Eric Bunch was waiting at a downtown Kansas City bus stop on a hot June afternoon when he saw a sight that warmed his heart: A long line of cyclists cruising down Grand Boulevard’s bike lanes.
The impromptu parade included a girl in a pink helmet, a boy with yellow handlebars, and a bearded hipster with dreadlocks flowing in the summer breeze.
“I just can’t even,” Bunch tweeted from the bus stop. “Highlight of my day.”
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Bunch, who co-founded BikeWalkKC, has dreamed of a bike-friendly Kansas City for years. But it often feels out of reach.
“We’re still not quite there in terms of a bike-friendly environment downtown or anywhere in the city,” Bunch says.
Local cyclists say that the new lanes on Grand are often blocked by construction, debris or buses. It can take months for businesses to secure permits to install bike racks. And many motorists just aren’t willing to share the road.
But there are signs that the city is rolling in the right direction.
The new lanes on Grand are part of a new Downtown Bike Loop, a network of paths that connect downtown with the River Market, the Crossroads Arts District and other nearby neighborhoods. The $600,000 project is mostly funded by federal grants.
The city is also designing a 10-mile bike path along The Paseo from Independence Avenue to 85th Street. The Paseo Bikeway, a $700,000 project also funded by federal grants, could be the region’s longest contiguous bike lane, connecting downtown with south Kansas City like a 71 Highway for cyclists.
And more planned improvements will be announced this summer when the city unveils its new bike plan.
A ‘cultural change’ with issues
With more lanes comes additional maintenance — and many cyclists say that’s one of the problems with Kansas City’s bike lanes.
Shawn Toliver, who lives downtown and bikes to work at the University of Kansas Medical Center, says he switched from a road bike to an adventure bike with thicker wheels after potholes and broken glass flattened his tires too many times.
He says some lanes he travels are like “glorified gutters.”
Kathy West, president of Cycling Kansas City, says she’s constantly dodging obstacles on Grand Boulevard. Gravel, sand and rain-slicked manhole covers can cause dangerous slip-ups.
West teaches other cyclists how to be safe navigating the urban environment. Last month, she led an all-female ride from Double Shift Brewing Co. in the East Crossroads to Cliff Drive and back again. She had to re-route at the last minute because a bike lane on Grand was blocked by construction.
“I think we’re seeing a cultural change,” West says, adding that change can be difficult: “We’re in the painful part right now.”
Bike lanes are maintained by the city’s water services department and swept as streets are, says Beth Breitenstein, public information officer for the public works department. She adds that the city is investigating new technology that could help keep lanes cleaner.
“But with that comes (added) staff,” she says, and that would also require more funding.
Local cyclists also complain about motorists who don’t want to share the road.
Steven Garcia, who bikes from his home in midtown to his job at the Kansas City Municipal Court downtown, snaps a photo every time he sees a car stopped in a crosswalk or bike lane.
“Whenever I ride downtown I’m always shaking my head at drivers in the crosswalks or in the bike lanes,” he says. “They either don’t pay attention or don’t care.”
Many of Garcia’s photos are of cars parked in the green bike boxes at busy intersections downtown, such as 11th and Main streets. The boxes, which were painted by the city starting last year, allow bikes to get ahead of car traffic at stoplights. Motorists are supposed to stop at the white line — where big letters spell out “wait here” — but it’s clear that many didn’t get the memo.
Garcia acknowledges that cyclists need to obey the rules of the road, too: “It’s going to take effort and goodwill on everyone’s part to make the city safer for people who walk and bike.”
Lack of parking is also an issue: Business owners who want to install bike racks on sidewalks say the city’s permitting process is too long and complicated.
It took Chris Matsch more than six months to get approval for a bike rack in front of Messenger Coffee Co., a cafe and bakery he co-owns at 1624 Grand Blvd. Until last month, cycling customers would try to bring their bikes into the coffee shop and bakery or lock them to the gas line outside the building. Some just stopped coming.
Dan Walsh, managing partner of Spokes Cafe | Cyclery, a bike repair shop, cafe and bar at 1200 Washington St. in Quality Hill, says Spokes has been open for more than a year, but he still hasn’t been able to install a rack.
“You have to really want a bike rack to jump through these hoops,” Walsh says.
In January, the city streamlined the bike rack permitting process and lowered the application fee from nearly $200 to $25. The new process still requires at least 11 pages of paperwork and signatures from neighboring businesses, the city clerk, the assistant city attorney, the director of the public works department and a notary public.
Breitensten says those signatures are pretty standard, and that it’s important for the city to oversee the installation of the bike racks to make sure they’re safe: Not too close to utility poles and curbs, and not blocking wheelchair access.
She points out that the city is working to install 100 KC-branded bike racks around the city. The federally funded racks have already been placed at 18th & Vine, Martini Corner and the Crossroads Arts District.
Some of the city’s bike-related growing pains could be addressed by the new bike plan, which the city planning department has been working on for more than a year.
The plan will recommend more than 600 miles of new paths, says Joe Blankenship, a planner with the city planning and development department. Blankenship says many of those paths will be protected — separated from traffic with barriers such as planters, posts, green space or parked cars.
He adds that the recommended lanes will be located on major roads, not just side streets, so that more people can get where they need to go without relying on a car. The goal is to add lanes that are both useful and safe.
“They inherently attract riders who are interested in cycling but concerned with safety,” he says.
Protected bike lanes have become popular in bike-friendly Midwestern cities such as Indianapolis. In 2013, that city completed its Indianapolis Cultural Trail, an eight-mile path around the downtown area.
The trail was built on existing roads and is separated from traffic by curbs and gardens, says executive director Karen Haley. It’s cleared of snow during the winter, illuminated at night and decorated with public art.
Haley says the Indianapolis trail has boosted tourism and the local economy. Within two years, the trail helped increase assessed property values in downtown Indianapolis by $1 billion.
Bunch says he’d love to see a similar trail in Kansas City. But there is one huge hurdle: money.
The Indianapolis Cultural Trail cost $63 million — $35 million in federal funding and $27 million in private dollars.
Kansas City doesn’t have a budget set aside for bike projects, Blankenship says. But recommendations in the new bike plan could potentially be funded by the city’s 1-cent sales tax for capital improvements, federal grants and public/private partnerships like the one that made the Indiana Cultural Trail possible.
He adds that many bike lanes can be added at a low cost when streets are resurfaced and repainted. And protected lanes can be less expensive when parked cars are the barrier.
The public works department is completing work on Kansas City’s first parking protected bike lanes along Armour Boulevard from Broadway to The Paseo. The new lanes run between the sidewalk and cars parked along Armour, a key east-west connector in midtown.
The lanes are “fantastic,” according to Dayna Meyer, a South Hyde Park resident who uses them almost daily.
“They’re the best of the best bike lanes,” Meyer says. “They should be everywhere.”
Meyer and other cyclists say they’d love to see clear, protected lanes — and ample bike racks — all over the city. The waiting is the hardest part.
“I want to see it happen in a month,” Meyer says, “instead of in five years.”