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In honor of RAGBRAI—The Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa—pedaling through south-central Iowa this week, I will focus this week’s column on bicycles and things I don’t understand. 

Photo © 2009 Stan Brewer
Column by Shoshana Hebshi
In honor of RAGBRAI—The Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa—pedaling through south-central Iowa this week, I will focus this week’s column on bicycles and things I don’t understand.
This will include my comparisons between California and Iowa (the two places I have extended experience cycling). It will also take note of the benefits and dangers of bicycling across Iowa (because I’ve experienced these). Finally, it will include some previous reporting I did for a sociology class last fall (to help shed some light on the future of cycling in Iowa).
I generally don’t find disclaimers necessary. Things are said or written and don’t often need to be couched by some preceding warning or alert, but this column could get a bit touchy, as the subject of bicycling is an emotional as well as physical one. Especially for me.
I spend a lot of time on my bike. I ride around town, often toting my 3-year-old twin boys around in a Burley trailer behind me. I love being able to transport myself without a car, and I love that Des Moines is a small enough city that I don’t have to ride 10 or 20 miles to get from one place to another. Riding around town gives me exercise and helps me feel good about reducing my carbon footprint. But it also worries me and scares me, especially when I am pulling my boys.
Cars in this town don’t seem especially fond of bicyclists. I’ve been the recipient of shouted curse words while legally crossing an intersection, swerved at by big, noisy pickups on country roads and scared onto the sidewalk on umpteen occasions. It seems like a strange predicament in an area that has such a rich bicycle legacy with the occurrence of RAGBRAI every summer.
The weeklong bike ride from the Missouri to Mississippi Rivers attracts more than 10,000 people each year from all over the world. Last year, my husband’s and my first time on RAGBRAI, we took an informal poll of riders and found that only about 20 percent came from Iowa. But the Iowans in the towns along the route were more than welcoming and excited to have the riders come through. 
I don’t understand how a state that has such hospitable inhabitants during RAGBRAI can be so inhospitable to bicyclists the other 51 weeks of the year.
Of course, I am generalizing. There are plenty of cautious, road-sharing drivers in Iowa, and I know it takes just a few unfortunate incidents to ruin a community’s reputation. I also know there are plenty of cyclists who don’t follow traffic laws and are hazards as well. But where I come from, these unsafe feelings on the road just don’t exist to this degree.
When I lived in San Francisco, I commuted by bike to work every day. My ride was about three miles and took about 30 minutes door to door. All the roads I took were busy city streets, but they were striped with bike lanes. Even with city buses, traffic, light rail cars and a parade of pedestrian traffic every inch of the way, I felt much safer riding there than I do here in Des Moines.
It was with this conundrum that I put a call into Angela Dalton, coordinator of Des Moines’ Bike to Work Week and bicycle advocate. She told me the bicycling scene in Des Moines has significantly grown in the last decades; more people are riding for recreation and transportation. She advocates for safer roads, and, in working with the local bicycle coalition, she has been instrumental in actualizing that vision. I asked her to rate Des Moines and Iowa separately on a scale of 1 to 10 in terms of bike safety, 10 being the safest.
For Des Moines she said: “We have gotten better over the years with bike lanes, racks on buses, Bike to Work Week, bike parking, and trail connections. I believe it has increased from a 5 to 8 (doing better than the state as a whole).”
As for Iowa as a whole: “Iowa has improved because with the IDOT (Iowa Department of Transportation) implemented wide paved shoulders and the Iowa Bicycle Coalition is pushing more communities to implement Complete Streets policies. It has probably increased from a 5 to a 7 today. We have some counties that are trying to implement policies that detract from the bicycle friendly status that we currently have with farm-to-market roads. If that continues the states ‘rating’ will decrease considerably.”
This last part is disconcerting, but with an increasing number of riders out there, perhaps there will be enough bike traffic that people will just get used to sharing the road. And, perhaps, those hundreds and thousands of hospitable RAGBRAI hosts along the route each year will carry on their welcoming and generous attitude when they get behind the wheel and encounter cyclists on the roads.

Shoshana Hebshi is completing her master’s degree in journalism at Iowa State University and blogging at 

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