InTrans / Oct 28, 2015

Clearing the street: DSMove is an active Open Streets movement in Des Moines, Iowa

Go! Magazine

Aerial street viewposted on October 28, 2015

So far this month we’ve talked about some types of street “movements” and their benefits to communities and people across the globe (see “Creating active communities: The Open Streets movement”). But I was interested in learning that there is an Open Streets movement a bit closer to home—in Des Moines, Iowa. It’s known simply as “DSMove.”

To understand more about the planning and execution of such an event, I talked with Jennifer Sayers of the Drake Neighborhood Association (DNA) in Des Moines. As a previous member of the Des Moines Bicycle Collective (the main sponsor of DSMove), she talks about her experience in this unique effort.

A conversation with Jennifer Sayers

When did DSMove start?

The first DSMove happened in 2013 on a Sunday. For the past three events, it has been held on a Sunday afternoon between 23rd and 41st Streets on University Avenue, which is in the Drake (University) neighborhood. It was all started by a few of the Des Moines Bicycle Collective founders after learning about other Open Streets movements in cities like Minneapolis and Kansas City. These cities were really influential and helped the Bicycle Collective imagine what the movement would look like in Des Moines.

Initially, the Bicycle Collective was unsure about where it could be located. At that point, I was working with both the Bicycle Collective and the Drake Neighborhood Association. I offered my neighborhood as a possible location, and when I proposed it at our meeting the DNA board voted yes.

Can you talk a little more about the public-private partnership involved?

This is a very costly event for anyone to put together, and so the Bicycle Collective realized they needed to work together with many of the neighborhood groups to make it possible. For all three years, the Drake Neighborhood Association assisted along with another group called the Friends of Southwest 9th. However, in order to raise enough money, we had to include the public and work to get sponsors. Additionally, the Bicycle Collective has applied for and received grants from Polk County, Iowa, including one in 2014. This year we did not get any grants from Polk County, but the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO), City of Des Moines, Drake Neighborhood Association, and Drake University all partnered.

This year we charged a small fee to the vendors participating to help keep the event free to the public. It was just a $25 registration fee. We figured that the low cost fee would not act as a barrier to local vendors, especially since it is tax deductible.

How many people attend?

I’m not sure what the number was this year yet. We usually get anywhere between 3,000-5,000 people.

Have you seen other activities related to this pop up since you started?

Yes, the Friends of Southwest 9th have an Open Streets event that they do on their own. For their first year, they attended meetings with the Bike Collective to learn how to put on the event and now successfully run their own event. Last year the City of Urbandale had one event. Most recently an Iowa State University student reached out to me because they have one in Ames, Iowa, that they do as well. Since the Ames event is usually funded with grants, they wanted to know how to partner with community businesses in case the grant resources are no longer available in the future.

Why is this important to the Drake neighborhood?

I think it’s a huge benefit to the neighborhood to shut down such a busy stretch of road that many people take for granted as main thorough fare. To get it closed down is kind of phenomenal. You always see people close down neighborhood streets for a block party, but hardly ever do you see a four-lane road closed down. Ultimately, this is a great way for neighbors to come out and meet and see one another, try new food, and to learn more about local vendor businesses. We try to reach out to vendors within the neighborhood border, but we also have businesses and organizations from all over that attend.

What is the goal of DSMove?

The primary goal has always been about getting people out and moving, whether its walking, biking, rollerblading, or whatever else. It’s nice because we shut down such a long stretch (1.3 miles) so people can be active in different ways. If the event was more condensed, it would be harder to get people moving. The health aspect is definitely a great benefit, too.

Has DSMove influenced any infrastructure changes for pedestrians or bicyclists?

I think this has spurred interest in getting safer bike routes through this particular neighborhood. People agree that since University Avenue is a very well-traveled road with all types of motorized vehicles (cars, trucks, and semis), it is not the safest place for bikes. Students at Drake University started an initiative to find safer route alternatives to the university, such as along Kingman Boulevard and through the Beaverdale neighborhood. It shows there is a need for safe bicycle routes around Drake University and in our neighborhood.

How hard is it to close down University Avenue?

When we first proposed the idea of closing down University Avenue, city officials looked at us like we were crazy. We were able to convince them by showing that we could work with Dart (the city bus system) to re-route the bus to the next street over. We had to put up several posters in advance about the re-route and the Drake Neighborhood Association offered to give rides to people to get to the next bus stop. Then the city was excited for the potential.

It is a huge undertaking to get that large of a stretch of road cut off to general motorists, who often don’t understand or want the change. You have to barricade streets and go a block out in each direction to put signs out. It takes a lot of planning and work to get the word out. We even put fliers on homes and talked to neighbors on the route about what the movement is all about.

When you first begin to put barricades out at the start of the event, people keep driving around them. This makes the first 10 to 15 minutes a little tricky. But then vendors are putting their stuff out in the middle of the street, so drivers can’t get through. Luckily we have never had an accident along the route. Sometimes people who don’t know anything about it will stop and check it out after realizing the road they need is closed.

Our society is so vehicle driven! It’s a little unfathomable to say you can’t drive on this street for four hours on a Sunday. Ultimately, it takes a lot of volunteer work to make an event like this possible.

By Jackie Nester, Go! Staff Writer

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