The Des Moines Register recently published an editorial in part promoting the extension of Martin Luther King drive through a new I-80 interchange to Ankeny. In response, Michael Baldus of the Neighborhood and Natural Recreation Protection Project ( wrote a guest column that was published today.

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Ingersoll Avenue is on its way to becoming a "Complete Street". The 6th Avenue revitalization project has identified "Complete Streets" as a goal of the infrastructure improvements. Beaverdale intends to remake a major neighborhood intersection to align with a "Complete Streets" philosophy. The City of Des Moines has adopted, over vocal objections of some business owners and residents, a general policy promoting "Complete Streets".

What is a Complete Street?

Bike-Friendly Street in Toronto: Copyright notice: This image was downloaded from Wikimedia Commons and is in the public domain.Bike-Friendly Street in Toronto: Copyright notice: This image was downloaded from Wikimedia Commons and is in the public domain.Beginning with the advent of the interstate highway system and the ensuing suburban construction explosion, streets have been designed with one overarching goal: to move cars as fast as possible from starting point to final destination. In contrast, Complete Streets refers to a roadway that is designed and operated with all users in mind - including bicyclists, public transportation vehicles and riders, and pedestrians of all ages and abilities.

A complete street is not necessarily urban. However, urban areas are inherently compatible with the complete streets philosophy - urbanity depends on density, layered uses, and interacting transportation networks. The idea behind an urban "Complete Streets" makeover is to consciously design and operate a roadway to take advantage of all that an urban environment has to offer.

A Complete Streets Extreme Makeover

Several weeks ago, I proposed removing a section of Interstate 235 that divides downtown from the neighborhoods to the north and slices through the heart of several established neighborhoods.

Ultimately, the city would be better served by a transportation network that links downtown to the rest of the city instead of providing a direct conduit to the suburbs.

UPDATE, 6/25/2010After a long discussion with my wife last night, I came up with the following clarification. I think the highway should lead to Downtown Des Moines as a destination by dumping out onto a "connector" that is tied to the street grid between 42nd street and the Capitol complex. This "complete streets" connector would be designed to do all of the following:

  • Move automobile traffic efficiently
  • Create a better relationship between downtown and the neighborhoods to the north
  • Layer transportation systems (pedestrian bike, auto, and transit) into a street that works for many different "trip types"
  • Promote more efficient use of the existing urban street grid
  • Take pressure off the streets that currently feed limited access points to the highway

But what would replace the Interstate? A Complete Street, of course! Let's see what that might look like:

Mixed-Use Complete Streets Replacement for Interstate 235: A potential design for reclaiming Interstate 235 through downtown Des Moines as a "Complete Street".Mixed-Use Complete Streets Replacement for Interstate 235: A potential design for reclaiming Interstate 235 through downtown Des Moines as a "Complete Street".

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The online forums are filled with people complaining about the new bike lanes on Ingersoll. People who claim to have previously shopped at stores on Ingersoll are boasting that they have "taken their business" to West Des Moines because of the new bike lanes and will "never drive down Ingersoll again. (My guess is those people never did a whole lot of shopping on Ingersoll to begin with).

Mars Cafe Bike Night PosterMars Cafe Bike Night PosterThe hills are alive with extreme claims that the bike lanes will be the end of business on Ingersoll.

If they are concerned about business falling off, businesses on Ingersoll should take a page from Mars Cafe's brilliant playbook and embrace the bike culture. Every Tuesday evening is "Bike Night" at Mars Cafe - riding a bike there gets you drink specials and happy hour prices all night long if you come with a group.

Here are some other ideas for Ingersoll businesses to take advantage of the transportation upgrade:

  1. Biker Specials - Copy Mars Cafe and offer discounts to patrons who arrive on two wheels.
  2. Bike Festival / Bike Show - Collaborate with local bike shops to host an annual Bike Show and kid-friendly Bike Parade.
  3. Bike Race - Host an annual bike race up the 42nd Street hill.
  4. Pre-RAGBRAI Bar Crawl - Bikers, get ready for RAGBRAI! Ingersoll Bars could host a pre-RAGBRAI bar crawl, where each bar represents one of the overnight towns.

What other events or promotions could build on the new bike lane asset?

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Interestingly, after posting the article today about removing the downtown portion of I-235 in order to promote development and reconnect downtown to the rest of the city, I received the following announcement. Local funding for the environmental impact study of the proposed north-south connector extending MLK to I-80 has been pulled, jeopardizing the project!

The MLK extension is a good idea from only one point of view: that of an Ankeny resident who works downtown. From just about every other perspective, it is a horrible plan.

