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How to be safe and prevent accidents or injuries when riding your bike around town.

Bicycle sales and rentals are way up, but in at least one way cyclists are safer this year than last: Bike-car collisions are dramatically down in Iowa.

The seemingly counterintuitive trends reported by some retailers and state officials can be attributed to fewer motorized vehicles on roads.

Between March — when the first positive coronavirus cases were reported in Iowa — and June, the number of vehicle-to-bicycle crashes in the state fell 34% over 2019, from 117 to 77.

Meanwhile, retailers like Bike World have more than 4,000 bicycles on backorder. 

“It’s been absolutely mind-boggling,” said Bif Ridgway, sales manager for Bike World, one of Iowa’s largest bike retailers. “Our last two months have been the two biggest months we’ve ever had in 40 years of history.”

The Street Collective, formerly known as the Des Moines Bicycle Collective, has also sold more bicycles this year than last year at this time, said spokesperson Mike Armstrong. It’s not a record year, but after closing their store and going to online-only sales, it’s beyond expectations, he said.

The group’s BCycle bike share program, where riders can pay to rent bikes by the hour, has seen a 20% increase in business this year compared to last year, Armstrong said.

Scott Bents of Des Moines says he sees the trends on the trails, which he believes are far busier than in previous years.

Bents had commuted to work on a bicycle for more than five years, but he’s been working from home since the early days of COVID-19 here. Instead of biking six miles to and from the Capitol complex each day, he now has more time to bike on trails with his twin daughters, Keira and Nora.

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Scott Bents rides his e-bike near his Des Moines home with his twin daughters Keira and Nora Tuesday, July 28, 2020. (Photo: Zach Boyden-Holmes/The Register)

“I feel like there’s just been a huge increase in people riding bikes,” Bents said. “I’ve also seen a lot of families out recently who look like they’re fairly new to riding, and they’re just out riding with their kids and having fun.”

The Des Moines Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) uses infrared counters to track the number of bicyclists and pedestrians using the trails. But data from the counters won’t be available until later this summer or fall, said Sreyoshi Chakraborty, the program’s director.

Those numbers are expected to confirm the suspected surge in trail usage.

“I joke that my bell is getting a greater workout than ever before because there’re just so many people out,” said Mark Wyatt, executive director of the Iowa Bicycle Coalition, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Coralville.

Fewer accidents during lockdown

Iowa in the past decade has recorded an average of 140 bicycle-vehicle collisions during the months of March through June, according to data from the Iowa Department of Transportation. This year’s rate of 77 is the lowest in a decade.

The March-June review roughly corresponds to the key months when state leaders shut down businesses and working from home became more of the norm, decreasing traffic.

Overall roadway traffic is down about 30% from March 13 to July 23, according to DOT data.

Wyatt, from the bicycle coalition, said the decrease in bicycle-vehiclecrashes makes sense. Less exposure means fewer opportunities for collisions, he reasoned. He believes the “safety in numbers” theory may also be at play — that more bicyclists on roads has increased their visibility and made drivers more aware of them.

Cara Hamaan, assistant clinical professor at the University of Iowa, studies transportation safety with an emphasis on vulnerable road users such as pedestrians and bicyclists. She said there’s evidence for the “safety in numbers theory” in places such as the Netherlands where lots of bicyclists ride on the roads.

But Hamaan said she’s skeptical that “safety in numbers” is contributing to the downward collision trends in Iowa. There aren’t enough bicyclists for that to be the case, she said. 

“I don’t think we’re close enough to that (number) here in Iowa for that to really be the what’s happening,” she said. “I really think the decrease that we’ve seen here is more related to fewer cars being on the road.”

Building safer streets

Bents has had his fair share of close calls with vehicles. While he tries to take the trails, which he says are less stressful, he said those aren’t always the most direct route.

“Des Moines is kind of geared more towards recreational cycling,” he said, explaining how taking city streets is faster if you’re biking for transportation or commuting to work. 

Once when he was riding to work via Kingman Boulevard, Bents was hit by a pickup truck that was making a left turn and didn’t see him, even though he was wearing a high-visibility vest and two headlights. He wasn’t injured.

“It’s something that scares you, and I think it makes you uncomfortable to ride on the streets for a while,” he said. “It’s not something I would want anyone to experience.”

The solution, Bents said, is to build safer streets for bicyclists. To him, that means slowing down traffic, trying to limit the number of vehicles on streets with bike routes and building protected or buffered bike lanes.

“Not everybody can bike at 20 miles an hour,” Bents said. “If we want to get more people riding, we have to build roads that allow people of all abilities to bike safely and comfortably.”

Jeff Wiggins, Des Moines’ transportation planner, also commutes to work via bicycle. Narrowing car lanes, adding bike lanes and creating bump-outs to curbs can help decrease traffic speed and make roadways safer for cyclists, he said.

More: This is the man who will make Des Moines bikeable

“The quick answer is, ‘Oh, let’s throw in a speed bump or some sort of traffic calming measure,'” Wiggins said. “But looking at it from a systemic perspective, there are lots of things that can be done in terms of geometry, the design of the actual roadway itself.”

There are multiple projects in the pipeline to make streets more bike-friendly as part of the city’s MoveDSM transportation plan. One section is Franklin Avenue between Merle Hay and Beaver roads, which is getting buffered bicycle lanes as part of a recent redesign. Another is downtown’s Cherry Street, which will get slimmed down to two vehicle lanes with buffered lanes for bicycles. 

For Bents, who gives Des Moines’ streets a B or C rating for safety and bicycle accessibility, changes like these are what’s needed to get more people out on the roads using their bicycles for transport.

“It’s hard to tell someone just to ‘suck it up’ and ride on the streets if they don’t feel safe doing it, and the streets are literally not safe for biking,” he said.

Follow the Register on Facebook and Twitter for more news.  Maya Miller can be contacted at [email protected] or on Twitter @mmillerDSM.

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