July 17, 2014

A few years ago, I was in San Luis Obispo, California, headed down a one-way street to visit the historic Spanish mission. I was in a right turning lane that fed the mission and had a green light. I turned right and nearly hit a bicyclist in a right bike lane that ran adjacent to the road.

Green arrow and right turn, but the expected reaction from the driver is to look in the rear-view mirror? Someone can die if you don't?

I felt terrible. But the thusly arranged bike path was just not an element I expected to encounter in driving - having to look right, past your passenger side, to a right lane to see if there's a bike headed in the same direction.

In Arlington, Virginia, just outside of Washington, D.C., where I lived for four years, I had the same experience in 2012.

And I've spent a lot of time in Boulder, Colorado.

And Seattle. And Portland, Oregon. All big bike cities.

So I am no stranger to the scene. But there is an adaptation period for those of us rural Iowans not accustomed to mixed-use roads. A tractor, yeah. We are ready for that. But bicycles zooming around?

The experiences in California and Virginia affirmed my belief that Carroll should move ahead with off-street trails, even if we have to phase them in over years at a higher cost than on-street trails.

Having mothers with strollers and kids on bikes with nothing but a painted line, some art depicting bicycles blasted on the streets, separating the vulnerable from cars and trucks seems to be a cost-cutting measure that we could end up paying for in blood.

I said several prayers of thanks that I was not the cause of tragedy on the coasts due to my relative inexperience with bike trails.

I'm 44. I've lived outside of Carroll. Visited 48 states. And the introduction of bike lanes confused me, caught me off-guard.

What about older, more isolated drivers? How are they going to adapt to bike lanes?

"We need to be cautious as to how we want to approach these things," said Mayor Adam Schweers, who said the off-street approach also presents advantages for obtaining grant money.

All of this considered, Craig Erickson, a landscape architect with West Des Moines-based Shive-Hattery, has proposed a blend of on- and off-street bike trails for the city's planned intracity system.

He said the public can be educated to handle the new elements associated with driving with bike lanes in the streets.

Other cities are doing it, he correctly says.

It's the least-disruptive, and most-cost-effective, Erickson adds.

Along Main Street, just south of the Union Pacific Railroad tracks, on the east, across from Rancho Grande, a Shive-Hattery plan envisions changing the parking protocol from diagonal drive-in, to diagonal back-in to accommodate an on-street bike lane. Drivers would move forward into the roadway, not slowly back out.

This, Erickson says, is the way it's done in Europe.

Fair enough.

But do you want to be part of the experiment in transatlantic adaptation?

I'm afraid some of our newspaper's coverage of this effort will be on the obituary pages. Driving is among the most instinctive things we do, and a radical change in the rules of the road is going to go over differently here than in Europe or Boulder or even the East Village of Des Moines.