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Most cities are scarred by freeways cutting through residential neighborhoods and downtowns. These highways have multiple commonly accepted negative impacts that include:

  • Long-lasting effects of the original construction such as removal of historic buildings, relocation of poor residents, and division of long-standing neighborhoods.
  • Facilitating suburban expansion at the expense of traditional neighborhoods. Highways encourage automobile use rather than public transportation.
  • Creation and maintenance of a physical separation between formerly connected neighborhoods. Restricted access highways are a physical barrier that prevents people from crossing - what was once a two-block trip may now take 12 blocks. Bridges and tunnel crossings are often unpleasant for pedestrians.
  • High cost of construction and maintenance for the road surface, bridges, and ramps. The complexity inherent in a highway ratchets up the cost of maintenance and construction.
  • Massive amounts of formerly productive land are utilized as circulation and buffer rather than generating taxes through intensive use.

40th Place Pedestrian Bridge40th Place Pedestrian BridgeDes Moines has done a comparatively good job of reconnecting across Interstate 235 for both pedestrians and automobiles. There are numerous pedestrian bridges between major cross streets. Streets like Cottage Grove connect through easily by automobile, bicycle, and foot to downtown amenities.

Generally speaking, it is my opinion that the introduction of highways within city borders has done much more damage than good. The highways themselves have become one of the primary drivers (so to speak) of our dependence on automobiles for personal transportation, economic stimulus, and as symbols of freedom. Instead of planning our cities around people, we now plan them around automobiles.

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Ingersoll Streetscape and Bike LaneIngersoll Streetscape and Bike LaneThe sky isn't falling!

With just over a month's worth of experience (in time for "Bike to Work Week"), Des Moines drivers and bicyclists seem to be adapting (with a few exceptions) to the lane revisions on Ingersoll.

My thoughts as a regular Ingersoll driver:

  • It is harder to make a left-hand turn onto Ingersoll from a side street or parking lot. With one lane of automobile traffic, the line of moving cars is longer and one must wait a little longer to cross over to the opposite lane.
  • The new lane striping makes drivers more conscientious. I see drivers being more cautious about entering traffic (and feel more cautious myself) - people are taking more time to look for cyclists?. Perhaps we just aren't used to the changes and things will go back to normal behavior in a few months.
  • Drivers are operating their cars more slowly. The new striping encourages slower driving. I'm sure this is a source of frustration to people who are used to weaving in and out of cars on a two-lane Ingersoll. It is actually better for business in a pedestrian-oriented district. However, the large plantings between traffic and the buildings partially negate this benefit because people in the slower-moving cars can't see signage and into the businesses.
  • Drivers don't know how to use a center turn lane correctly. Inevitably, a driver new to center turn lanes stops in (or halfway in) the traffic lane to wait for a left turn opportunity.
  • It doesn't take a whole lot longer to drive the length of Ingersoll. After reading some of the comments at, you'd think it now takes an hour and a half to drive two miles on Ingersoll. In reality, I haven't noticed a major difference (except for the left turn onto Ingersoll and for a few minutes during rush hour) from before. News flash: successful pedestrian commercial districts get crowded. People learn to expect it and plan accordingly. In fact, slowing cars down gives drivers the opportunity to notice the businesses on either side of the street! A "layered" space with pedestrians, cars, bikes, occupied outdoor spaces, and businesses lining the street is what we want for Ingersoll.
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One of the things I find fascinating about urban environments is the way they develop over time: layering the new over the worn, the advanced over the archaic, the contemporary over the dated. These layers build a rich history that can be read and understood by interpreting the physical environment.

6th Avenue Resurfacing - Brick Pavers6th Avenue Resurfacing - Brick Pavers

Sometimes we get to see these layers, like the rings of an old-growth tree or an onion sliced in half.

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Johnston Park and Ride at City HallJohnston Park and Ride at City HallJohnston City Council voted Monday to withdraw from the Des Moines Regional Transit Authority, effective in 18 months. There is currently one "express" route that connects Johnston City Hall to Downtown - the 91 line with two trips in the morning and two trips in the afternoon. City leaders cited lack of service and upcoming DART levy changes as reasons for the decision.

According the the Des Moines Register, the City of Johnston found 16 regular riders on the Northwest Express (91) line. Dividing the Johnston DART levy by the number of regular riders equates to an annual cost to the City of Johnston of approximately $12,000 per rider. If the annual levy is $192,000, dividing by the population of Johnston (13,600 as of 2006) equals a per capita annual contribution of $14.

The problem with Johnston's approach to this decision is two-fold.

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Due to heavy flooding at Gray's Lake, Hy-Vee Triathlon race officials were forced find an alternate site for the 2008 event. A huge amount of effort went in to logistics and planning to locate an acceptable venue. The event ended up in West Des Moines.

The two-year-old Hy-Vee Triathlon has decided to make the suburban move permanent - starting and ending at Raccoon River Park. According to WHO-TV:

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Sixth Avenue is a north-south thoroughfare forming the spine of the River Bend neighborhood. It runs more or less from downtown at the south to Interstate 80 (where it turns into NW 6th Drive). Along the way it strings together a variety of destinations including Mercy Medical Center and North High School as well as crossing I-235, University, and Euclid.

It is also, for the most part, underutilized and dreary, particularly for the pedestrian. Until now.

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