not that at all.  Trust me.  When you ride a lot it takes very little energy to cover five miles.   It feels a little like the equivalent of walking from the living room to the kitchen.  If the streak is about anything at all, it’s about the mindset that there are some days when it’s just not possible to bicycle.  I’ve found that this is not the case, and I guess that’s really what I was trying to prove to myself all along.

There are very few days when I don’t want to get on the bike.   Yesterday was one of those days.  The good news is that there are no days at all when I don’t feel better after riding than I felt before riding.  Yesterday was that, too and to me that’s the real magic of bicycling.  The bicycle heals…physically, emotionally, spiritually.

And so I hope you get out and get a few miles in today.  I hope it makes you smile.  I already know it will make you feel better.  Ride on.



My Beautiful River

“I would be annoyed if I were any more in tune with modern sensibilities. I was shaped differently.” – John Graves, Goodbye to a River

There was fog in the valley. I noticed it as I rode through it and it filled my lungs with cool wet air but I didn’t pay it any mind. There was no traffic so I didn’t have to worry about being seen. The sun was just coming up. I climbed out of the river valley and turned around where I always turn around and only then did I see just how outrageously beautiful it was.

Raccoon River southwest of Jefferson, May 3, 2019

Meet the  north fork of the Raccoon River, my constant companion as I cycle through and around Greene County.   I’ve come to love this river like no other.   It’s not very long nor is it very wide, but it sits in a valley lined with trees.  Those trees are full of bald eagles.  I’ve seen them many times.  I’ve also seen deer and fox and bobcat.   I almost ran the bobcat over but it was faster than I am.  For the record, I was going about 20 mph and it was pulling away.

The Raccoon River Basin. We’re on the northernmost, longest fork.

The Raccoon River Valley is hard to miss as it passes through Greene County from northwest to southeast.

I don’t think most people give rivers much thought.  If you’re in a car driving along, you’re over them in no time at all.   The speed with which you travel marginalizes the river.  It makes it seem small and insignificant.   Take Nebraska’s Platte, for example.   When you’re on the adjacent interstate highway, it doesn’t seem like much and yet it was a source of life for countless settlers on their way west along the Oregon and Mormon trails.  Get off the highway at Kearney and visit the nearby state recreation area and only then will you understand what an amazing river the Platte is.

It took my bike to make me understand this.  Rivers are magical when you visit them by bicycle. You start by hurtling downhill into the valley carved by the river and then you labor as you climb out the other side.  In between, there are usually incredible riparian wetlands teeming with life.  A river is a magical place.

Fog rising from the Raccoon River at sunrise, May 3, 2019

River crossing south of Jefferson.

Running full and deep during this year’s spring melt

Even in the pre-dawn winter, the river is a special place.

Our river is dam free.   That makes it a bit of an oddity.  We Americans are a dam(n) building people.   We like to subjugate nature…to show it who’s boss.  Sometimes nature has other ideas.  Because it is dam free, my beautiful river floods.  Earlier this year it took out the bridge on the trail just south of town.  That’s a major inconvenience that renders the trail pretty much useless to most folks.  I was talking to a friend earlier this week who said he hasn’t been on his bike all year.   That’s a shame.

I wish that bridge hadn’t failed, but I think it’s a fair trade-off for a wild and free river.  It hasn’t been that bad.  It has forced me to take the road less traveled and that’s fine with me.  I’ve seen more of the river and the more I see, the more I realize what a treasure it is.

A few years back, a group of kayakers from Des Moines took a journey down our river.  They discovered what people had long feared.  Farming practices around here have filled the river with nitrates.  It’s not that the farmer’s don’t care.  I’m convinced they do.  Some  build buffers to filter the run off.  Others are slowly changing the way they manage the soil and that includes dumping less chemicals on crops.  I see this and am encouraged by it.

Even so, modern life is so focused on producing more that a little old river doesn’t have much of a chance.   That’s a shame.  I think that if more people got out on their bicycles and saw the things that I see just about every day that they might be more inclined to push back and reprioritize.  My beautiful river is pretty special.  It’s worth saving so that long after I’m gone others will continue to seek it out as a source of comfort, solitude and great joy.


