Today's guest article comes from Bob Sharpe, a new resident of a small town in Iowa who's been pleasantly surprised by how easy it is to bike in.


 Jefferson's town square remains the center and focal point of the community

Jefferson's town square remains the center and focal point of the community

The first time my wife and I rolled into Jefferson, Iowa, we kept on rolling.  We were new to Iowa and still learning the lay of the land.  We had our eyes on a house in a slightly larger town a little further up the road. Jefferson looked nice enough, but it felt too small (population 4,100) and too remote (66 miles from Des Moines). 

We came to this corner of Iowa in search of a (mostly) motorless future.  Our journey had already taken us from suburban Indianapolis to an urban neighborhood with access to commuter rail in Ogden, Utah.   Both of those places talked the bike friendly talk, but neither of them had managed to pull it off in practice.  Motorists were harried.  Bike theft was rampant.  It just wasn't working for us.

We were starting to wonder if we'd made yet another mistake coming here, but we figured we'd just move on if that was the case.  Turns out we didn't need to.  We found ourselves in Jefferson again a few weeks later and this time we stayed. We haven't regretted our decision.  We've finally found the pedestrian and bicycle friendly community we were looking for.  It was hiding in plain sight.

So what makes this little town on the Iowa prairie so different from our previous stops and what can other communities learn from it?   Our biggest takeaway is that  seemingly insignificant things matter more than grand plans.  If your goal is to build an amazing network of protected bicycle infrastructure, it's going to take a long time and a lot of money.  What happens in the meantime? 

In many cases, the answer is “not much.”  When it comes down to it, we don't have the luxury of waiting for America to come around to our way of thinking.  Maybe that's a bit more obvious in a place like Jefferson.  You can choose to work with what you have and make the most of it.   You can focus on creating the culture organically (push) instead of pouring concrete (pull). 

 Jefferson's bike-friendly nature has roots in its location on the Raccoon River Valley Trail, a regional rail trail that connects the town to the state capital in Des Moines.

Jefferson's bike-friendly nature has roots in its location on the Raccoon River Valley Trail, a regional rail trail that connects the town to the state capital in Des Moines.

I call it the “back to the future” approach.  Because post World War II growth mostly passed Jefferson by, we don't have the suburban development that so many other places have.  Our original grid of streets is still intact.  It hasn't been consumed by auto-oriented design, and so it still feeds the town square instead of serving as arterial pass-throughs to the highway out past the edge of town.  I call it “Old Urbanism." 

As I cycle through town, Jefferson doesn't feel all that different than the urban neighborhoods I've cycled through in cities as different as Minneapolis,  Pittsburgh and Salt Lake City.  Those neighborhoods have the same deep roots, narrow streets and local businesses that we have. People who live in them tend to stay close to home.  The only real difference between them and Jefferson is that they're one of many while we're “stand alone.” 

The traditional (or "legacy") grid is the common thread that ties these old urban neighborhoods and small towns together.  Motorists, cyclists and pedestrians tend to get along in these places in ways they don't elsewhere.  If you've ever cycled through the heart of a big city, you probably understand.  Everything is close to everything else, so you're only a few minutes from your destination. Here in Jefferson, many intersections don't even have stop or yield signs.  This means that you have to navigate the streets much as you would a parking lot — with caution.

Jefferson has some advantages that not all small towns or urban neighborhoods share.  We're located on the far end of the Raccoon River Valley Trail.  It's possible to cycle all the way to the state capital in Des Moines on paved trails.  We've also participated in the Des Moines Register's Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa (RAGBRAI) and seen the economic and social impact of having over 10,000 bicyclists pass through town.  Business owners understand that cyclists can help their businesses thrive and so they've thrown out the welcome mat.   Jefferson has its own bicycle friendly business program.

 The local HyVee grocery store is located in town rather than out on the edge which makes it accessible by more modes of transportation than just cars.

The local HyVee grocery store is located in town rather than out on the edge which makes it accessible by more modes of transportation than just cars.

We've also benefited from a few visionary decisions.   Regional grocer HyVee built a modern supermarket here, but instead of placing it out by the highway as is so common, they integrated it into the existing street grid. There's plenty of parking for cars, but you can approach it from any direction on the map and so it's naturally easy to get to on foot or a bicycle.  Our schools are also on the grid, though there are plans to build a new high school out on the highway.  This is disappointing, but it's also a reminder that we always have to be vigilant.  It's easy to slip back into old ways.

The biggest challenge that communities like Jefferson face is the perception that there's simply no opportunity here.   This is not entirely true.  In terms of the relationship between cost of living and the amount of money you can earn, we're certainly more in balance than a place like San Francisco.  The average salary will buy you the average house here.   Our local phone company wired the town with fiber optic cable some time back, so high speed connections to the Cloud are available.  You can work remotely and do even better financially.  We have a nice mix of restaurants and places to mingle, though you're often mingling with the same people. And the bike-friendly nature of our town means that we can keep our household transportation spending to a minimum.

Jefferson isn't all that unique.   The lessons we've learned can be ported to just about anyplace else from small towns on the Great Plains to neighborhood enclaves in large cities across America.  They should be.  I've spent enough time in Copenhagen, Amsterdam and Malmo to realize that the world's truly great bicycle friendly places had lots of bicyclists before they had lots of infrastructure.  Change the culture.  Create cyclists... more than you can possibly imagine.   If you do, then the built environment will naturally follow.

(All photos by R. J. Sharpe)



About the Author

Bob Sharpe is an everyday cyclist and League of American Bicyclists Certified Cycling Instructor based in Jefferson Iowa.  He has biked through big cities and small towns all over America and been to some of the most bicycle friendly cities on the planet including Amsterdam, Copenhagen and Malmö.  His company, Pedalfree LLC, works with companies and organizations who are interested in creating a more bicycle friendly environment for all stakeholders.