Young Professionals (Juice file photo)

(Juice file photo)

Are new bike lanes a step toward being a next-gen city?

Published on August 30th, 2013 | by Josh Hafner

The city of Des Moines showed its true transit stripes last week with the completion of three new bike lanes stretching across downtown.

Cycling advocates called the lanes a key step for transit, but city leaders hope they will lure young professionals seeking a sleeker, more urban lifestyle.

The new features include designated bike lanes on Locust Street and Grand Avenue spanning from Western Gateway Park east to the Capitol. Connecting the two streets is a one-way bike lane running north on Fifth Avenue against auto traffic, the only “contraflow” lane in Iowa.

The lanes are one part of the city’s Bicycle and Trail Master Plan, which calls for cyclist-friendly improvements downtown as well as in northeast and south Des Moines. The plan’s goals include improving health and energy usage, but officials speak of another end: attracting young people to the city, particularly downtown.

“I just sense from the young professionals moving downtown that they’re interested in other transits,” said Christine Hensley, a longtime city council member overseeing downtown. “If you go downtown and look into the offices where you can see in — you can see bikes.”

If you build it, they might come (slowly)

Whether the downtown lanes will draw urbanites or simply take space from automobiles remains to be seen. The city counted an average of 227 cyclists daily along Ingersoll Avenue’s bike lane during the warmer months of 2012, about two years after its inclusion.

To encourage more cycling downtown, planners of the city’s downtown bus station that debuted last year included a secured bike storage area. They may have been ahead of the trend: Only 12 people currently use the space, DART spokesman Gunnar Olson said, but 44,000 people have used on-bus bike racks in the past year, up from 17,470 during the racks’ first year in 2006.

When architecht Tim Bungert, 27, relocated from West Des Moines to Beaverdale, he made sure he had a bike trail that could connect him to his downtown job in 30 minutes or less.

Bike lanes in downtown and elsewhere may seem empty now, Bungert said, but give it time: “It’s kind of a ‘Field of Dreams’ setup: If you build it, they will come.”

Gravitating to different transit modes

About one-third of a percent of Des Moines commuters bike to work, census data show, compared to four percent in cities like Minneapolis. But that number in Des Moines and elsewhere may increase as more millennials enter the workforce.

A spring 2013 study analyzing transportation preferences of millennials by the Public Interest Research Group found them more likely to desire urban, walkable environments than older ones and to connect with one another in ways that don’t involve driving.

Spencer Shireman, 24, lives in and bikes to work downtown and sees the lanes as part of an “urban shift” his generation is drawn to rather than a passing fad.

“I don’t see my dad jumping on a bike to go to brunch. But my wife and I do all the time,” he said. “The whole idea of moving to Waukee and spending 45 minutes in the car each way (to work) is really unappealing.”

Jennifer Bohac, Des Moines’ traffic and transportation engineer, said the city is already hearing about startup companies downtown whose younger employees want more bike parking.

“People want options and to not always get into their car,” she said. “To be that next generation city, I think we really need to focus on being multi-mobile.”

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About the Author

covers young professionals for The Des Moines Register. Josh can be reached at or on Twitter via @joshhafner.

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