The Roads Are Alright

Gravel is not pavement.  I assumed everyone understood this.  I was wrong.  As I’ve been out cycling on rural roads, I’ve come to the unmistakable conclusion that some most people seem to believe you can drive a car or SUV as fast on gravel as you can on pavement without consequences.  If these people are from the Paved World of Cityland, it can almost be forgiven.

But when they’re from out here it really makes me scratch my head in disbelief.  I mean, all it took for me to understand was one ride on wet gravel.  The road was far more slippery than I would have expected.  I fell…hard.  Then I got up, slowed down, paid more attention and it hasn’t been a problem since.

Slowing down is the key.  There was a video posted by one of the Des Moines media outlets this morning about a motorist down in Warren County who was bellyaching about the roads and how somebody needed to do something because they’re in bad shape.  I don’t know this guy and so I don’t know what he’s thinking, but it sounded to me like his real issue was that he couldn’t go as fast as he would like to and so he wanted somebody to do something about it.  It’s easier and cheaper to just slow down until the road dries out later today or tomorrow.  Slowing down solves just about every problem you’re likely to have on the road.

Here in Greene County, I think the local road department messes with the roads far too much. They’re constantly grading and dumping load after load of fresh gravel and sand on them.  When they do, it makes it easy for people in cars to zip along at 60 or 70 mph when they really should be going about 40 mph.   It makes it almost impossible to bike, but I’ve never seen another cyclist out here so I doubt we’re even a consideration.


Manicured so that people in cars can go fast.    Not so good for bicyclists.

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Enter at your own risk.  I like that.

And that’s okay because I learned long ago to follow my inner voice and do what pleases me.   Most of the motorists I encounter are kind enough.  They’re not really in a rush.  They’ve just been conditioned to drive as they do by society, culture and car company commercials that show people doing idiotic things with their vehicles.  When I come across them, they move over to pass.  What they don’t do is slow down.  They never slow down.  Better to wreck their $50,000 F Whatever than to slow down.  I’m sure they don’t think of it that way, but that’s the way it looks from the saddle of a bicycle.

And so as time goes on, I find myself seeking out minimum maintenance B roads.  They’re adorned with warning signs that discourage all but the most thrill-seeking motorists.  Those who head down them at speed will soon discover that broken axles are a real thing.  That tends to discourage the next guy or gal.   We don’t have enough of these roads.  It wouldn’t break my heart if the whole county was minimum maintenance, especially since you’re never more than two or three miles from pavement out here.  My taxes would go down, too…another good thing.

All of this is to say that the roads don’t need fixing.   They’re just fine the way they are.  If anything at all needs fixing, it’s the mindset that driving at speed is a fundamental human right.  It’s not.   Life is better when you slow down and see the world.  Ride on.

Why I Love the Grid for Bicycle Friendliness

As a bicyclist, I love the great wide open.  There’s nothing better than being out in the back of beyond and rolling through the miles.  Sometimes, though, I have to ride a little closer to home…with cars and trucks all around.  When I do, I prefer to do so in a place that has a traditional grid of streets.  It doesn’t much matter to me if the place is big or small, as long as there’s a grid.  Here are the top three reasons why I feel this way:

  • The grid is connected.
  • The grid is redundant.
  • The grid is easy to navigate.

Maybe you’ve never thought about this.  I think about it all the time.  For a visual of what I mean, check out the graphic below.  One of the two images is connected, redundant and easy to navigate.   The other isn’t.  One encourages walking and cycling.  The other encourages driving and actually discourages everything else. The differences couldn’t be more obvious.


I’ve found that grids work equally well in small towns and big cities.  This might seem counter intuitive, but I’ve always found it to be pretty easy to cycle through the heart of major cities and for a long time I wondered why. It’s the grid.  I’ve cycled in downtown Dallas, Denver, Des Moines, Indianapolis, Omaha, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, Portland, Salt Lake City and Seattle to name a few.  I’ve also done it in more compact cities like Boise, Cedar Falls, Cheyenne, Jackson, Lincoln, Missoula, Ogden, Peoria and Pueblo and too many small towns to mention.  All of these places have trails and some protected infrastructure, but it only goes so far.   All of these places have a grid of streets, too, and sooner or later that’s where I end up.   When I do, it’s mostly pure bliss.


