DES MOINES (AP) — Jeff Wiggins straps on a helmet, stashes his lunchbox in a pannier and jumps on his Surly touring bike for the four-mile ride from his home in the Drake neighborhood to downtown Des Moines.
It’s early February and there’s a fresh coat of white snow on the ground, but that doesn’t stop the city’s active transportation planner.
Wiggins, 47, cycles to work most days.
He was hired in December to make it easier for Des Moines residents to leave their cars at home and find alternative modes of transportation.
It’s a new position for the city, one of 16 new jobs made possible by a 12-cent increase to the city’s property tax rate this year, the Des Moines Register reported .
“The needle I want to move is ... how do we get people out walking and biking rather than just for fun?” Wiggins said.
That includes working with city officials to think beyond cars when planning road projects.
Des Moines has already started down that road. The city adopted a mobility plan last fall. Connect Downtown calls for eliminating nearly every one-way street downtown, reducing the number of vehicle lanes and growing the city’s network of bike lanes.
Another plan — MoveDSM — would apply the same bike- and pedestrian-friendly approach to neighborhoods. A final draft is expected in May.
Wiggins is tasked with other duties like helping Drake University develop more walkable spaces on campus and finding a way to incorporate bike lanes and sidewalks into the redesign of Sixth Avenue north of downtown.
“He’s going to have a very full plate because there are so many projects around the city that have been talked about, but the city hasn’t had the staffing capacity to address them,” said Larry James, chairman of the Urban Land Institute of Iowa.
Dozens of cycling advocates showed up to budget hearings last year to encourage city leaders to create the active transportation position. City Manager Scott Sanders backed the idea.
Des Moines employs traffic and civil engineers who plan roads and trails. But it did not have anyone focused on bike and pedestrian issues who could work across multiple departments.
“I want him to continuously be an advocate for biking and transit issues wherever possible because I feel like the city reverts to favoring motor vehicle transportation over everything else,” said Scott Bents, a member of the city’s Transportation Safety Committee.
Originally from suburban Chicago, Wiggins taught French at Coe College in Cedar Rapids for 13 years before a conversation over a beer sent him down a new path. It happened when a friend told him he should stop philosophizing about changing the world and do something.
He began studying urban planning and transportation at the University of Iowa. After earning another master’s degree he went to work in Cheyenne, Wyoming, where he helped create the city’s network of recreational trails.
Twelve years later he finds himself in Des Moines where his focus is more on streets than trails.
Wiggins bikes into downtown along the shoulder of Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway despite the recreational trail that runs along the road.
He’s not there for recreation, he said. Just like the motorists passing him on the slushy road, he’s trying to get to work.
Wiggins said not worried about improving roads for cyclists like himself — the ones already confident enough to bike alongside vehicle traffic.
“Our focus is the 60 percent in the middle, those who are interested (in riding on roads) but have concerns about doing it,” he said.