The Kansas City Public Library

Pedaling Towards Progress

With a new fleet of rental bikes coming to KC this summer, the city is creating a more cycling-friendly environment. But what does that mean for the local economy and how realistic is it?

Over the last decade cities in Europe and more recently in the United States have started offering self-service bike rentals at key locations around their metro areas. Kansas City is the most recent municipality to jump on two wheels with a fleet of 200 rental bicycles with docking stations between Crown Center and the River Market throughout downtown KCMO. The introduction of BikeShareKC seems like a great opportunity to provide alternatives to our current transportation options—loads of highways and the Metro buslines—but what does a fresh focus on bicycle transportation mean for Kansas City? Can we really be budged from our cozy, quick automobiles to favor healthier (for individuals and the environment) modes of transit? Successful implementation of programs like bike rentals requires an increased focus on local infrastructure that nurtures an environment for KC cyclists and visiting bicycle tourists to feel safe on the streets.

Kansas City is known for quite a few things—everyone knows about our barbecue, fountains, great art and loyal fanaticism to struggling sports teams—but it’s not exactly seen as a place one can easily hop around without a car. Thanks to local efforts like Mid-America Regional Council’s Metrogreen network of trails around the metro area and other local parks initiatives we do have a growing series of trails, but when it comes to riding on the streets pedalers are sorely pushed onto shoulders or weaving in traffic lanes with hardly any designated bike lanes. Without bike lanes, programs like the rental bikes are set-up to fail; if no one feels safe on the roads, who will ride? But things just might work out—the City Council just passed a resolution to create more bike routes between Crown Center and the River Marke, key turf for the rental bike fleet.

Establishing bicycle lanes in these areas is a good start to expanding bikeability in Kansas City, which research says has a strong correlation with urban growth and an improved local economy. E Matthias Doepke of Northwestern University says, “Once there is a connected network, the attractiveness of biking goes up.” Cities with good bicycle markets (determined by used bicycle sales per capita) are also bike friendly cities, and sources Bicycling Magazine and the Priceeconomics blog report a strong correlation between these two factors and growth. High on both lists are Portland, Minneapolis, and Boulder—all of which are experiencing population and economic growth, particularly among younger people. Conversely, cities with little bike infrastructure like Detroit and New Orleans are often cited as “dying” cities with withering economies and declining populations. Bike infrastructure is proven to boost local economies since people are more likely to run errands or go out to eat within a 2 mile radius of where they live. Furthermore, it has proven to be a huge boon for tourism. The State of Wisconsin has put extensive effort into bike infrastructure like trails and bike lanes in major cities Madison and Milwaukee, and it has paid off—the state boasts bringing in $1.5 billion annually from bicycles alone ($535 million estimated from out-of-state visitors).

As with any effort to make the city more attractive and improve infrastructure, there are costs to becoming more bicycle-conscious. Some anecdotal evidence from local bloggers and commenters hints that area motorists are easily annoyed by bicycle riders on their roads. Riders currently sharing the roads with motorists typically travel 10-20 mph slower. This difference in speed can cause problems, particularly on narrower streets where drivers cannot easily swerve around cyclists. However, the addition of bicycle and/or multi-use lanes and sidewalks would ease some of the motorist antipathy. But there is also still the question of budgeting bicycle infrastructure. It would take away from other items in the transportation budget like fixing potholes and flashier projects like light rail, bridges, and intersection improvements. But compared with the prices of building an urban freeway, simply painting a bicycle lane on an existing street can cost as low as $3,000 per mile meanwhile a mile of urban freeway can run an average of about $39 million per mile. There is also a very cost-effective solution in multi-purposing bus lanes to permit bike-riders to share. Lanes need to be planned for use otherwise taxpayer money gets wasted. If the city is to go through with creating more bicycle lanes, planners must cautiously introduce routes that connect and are not excessive. Another chief complaint about adding bike lanes is that they take away street parking spots. Ideally if Kansas Citians come to embrace bike culture and the number of people on bikes increases, then more parking spots should open up, since bikes are more space-efficient modes of transportation.

Perhaps the most glaring obstacle in Kansas City’s reluctance to embrace bicycles is not sprawl, but weather. The Midwestern climate of Kansas and Missouri makes for unpredictable instances where sunny days turn to rain in a matter of minutes and temperatures can drop 30 degrees over the span of 6 hours. It’s a gamble to ride any kind of open air vehicle. However, other cities with nasty climates like rainy London and sometimes sub-arctic Minneapolis have embraced cycling. Additionally, the rideshare bike system operates with our sensitive weather needs—they are available for 9 months of the year, which means they take a 3 month winter break so as to not be damaged by the elements a Kansas City winter can inflict.

BikeshareKC is just a starting block for building the area’s bikeability and, if properly executed, it could increase tourism and improve the local economy. Bikeshare bicycles are ideally for commuters whose buses don’t bring them close enough to work and short errands, but they also allow the city to be seen. Locals and tourists alike will soon be able to experience Kansas City in new ways, beyond the limitations of a car window. Most obviously, bicycling is great exercise and commuters who cycle as a part of their daily transport tend to be less stressed from not sitting in rush-hour traffic jams. Cyclists take fewer sick days each year and save money on healthcare. If we make cycling in KC safer and more accessible the city will be healthier. However, if programs are implemented without proper infrastructure and planning they are set-up to fail.

What are your thoughts on biking infratructure? Weigh-in your opinion in the comments.

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