On the grid in Las Vegas New Mexico.  Cycling here was intuitive, easy and delightful.

There’s a reason for this and it goes back to the three points I referenced earlier.  The grid is connected, redundant and easy to navigate.  Let’s take a slightly deeper dive.


Most communities with grids were developed before World War II when the average family didn’t own an automobile.  Most communities without grids were developed later when cars were common.  You won’t find many grids in Suburbia and that’s because the world had changed to all car, always by the time Suburbia was developed.  In a sense, Suburbia really was built around the automobile and it’s obvious in the two images above.   Cars can cover greater distances faster and so direct access isn’t as critical.  Roads can meander.  It’s no big deal, unless you don’t have a motor.  Some newer suburbs are starting to build bike paths between cul-de-sacs but it’s very hit or miss and not at all intuitive.


Grids not only connect, they give you multiple choices to get from here to there.  If 1st Avenue is closed, you can jog left and take 2nd Avenue instead.  Good luck trying that in cul-de-sac-ville.   It’s almost impossible.   There’s another advantage of redundancy that isn’t as obvious.   People in cars also have more choices in terms of how to get where they’re going.  That means you’re likely to find less traffic and congestion on any single route.  Less traffic and congestion leads to less motorist frustration and that leads to slower average speeds and less risk taking.  These are good things if you’re a bicyclist.


Grids are laid out in a way that makes fundamental sense.  This might be north-south-east and west, but not always.  Sometimes the grid is at right angles to a major geographic feature such as a river or a railroad that bisects a community.   This isn’t a big problem.   Streets in a grid are typically named in a manner that aids navigation.  Here in Jefferson, our east-west streets are named for presidents and our north-south streets are named for trees.   If you’re on Cedar or Elm, you’re heading north or south.  If you’re on Lincoln or Washington, you’re heading east or west.  It’s about as easy as it gets, even if you’ve never been here before.

Only now are we beginning to understand that the way we have designed our communities for the last seventy five years discourages any mode of transit that doesn’t involve a motor.   This is wasteful and is no longer working for a lot of us.  That’s why grids are coming back.   As an everyday cyclist knowing what I now know, I will never again live in a community without a grid. If you’re serious about cycling, I can’t stress this enough.  Apply the grid test before making a move.  In my mind, this is more important than all the bicycle friendly infrastructure in the world.



Some Thoughts on Suburban Cycle Paths

I was in Colorado this past weekend and had a chance to sample some of the cycle paths in and around Lone Tree, a suburban enclave south of Denver.  This is a (mostly) brand new community that stretches into the bluffs that separate metro Denver from Castle Rock.   When my wife and I lived near here in the 1980s, I never imagined anything would be built on this treeless, rattlesnake-infested hillside but here it was in all its resplendent glory.

On the surface, it looks and feels amazing.  The homes are big and spectacular with price tags to match…$1 million or so according to Zillow.  There are hills and meandering trails.  It’s a true lifestyle community, the kind so popular with people who want to live the Rocky Mountain High dream.

That said, it just didn’t feel right to me.  I have this theory about bicycle infrastructure.  If it makes passage easy, it’s good.  If it’s superfluous or creates obstacles, it’s not good.   Right out of the gate, I got superfluous in the form of a series of overpasses with cliche phrases etched above.  They were hard to miss.  They felt a bit condescending.


They should do this on freeway bridges.  Motorists would love it.


Who knew?


There were more, but you get the idea.

Next came the obstacles.  The first was the spectacular bridge over Lincoln Avenue.  It was beautiful to look at while at the same time a literal nightmare to cross.  I knew it was going to be trouble right out of the gate because the suspension tower was placed directly in the middle of the path.  You had to work your way around it and there wasn’t a lot of room.  I wondered what it might be like on a nice day with a lot of other cyclists and pedestrians around.   As it was, I had it to myself.  More on that in a minute.


Lincoln Avenue bridge.


It might not seem like a big deal, but we don’t place support towers in the middle of highways.  Why do we do it on cycle paths?


