What I Saw in Ames

My early Saturday morning bike ride in Ames Iowa was just what I anticipated. The streets were desolate for the hour between 8:10 and 9:10. Except for a couple of dog walkers, the only human activity was curiously, loud roofing crews hammering in the middle class neighborhood, unquestionably Ames residents still sound asleep, tucked in under grandma’s quilt. What I was doing in Ames riding a girls three speed on a Saturday morning had more to do with getting the feel of the small town than a destination. On a previous trip I blogged information that I gathered from Google Maps and made general statements and I needed to prove to myself that what I said was true. So, yeah, it really is a fact that a bike ride across Ames takes about 15 minutes. Fact is I rode from the DOT lot to the Mall in 10 minutes, mostly meandering north on Clark street. I went as far north as Bloomington Road and then took somewhat of a circuitous route south towards the University ending up in Campus Town. Then over to towards Jack Trice stadium and back east to the apartment where I was staying. I’m guessing that I rode about 10 miles.

My impression of Ames is that a “new” residential area grew exponentially from the old town after WWII until the 1970’s and culminated with an enclosed Mall on the North edge of town, a decimated Main Street and fringe strips on Lincoln Way and Duff Ave. With Duff Ave. today the anchor for Target and Walmart stores among a smattering of fast food. The Mall zone defined the new consumer and would take Main Street business away for a couple of decades until it would succumb leaving JC Penny’s as the sole occupant. Duff Ave. defined what was to become the newest consumer. Here we have a laboratory of the American way of life since WWII that an armchair analysis can be made from a quicky observation.

Students riding bikes in Minneapolis winter of 2011 show that snow conditions don’t impede residents in Northern climates. If we can do this then you can do this. “There is no such thing as bad weather only  bad gear”, anonymous

Something felt strange to me that had to do with close zoning that limited sprawl  in the original Mall plan.  There was less than a handful of standalone eateries along Grand Ave. Possibly, this is what both doomed the mall as a destination and what might also save the mall for future development. Just like Main Street, the Mall space had boundaries that could not be breached. One aspect of Ames is that there is very little realestate that has been torn down. So with that I am going to presume that residential housing had precident when the Mall was zoned. This made for all intents and purposes an modern indoor space. Exciting at the time, but the newness has worn off long ago. Main Street has a better chance to spark a flame than the Mall. What is left for residents then is to shop primarily by car. For this visitor on a bike I feel there is a much better way to get around Ames. As I have found on my Saturday morning ride it can take no more than a 10 minute bike ride to get a jug of milk, a pound of butter and a dozen eggs.

Having the day ahead of me with my daughter there was just one break at noon in our schedule to visit the Skunk River bike shop on Main Street to talk with Wade, the general manager. There was one statistic that I came to understand better about the population of Ames. I had thought there was about 60,ooo full-time residents, Wade says there are approximately30 thousand students and 30 thousand full-time residents. This makes sense because the population density in Ames feels very suburban. Wade told me that the University and the city of Ames has historically been two separate entities. The students rarely go into Ames nowadays because they have a grubby bar scene on Welch Ave in Campus Town. Not so at the beginning of the 20th century and up until the 1930’s when there was an electric trolley that ran from campus to downtown Ames. With a long history of two distinct districts and the over reliance on the automobile Ames residents do not utilize bikes very often. One bright spot when I was leaving town on Sunday afternoon was a man bike riding from Duff Ave. on 4th street pulling a trailer loaded with a wooden door. For all of the great lazy streets to get around on there are a few residents that have the sense to use a bike for everyday tasks. 

Ames can be summed up in a couple of ideas to improve bike conditions. First, the sleepy streets are smooth, not a pot hole in sight. Just about 90 percent of all bike trips could be routed on residential streets, which is also good news. The real inhibitor for bike riding though is the schizophrenic separation that has plagued Ames for a century. The Campus of Iowa State is physically separated from the rest of Ames. It is really only across the Skunk River, a dry river bed, but it may as well be another city unto itself. The other situation in Ames which has created an unfriendly bike atmosphere is the Duff Ave. retail strip. This is the American strip that looks like, smells like and taste like $hit. Applebees is baiting the public along with Perkins in this mini sprawl.

So what do the people of Ames do? They are the American town, the picture of what Americans do.  I am told that many people actually walk to work if they live close by to the University or hospital. But, what is the matter with this picture?  For the majority of trips to the store or place of interest a car or truck is the main mode of transport. One identifier  is how Ames neighborhoods are laid out away from the center of town and retail is at the edge town. Even the dying downtown is at the edge of town across from a power plant and bordered by an active rail line. If there was a way to get this town to start bike riding I would give it this suggestion. The two main roads that bisect Ames need to mandate lower speed limits and lau down striped bike lanes. The multilane Lincoln Way is impeding University students from taking a direct route into Ames downtown. Ames residents are frightened to ride on Lincoln Way. And on Grand Avenue where bikes are prohibited there also is a need to have slower speeds and a bike lane. I observed a lawn sign that is heading in the right direction for bike riding to succeed in Ames. The sign read ” Keep our Kids Alive, Drive 25. Even at 25 miles per hour this speed is too fast. The small town of Ames could use a 20 mph speed limit on town streets and this would eliminate the fear of automobiles that is evident and a prevailing perception of bike riders. Slower speeds are important for behavior change. If you don’t believe me then what do you think higher speeds are doing to the behavior of drivers and bike riders?

An automobile driver would see that a 3 mile trip to the store for instance by car now takes 6 minutes at 30 mph. It would take only and additional 3 minutes driving at 20 mph and it would be an additional 12 minutes by bicycle at 10 mph. Can the people of Ames become mainstream bike riders and set the pace for the latest and newest consumer who is breaking the mold in America’s towns and cities? Wait and see. The key is lower speed limits. Get out and ride a bike and leave your car at home.

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1 Comment

Filed under bike advocacy

One response to “What I Saw in Ames

  1. “Love does not dominate; it cultivates.” ~ Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

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