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After starting college last fall, Helaina Thompson quickly learned biking was the way to get around campus, and that’s spread to other aspects of her life.

On weekends, the 19-year-old University of Iowa student totes her bike back to her parents’ house in Cedar Rapids to commute to work shifts at NewBo City Market.

On a recent weekday morning, with a messenger bag slung over her shoulder and bike helmet snug on her head, she wove her Giant hybrid bicycle through neighborhoods and busy streets, along bike lanes and on trails from Dubuque Street in Iowa City to her summer job at UI’s research park in Coralville. The 20-mile round trip commute to Coralville takes up to 45 minutes each way, and it’s worth it, she said.

“I think I’ll keep it up and save the gas money,” Thompson said.

Biking is fun, free, fast and eliminates battles for parking, she said.

Thompson is one of a growing number of bike commuters in Eastern Iowa and around the nation. A recent survey by the U.S. Census Bureau found that bike commuting to work has increased 61 percent in the past decade — up to about 786,000 people.

Local and state transportation officials said they recognize the demand and are ratcheting up their efforts to be more bike friendly, with amenities for commuting and leisure cycling, though it is hard to measure how much progress is being made.

The push for more cycling resources aligns with other Iowa priorities, too, such as Blue Zone health initiatives, economic development and quality-of-life improvements appealing to workers and employers.

New trails

Cedar Rapids has added 21 miles of bike lanes, shared road arrows and wide shoulder roads since 2008, and the city plans to add 10 additional miles this year, said Ron Griffith, the city’s bike coordinator and a project engineer.

City transit buses now include bike racks, and Griffith is helping develop a “complete streets” plan, which would require most road projects be designed for use by bikes and pedestrians in addition to cars.

That plan should be submitted for approval in July, Griffith said.

A city’s walkability and bikeability are desired features of a Blue Zone, a healthy community designation being sought by Cedar Rapids, Marion and Iowa City. The Iowa Bicycle Coalition and the Iowa Department of Economic Development produced a Complete Streets Strategies blueprint for communities to increase walking and cycling.

Some employers also are responding to the demand. Intermec Technologies, for example, included bike amenities in its new multimillion-dollar facility opened in downtown Cedar Rapids in 2013.

Paul Fiegen bikes daily from his home in Ely to Intermec, where he finds indoor bike parking and a place to shower and change. His 20-mile round-trip commute was part of a life change the helped him lose 80 pounds, he said.

“Cedar Rapids’ goal is to become a vibrant community that is attractive to employers and young people and is a healthy place to live,” Griffith said.

Recognition

As a reward for its efforts, Cedar Rapids earned a “bike friendly” community bronze designation from the League of American Cyclists. Iowa City is regarded as Iowa’s most “bike friendly” city, with a silver designation in 2013.

As a state, Iowa slipped a couple notches to the No. 25 most-bike-friendly state in 2013, although its score increased from 2012. Iowa received the worst score possible — a 1 of 5 — for funding and infrastructure.

“It shows that a lot of states are doing a lot for biking right now, and Iowa isn’t going to increase its ranking without improving funding,” said Ken McLeod, a legal specialist at the League of American Cyclists in Washington D.C. “It seems like Iowa has perhaps been the same for a while, while other states are making progress.”

Milly Ortiz, the bicycle-pedestrian coordinator for the Iowa Department of Transportation, said Iowa wants to improve its bike friendliness but was docked on the score card because not all investments in biking are tracked.

Mobility

For Thompson, bike amenities are now an expectation that will influence where she settles down.

Aside from a pothole-induced wreck in Iowa City a few weeks ago, Thompson said life on the bike has been relaxing, safe and much better than being stuck in traffic.

“It’s really easy and enjoyable,” Thompson said of her Cedar Rapids commute. “The majority of it is along the bike trail, and it’s gorgeous. I love starting my mornings like that.”

Young adults increasingly want to live somewhere they can have mobility, and they want it without the need for a car.

A recent 10-city survey of millennials released by the Rockefeller Foundation and Transportation for America found that more than 77 percent of 18- to 35-year-olds want to live and work in a place where they aren’t reliant on automobiles.

Also, 80 percent want a wide range of transportation options, such as public transit, car- and bike-sharing services, and pedestrian friendly streets, and 54 percent would consider moving to another city if it offered a wider, better range of options for getting around.

Measuring investment

While city and state leaders said they are responding to the demand for bike amenities, it is hard to measure how much progress is being made.

There’s not a good way to capture investment because it comes from a variety of federal, state and local sources — and it isn’t tracked in a coordinated way.

By looking at a few different sources, you can get a glimpse at spending for cycling, but it is not comprehensive.

Cedar Rapids has budgeted $1.4 million for trails in its 2015 budget, and the Corridor Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) said its trails budget is climbing from $300,000 in 2015, to $4.1 million combined for 2016 and 2017, and $5 million for 2018, according to Brandon Whyte, multimodal transportation planner for MPO.

The CEMAR trail connecting Marion and Cedar Rapids — which should be complete in 2017 — and a trail along Edgewood Road in 2017-2018 are key projects, Whyte said.

“Infrastructure-wise I think we are doing fantastic,” Whyte said. “The trail system is fairly robust, although it is not as connected as it could be.”

Kent Ralston of the MPO of Johnson County said his organization is receiving less funding for trails. The biggest approved project on the organization’s master plan for 2012-2020 is a pedestrian bridge over Interstate 80 along Dubuque Street, although Ralston said it is merely a planning document.

Participation rates in Iowa

It’s also hard to measure how much people are taking advantage of the amenities.

The U.S. Census Bureau estimates about .5 percent of the Iowa work force commutes by bike, which is a statistic some question because of the small sample size.

•As a state, .35 percent of workers aged 16 and older commuted bike as of the 2000 Census. The figure increased .5 percent as of the 2006-2008 American Community Survey and has held steady at about 7,600 bike commuters through the 2008-12 American Community Survey.

•Johnson County saw bike commuting climb from 1.5 percent of the work force to about 2 percent in the 2006-2008 sample to about 2.3 percent or about 1,700 people in 2008-2012.

•Linn County saw bike commuting climb from .29 percent in 2000 to .5 percent in the 2006-2008 measure, and slip to .4 percent, or about 440 people, in the most recent survey.

Whyte said he’d be “shocked” if Linn County was losing bike commuters. He said ridership is closer to .6 or .7 percent in the Cedar Rapids area and much higher when factoring in leisure riders.

Cities such as Portland, re., Chicago and Minneapolis, and Copenhagen in Denmark have become the envy of cycling-enthusiasts.

Features such as protected bike lanes with a physical barrier between cyclists and traffic, bike-share programs that work similar to a Redbox, and well-planned routes have fostered robust biking communities.

The ideas serve as models for other cities, including Cedar Rapids, which is exploring protected bike lanes.

“Safety in numbers is a factor,” Whyte said. “Once we reach a certain number of cyclists on the road, the cyclists who had safety concerns will feel more comfortable getting out.”


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