The cover was a nice thought, but obviously ineffective.


The north ramps posed another challenge.


The north entrance.  Yikes.


The bridge was icy due to the weather.   There’s nothing you can do about that, but there was frozen condensation on the main deck and the cover that was designed (apparently) to keep it dry was an obvious failure.  What’s worse, it would likely delay melting since it prevents sunlight from reaching the deck.  Then there was the north entrance.  It could not have been less welcoming if they’d posted a sign that said “Danger, Keep Out.”

As bad as the bridge was, the box culverts under C-470 and adjacent County Line Road were even worse.  I found myself thinking that there is absolutely no way I’d want a loved one on this stretch of trail.  It was dark and dank and probably dangerous, too.  The lighting was inadequate but it really didn’t matter since most of it wasn’t working.


This looks like fun.


What could possibly go wrong here?

Nothing about cycling here was easy.  Route finding was a constant challenge. In spite of a completed trail network with adequate signage, the trails meandered all over the place.  I constantly found myself on spurs that led to streets where I was forced to cycle in the typical on-street gutter lanes so common across most of the rest of America.  Don’t get me wrong.  I know that given a few days I’d figure this out so it wasn’t a huge deal.  Still…


Signage was good, but I still found it difficult to follow the main trail.


What would life be without a little time in the gutter?

I realize this probably all sounds pretty negative and I wouldn’t even go here except for the fact that I learned something important while cycling through Lone Tree.   These trails are not about cycling at all.  They are, first and foremost, a marketing prop used by the developer to sell million dollar homes.  They’re not honest and genuine.  They’re not real.  It seems obvious in hindsight.

And that’s a problem because bicycle infrastructure that discourages cycling is worse than no bicycle infrastructure at all.  In spite of the snow, I expected to see a few cyclists out and about on Saturday morning in fitness crazy metro Denver.   I didn’t see a single one.   In fact, I really didn’t see many people at all.  There was a woman walking a dog and a man with an umbrella.  That was it.

Maybe none of this matters to you and if not, that’s great.   These are just the observations of someone who likes to use a bike to get from here to there.  In spite of the fact that this area looked really promising on Google Maps and even from the car windows as we drove up, it’s not really the kind of place I’d like to cycle every day.  Lesson learned.


Rides I’d Forgotten

While I was in Omaha last Saturday, I stopped at the Apple store to have them look at my old vintage 2012 MacBook Pro.  The computer unexpectedly died on me shortly after moving to Iowa in 2017.  I figured the hard drive failed.  Because I was busy at the time and had a Windows notebook I could use as a backup, I just let it sit.  Last week I finally decided to do something about it.  Turns out it was a cable, not the hard drive.  Less than an hour and $100 later, I had my computer back.

I knew I had some pictures from old rides on this computer.  I assumed that they were lost but they weren’t.  I’ve spent the last couple of days looking at them and have they ever brought back the memories.  I’m going to back them up.  Won’t get fooled again.

Anyway, I wanted to share a few of of them with you.  They probably won’t mean as much to you as they do to me, but still…  We live in a beautiful world.  I never really understood just how beautiful until I got on my bike and slowed down.  Hope you have a great day and have the opportunity to get out and enjoy yourself!


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Indianapolis, 2013.  Part of my motivation to get back on the bike.

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Surfside Beach, SC – 2014.  I rented this fixxie and rode up and down the beach for a couple of hours.

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Someday I’ll come back and ride the whole thing.

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Salsa Mukluk.   Phat Tire Bike Shop, Bentonville Arkansas, 2015.  At the time, I never dreamed I’d one day own a bike like this.  Now I do!

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My first “real” MTB experience.  East Bench, Ogden Utah.

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My old Specialized Hardrock, Council Bluffs Iowa

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Happy Jack Road, Wyoming.  I need to get back out here and explore some more.

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Bike share bikes.  Boise State University, home of…

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…the famous blue turf!

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East side, Pueblo Colorado 2016

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Grand Teton, Wyoming.  It was cloudy and wet when I left Jackson.  

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High above Ogden Utah.  Breathtaking.  Spectacular.