I think it was during my third RAGBRAI (the Des Moines Register's Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa) that it hit me: No cars. I was biking along a wide stretch of roadway with no tribulations, no residual fear, no apprehensions that cars would be speeding around me from behind or passing one another and coming close to me.
All at once, I was overcome with a wonderful sense of freedom. Sure, there were bikes aplenty, but that was a given for this weeklong ride across Iowa. I could live with that. But what I realized with almost a yelp of exultation was that the concrete was mine.
It was like being back in third grade when the teacher was called out of the room. When she didn't come back in five minutes, we glanced around at each other, our smiles becoming laughs, and soon we were a squirming mass, jumping from one desk to another. We had command of the classroom. We had freedom. (Of course, when she reappeared ... Oh, well, that's another story.)
Remembering that RAGBRAI exultation of car-free travel brought to mind a movement called Car-Free, or Open Streets, that is going on all over the globe and is giving people a taste of that freedom. Cities in South America, Canada, Europe and the United States — including Chicago, New York and even smaller places such as Spartanburg, S.C. — are closing down significant streets or avenues to powered vehicles during special events and filling them with all manner of human-powered movers — bicyclists, walkers, etc.
Chicago, for instance, closes much of Lake Shore Drive to motor vehicles for its annual “Bike the Drive." Some 20,000 citizens enjoy biking where it would usually be impossible.
What about right here in the Quad-Cities? Wouldn't a car-free event be a real plus for the area? On a stretch of roadway usually filled with motorized traffic, we would have masses of people on bikes, skateboards or roller-skates; people running, jogging or just simply strolling. On the sides of the street, kiosks of food, drink and entertainment would be inviting resting places. There would be no routes that had to be followed, no schedules to adhere to; people could just do what caught their fancy. But it would have to be done by human power, not with a motorized vehicle.
It could be a stand-alone event, or part of one that has been around for a while. And it would be held on a summer morning, probably a Sunday. That way, it wouldn't interfere with the normal flow of workday traffic.
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It wouldn't have to involve miles and miles of closed roadway. No, six, seven or 10 blocks would be sufficient, especially if people could go back and forth using both sides of the traffic lanes.
Where could we have such unrepresented events in the Quad-Cities? Many options are available, but combining an Open Streets initiative with our riverfronts would seem to be a natural since they lend an historical authenticity, along with long stretches of parkland nestled on the sides of our incomparable river. Our River Drives in Davenport, Rock Island and Moline leap to mind. And streets adjacent to Bettendorf's and East Moline's downtowns shine attractively.
There's more to such an event than a fun summer biking, running or walking outing for individuals and the entire family..
According to the Alliance for Biking and Walking, “Open Streets initiatives provide more than just opportunities for physical exercise; they are an exercise in building community, cultural identity, and social engagement. One big benefit is the interaction that occurs between participants as they develop a wider understanding of their city, each other, and the very real potential for making streets friendlier to all people.”
By adding this Open Street “opening,” our combined cities would capitalize on the bicycle-friendly environment that they have worked so hard to achieve during modern bicycle times. They would bring people to normally traffic-filled streets and perhaps bring forth a yelp of car-fee exhilaration as they realize the potential of biking in the city.
What might go along with that yelp is an inkling of what urban biking can be: Freedom.