Selections from The Des Moines Register

A proposal to alter the Great Western Trail will show just how much clout the bike community has.

When R.T. Rybak, the former mayor of notoriously bike-friendly Minneapolis, visited Des Moines last year, local bike advocates were eager to pick his brain.

How was a wintry Midwestern city able to build so many trails and bike lanes? Can it be done in Des Moines?

Rybak’s advice: Build a constituency; show the political clout of the bike community.

As cyclists in Minneapolis became more vocal, politicians learned that being pro-bike was a winning strategy. Failing to support bike projects could get you voted out of office, he said.

In metro Des Moines, cyclists have not enjoyed the same sway. City Council members say they still hear from more opponents of bike lanes than supporters. Some plans to add bike lanes have been scrapped or scaled back.

But now, bike advocates seem to be flexing more political muscle.

A proposal to alter the Great Western Trail south of the city has mobilized cyclists and trail-lovers.

About 150 packed a Warren County Conservation Board meeting last month. More than 100 attended a recent West Des Moines meeting.

Local bike shops and advocacy groups such as Bike Iowa and the Des Moines Bicycle Collective are using Facebook and Twitter to get cyclists to attend meetings and lobby elected officials.

The bike community has always had vocal members, but the Great Western Trail proposal seems to have struck a nerve among even casual cyclists. The trail, which stretches more than 20 miles from Des Moines to Martensdale, is one of the area’s most popular.

West Des Moines wants to extend Veterans Parkway to create a bypass through Warren and Madison counties, which would open thousands of acres of farmland to new development.

The city’s initial plan would have placed the road next to the trail for about 1.6 miles.

Many cyclists oppose that plan, because it would turn a secluded and wooded trail into a roadside path.

At the Warren County Conservation Board meeting last month, trail advocates packed in, sitting on the floor and filling the building’s hallways and kitchen.

“It demonstrated the passion people feel about this issue,” conservation board director Jim Priebe said.

The board, which manages the trail, could vote at its Jan. 11 meeting on whether to allow West Des Moines to build Veterans Parkway adjacent to the trail. The meeting was moved to the Warren County administration building auditorium in Indianola to handle the expected crowd.

Scott Sumpter, founder of Bike Iowa, said the bike community’s influence is growing, but still needs more support. Cyclists organized rides and rallies at the Statehouse last year to lobby for a law requiring drivers to change lanes when passing bikes, but the bill died in the House.

Before the last election, Bike Iowa published a voting guide, showing how lawmakers voted on the bike-passing bill. The organization plans to lobby for it again this year.

“I think we have (policy makers') ear more than we used to, but I don’t feel like we have the total clout,” Sumpter said. “Unfortunately, it takes cyclists getting killed for it to gain any attention.”

In addition to passing laws, cyclists have advocated for protected bike lanes and other infrastructure that make streets safer for cyclists.

A turning point for some bike advocates came in 2015, when well-known local cyclist Wade Franck was hit and killed by a drunk driver. Marc Hollander said Franck's death prompted more cyclists to organize and demand safer streets and bike-friendly policies.

“I think more and more people are getting involved, and we’ll hear from more voices,” he said. “Can we be like Minneapolis? I don’t know, but I would love that.”


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