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A Closer Look: Jeff Wiggins

Transportation planner, city of Des Moines


Perhaps Jeff Wiggins didn’t take the most direct route to his newly created job as transportation planner in the Des Moines city manager’s office. 

After growing up in the Chicago area, he scored a bachelor’s degree in French and linguistics from Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis. Then he got a master’s in French literature from the University of Iowa. Then he added a master’s in urban and regional planning from UI.

With this knowledge of what makes cities tick, and a fascination with the world of planning, he decided to teach French at Coe College for six years. 

Figuring he had a 1 in 50 chance of getting tenure, and achieving that would mean another four years or so of college and a thesis, Wiggins decided to try another profession.

Like making it easier for people to bike and walk around town. 

That led to a long stint in Cheyenne, Wyo., where taxes are lower than in Des Moines but government budgets for transportation are far less predictable, Wiggins said. When he had a chance to jump to Des Moines, where another downtown boom has leaders looking to make it easier for pedestrians, bicyclists, bus riders and motorists, he jumped. He started the job Dec. 4.  

We caught up with him at Caribou Coffee for a little transportation talk. 

Your position is new to Des Moines city government. Why was it created? 
There was some advocacy at the community level. It was during the budget process last year, and folks said “now is the time” for a dedicated biking and pedestrian coordinator. They got a little bit of traction this year. I am in the office of the city manager. That gets me outside the silos that people can get stuck in. 

Can you elaborate on that? 
The engineering people are interested in getting things out the door. The planning people are interested in planning. The folks in parks and rec are doing (trails). Public works might have to tend to things out on the street. I will work with all those folks and the folks from the economic development department and the city manager’s office, only in so much that that is where my (office) is. That way I can work with all those disciplines and hopefully facilitate what they want to get to. 

Are walking and biking the focus of this position? 
I think so. It’s new. As you know, positions can evolve. But at least initially that is very much where they want to focus my efforts.

Do you have any perspective on why this position was seen as necessary versus having the Des Moines Area Metropolitan Planning Organization do this work? 
What MPO does is a little more of that long-range planning. It’s more about the planning than the implementation. They don’t get into the brass tacks of the actual design. There were a number of people doing a piece of the job. Frankly, in my previous position I was seen as the one and only booster advocating these kinds of things. It’s been a very pleasant surprise to come to Des Moines and see this chorus of people saying the same things that I say. 

What was your previous position? 
I worked for the city of Cheyenne, Wyo., for the past 11½  years. I was primarily working on trails but also pedestrian issues. 

What appealed to you about the Des Moines job?
What appealed was that there was a vision that is pretty well-established. I’m familiar with the bike plan that was done in ’11 or ’12. But more recently there was this Connect Downtown plan.

It’s been a couple-of- years project. That vision is critical to everything I’m going to do. There’s a well-thought-out vision. It’s exciting. There will be a domino effect of changing one thing and what that does down the line that they have done a good job thinking through. When you get down to design, that’s where I come in. 

What is your history with Des Moines?
I spent 13 years in Iowa before I went to Cheyenne. There was very little reason for me to come to Des Moines. I came over to the State Fair, went to bars and restaurants. I had friends here. But in terms of a destination, it was not my destination. I saw in the period I was here a couple of transformations that the city decided to take as an entity. The first was they decided to streamline the I-235 corridor through town. They rebuilt it, changed to right-lane exits. Everyone bound together in a community effort. Now it is a lot more straightforward. The second and more recent and more important shift since the flood of ’08 was downtown housing. There was a strong push. What we see in the East Village is a result of that. It makes it a place where people need to get around, and get around comfortably in. That is where I come in. 

The other big factor is Des Moines already has a very vibrant downtown. During the day, you know you are going to have activity downtown. But the question is how to make it 24/7. How to make it sticky, a place people want to linger. The more attractive and enticing you can make it, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

How will you gauge success in your job?
Making meaningful progress on the Connect Downtown plan. Making progress on (using more than one transportation option, including walking and biking) to commute to work. Nationwide, about 0.5 percent is what you can expect for biking on average. Des Moines is actually below that. Getting people to actually consider walking and biking as modes of transportation and not just a recreational endeavor. Iowa, including Des Moines and Central Iowa, has such an incredibly strong recreational base and bicycling culture. You don’t need to look any further than RAGBRAI. We need to get people to realize this isn’t just a toy — it’s a tool. 

What do you think about the East Village experiment with protected bike lanes and a narrowed street? 
That came out of the traffic and transportation department, the folks who will be my primary compatriots when we get back to City Hall (now under renovation). That is one of those pilot projects, those watershed moments. When I saw that they had implemented that, that was one of those “aha” moments. People aren’t just talking. They want to get things done. I think it’s worked pretty well. I checked it out. I’ve been seeing some notes and some usage data on it. There are a few refinements needed that we learned in the process in terms of where to place the line of bollards. Also in terms of how big the parking space should be relative to the buffer and the bike lane. 

The Connect Downtown plan commissioned by the city, Urban Land Institute Iowa and the Greater Des Moines Partnership contemplates narrowing Second Avenue, a major route in and out of Des Moines. Are you in favor 
of that?
I think that was envisioned for later years. You want to take your low-hanging fruit first and advertise it and celebrate it. Second and Third (avenues) are going to be a tough nut to crack. 

Overall, if we all slowly work toward the goals, we can achieve amazing things. I have no doubt we are on the right trajectory.

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