I’m what you might call an “urban enthusiast.” My entire life could be connected by a short latitudinal span of about five miles, from the River Market to the Plaza. Because my world requires little more than what I can access within my tight geographical bubble, I don’t find it unusual to bicycle, rather than drive, from Point A to Point B. My fiancé and I skip the horrendous Saturday morning parking at City Market by bicycling to the farmer’s market when the weather is nice. We bike to eliminate cab fare when we meet friends at bars. While working in the Crossroads Arts District, my commute home was just four minutes by bike, thanks to several crosswalks and one really big, really fun downhill coast. I love downtown Kansas City so much I can actually relate to those “Live, Work, Play” billboards you see along the highways leading to downtown, begging suburbanites to move back to the city limits.
However, my routine changed last year. I quit my job to start my own business, and, as a solopreneur (one-person business owner), I don’t have a fixed office where I spend my 9-to-5’s. My work is done all over town, from sales meetings in Overland Park to networking events at the Kauffman Foundation and everywhere else inbetween. My bubble has had to expand, and commuting via bicycle isn’t so simple anymore. In truth, the ease (or difficulty) of commuting affects our entire city, not just me.
Biking isn’t just a fun, recreational activity reserved for the trails –and commuting by bike isn’t just for tree-huggers, either. Commuting by bike can, and does, have a tremendously positive effect on the well-being of the entire Kansas City community.
If we focus solely on the money, there can be an enormous personal economic benefit associated with biking. As reported by NBC Business News, the average American spends $10,000 per car per year, a cost that can be at least partially offset by frequent biking. When I commuted to work, either by bike or by foot, I filled up my 16-gallon tank once a month (if that) and required less maintenance by decreasing my annual mileage. Not to mention, according to statistical analysis by Charlotta Mellander and Richard Florida, writing for “The Atlantic,” there is a positive correlation between a higher portion of bike commuters and affluence within major metropolitan areas. Then, there’s the whole part about encouraging daily exercise, reducing carbon footprints, unclogging rush hour traffic, higher rates of employee productivity, increasing foot traffic to local businesses and so on.
Given the many positives associated with a city rich with biking commuters, it’s frustrating that Kansas City’s landscape actually impairs bikability. The aggressive annexation of the mid-20th century pushed the city limits outward, rather than inviting civilians in. We were left with a massive case of suburban sprawl and one of the lowest population densities for a city our size. This tendency for expansion, in addition to Kansas City’s naturally hilly landscape, deters some of the less determined would-be cyclists. Not to mention, the lack of prevalent biking lanes are natural barriers to a robust biking community. For these reasons, it’s easy to understand why Kansas City stacks up poorly compared to other metro areas in terms of biking.
Based on statistics compiled by the League of American Bicyclists, just 0.3 percent of commuters bike in Kansas City, Missouri, which is half of the national average. Overland Park and Olathe both rank even lower at 0.2 percent. Patrick Dunlap, an avid cyclist, has kept an eye on some of the city’s efforts to make Kansas City more bikable, and the news is not all negative.
“Many younger Americans want clean, environmentally-progressive, community-oriented, healthy cities to call home,” he said. “This has led the City of Kansas City to at least play lip service to the idea of improving biking conditions here.“
One such positive development has been the B-Cycle program, which launched last year in downtown Kansas City, Missouri. B-Cycle is a bike-sharing program, sponsored by BikeWalkKC, which allows members to rent bikes at any of the 12 stations located throughout downtown, and then return the bike to any of the stations. Memberships are available from one day to one year, so even visitors to the city can take advantage of this convenient way to get around while downtown. The program has provided 5,320 rides, for a total of 13,622.44 miles, 544,897.51 calories burned and 12,941.32 pounds of offset carbon emissions since its launch on July 3, 2012, says BikeWalkKC’s Director of Communications, Sarah Shipley.
“It was a remarkable summer for transportation,” said Shipley. “Biking is quickly becoming the center of an active, healthy lifestyle and we are excited that Kansas Citians have embraced Kansas City B-cycle as a way to get around town.” Other improvements are due in part to several organizations dedicated to furthering the bicycling community in Kansas City, including the 816 Bicycle Collective, for which Dunlap is a volunteer mechanic.
The 816 Bicycle Collective reclaims old bikes that would otherwise be discarded and refurbishes them to safe working condition. These bikes are then either sold to the general public or provided to low-income individuals through a special program aimed at helping these individuals get reliable transportation.
“I (have) been surprised to learn what a dynamic bike community we have in KC and am proud to see it continually improving,” Dunlap said. And he represents a tough audience to please. Dunlap moved to Kansas City to begin his engineering career after earning his master’s degree from the University of Texas in Austin – home to one of the best bike scenes in the country.
The last piece of the puzzle to make Kansas City bike-friendly is also one of the most important: the addition of biking lanes throughout the metropolitan area. Bike lanes make the roads safer for bicycles and cars to share. Plus, the road markings alone bring awareness to the cause for bicycle commuting. Last fall saw the addition of bike lanes on Southwest Boulevard as a part of KCMO’s road re-paving program, as well as the groundbreaking on improvements to Longview Road, which will ultimately include bike lanes. Many of these improvements have come due to the efforts of bike advocacy organizations, such as BikeWalkKC. But the continuation of bike accessibility improvements will depend on the community and the expressed desire to city councils and other governing bodies to have a bike-friendly community.
In Dunlap’s words, “improving bikability and promoting biking as a legitimate method of transportation in Kansas City is not just a struggle against the geography, humidity, or tight city budgets; it is a struggle to also change the culture.”