Government & Politics

‘Rightfully confused’: Over some objections, Kansas City rolls along with bike lanes

Even the mere suggestion of adding bike lanes to Independence Avenue was controversial enough to cause a shouting match at a recent neighborhood meeting in Northeast Kansas City.

One woman said the road is already so treacherous she won’t drive on it without first saying a prayer.

Another warned that turning some car lanes into bike lanes would cause a mass shuttering of mom-and-pop shops up and down the avenue.

One man said there was no place for bicycles on any Kansas City roads, before storming out of the meeting.

The gathering of the Independence Plaza Neighborhood Council was called to discuss particulars of the Bike KC Master Plan, a contentious document that’s currently sitting on a shelf at City Hall. A disputed estimate that the plan would cost upward of $400 million flustered council and community members early on — and it has remained in limbo since April. Its future remains in the hands of a City Council that includes both skeptics and bicycle enthusiasts and a mayor who has expressed doubt.

But inaction on the plan — which supporters argue is more of a conceptual guide than a guarantee you’ll see bike lanes on your street anytime soon — hasn’t quelled criticism about who influenced it, how it was created and the specific recommendations it offers. Nor has that cleared up confusion over the plan’s comprehensive strategy of creating a vast cycling network while piecemeal bicycling infrastructure projects are already underway.

Cities across the nation are investing heavily in bike infrastructure. Sure, biking is good exercise and, when used instead of cars, is better for the environment. But increased bicycling can also save cities on the costs of road construction and maintenance. Some groups say more bike ridership can even boost the local economy.

But in Kansas City, some neighborhood groups, especially those in less affluent areas, say the bike lanes will just get in the way and aren’t worth the cost.

Work installing bike lanes and reconfiguring roadways like Grand and Armour boulevards has created a sense of urgency among neighborhood groups, said Scott Wagner, a former city councilman and current director of Northeast Alliance Together, which advocates for the six neighborhoods in Historic Northeast Kansas City.

“I think now there’s a feeling that things are more real,” he said.

City leaders issued surveys, held a dozen public meetings and attended community events like First Fridays to gather input on the bike plan. But Wagner says they could do a better job communicating with neighborhoods.

Still, he said newfound urgency over the bike plan might be premature.

“If you think there’s $400 million lying around to go do this, well there’s not,” he said. “The reality is this is going to be a slow build-out over time. But the impression people get is it’s going to happen now, now now.”

City officials acknowledge the persistent confusion. Some neighborhood groups complain that the city’s bike projects have been implemented with little involvement from those affected.

Maggie Green, spokeswoman for the public works department, said city leaders were working to involve neighbors through public meetings and communicating with local organizations.

She said no new bike projects would be completed — whether they’re part of the bike master plan or more routine — without involvement of the affected neighborhoods.

“Adoption of the bike plan is not the final point of conversation with neighborhoods,” she said. “The plan has some flexibility and so do our projects in wanting to make sure we’re building facilities that the majority of people are OK with.”

secondary photo KCM_BikeplanAug292019me0830(3)
A bike lane is part of the intersection at Armour Boulevard and Main Street in Midtown. Proponents maintain bicycling can save cities on the costs of road construction and maintenance. Rich Sugg

Forging ahead

Revisions to the bike master plan began after a 2016 audit determined the city’s 2002-era plan was inadequate. That plan, which the City Council adopted, was criticized as little more than “lines on a map to delineate bike routes.”

The audit said it wasn’t designed to give bicyclists routes to places they wanted to go, and it failed to include most of the recommended elements of a bike master plan. After the audit, the Public Works and City Planning & Development departments got to work on a new vision.

The plan they developed with community input remains parked, awaiting a City Council vote before it can guide bike development.

Mayor Quinton Lucas’ office said he supports a “holistic approach” to transit, including bike lanes, but didn’t say whether he will restart the conversation on the bike master plan.

“He will continue to engage with the community to determine infrastructure priorities and put these plans to action in a cost-effective manner,” John Stamm, chief of staff, said in the statement.

In the meantime, the city is still working on several other bike projects funded in 2012 by federal grants. It also evaluates streets for new bike projects when it completes routine road repaving and reconstruction.

That simultaneous work has contributed to confusion and frustration, said Councilman Eric Bunch, who co-founded BikeWalkKC. Since his election, he’s moved to a part-time role with that advocacy group.

“I think that people are rightfully confused by that and thinking that this bike plan means that we’re immediately going to be doing these projects because they see (Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard) or they saw Armour or Benton happening at the same time as this bike plan is going,” Bunch said.

And those projects have caused conflicts of their own.

Along Armour Boulevard, residents who initially supported bike lanes have been vocal in their complaints about what they got. The bike lanes, which run along the curb separated from traffic by parked cars, make visibility difficult.

Allan Halquist, president of the Hyde Park Neighborhood Association, said it’s a complaint he hears frequently. The parked cars pushed out from the curb by the bike lanes make it difficult for cars turning onto or crossing Armour to see traffic coming.

The city did listen to those concerns.

City officials decided to eliminate parking spots near an intersection and added colored bollards to improve visibility. They plan to do the same at other intersections along the road.

The change decreased lanes and thus slowed cars — an intentional safety design experts call a “road diet.”

Data shared by the city shows an increased rate of bicycling on Armour, slower prevailing speeds and fewer crashes. Between July 2017 and January 2018, there were 71 crashes along the boulevard, but from that same period the following year, there were 59.

Bunch, who represents the area on the City Council, said that the concerns about Armour are legitimate, but that the road diet made the street safer.

“I hated Armour Boulevard before,” Bunch said. “Four lanes of fast-moving traffic with four schools along it. It was not a place that ever felt safe for anyone, and while crossing it can be problematic and we need to address some of those visibility issues, it’s a much safer-feeling street, walking down it, biking down it, driving down it.”

Halquist said he’s also seen cyclists riding in the two lanes of car traffic instead of using the bike lane, and he’s heard complaints about debris and snow clogging the lanes — issues the city is working to solve.

The Armour project was a learning process for the city. But it’s indicative of the compromises city officials and neighborhood leaders have made to retain priorities like parking while making room for bike lanes.

Green pointed to a similar situation in Midtown. The city suggested protected bike lanes on Charlotte and Holmes streets, but the neighborhood wanted to keep its on-street parking. So the city plans to paint bike lanes to preserve parking.

She said the city doesn’t expect to get 100 percent buy-in on any project.

“But we have to do what we can to make sure that we’re listening to the concerns,” Green said.

armour protected bike lane.JPG
New protected bicycle lanes on Armour Boulevard have caused controversy. Star file photo

Patchwork of projects

Now that several federally funded bikeway projects are wrapping up, the city is turning its attention to connecting a true network across town.

But in the meantime, many bike projects remain disjointed. And the city’s patchwork has achieved mixed success, said DuRon Netsell.

His group, Better Block KC, works to improve safety for cyclists, pedestrians and drivers. While he wants to see more and faster implementation of bike facilities, he recognizes the frustrations with some projects he believes were poorly executed.

“I can understand where people are coming from,” he said. “If we can build some really good stuff, I think we can begin to change peoples’ minds.”

He supports the city’s bike master plan but worries that it may be outdated by the time it comes to fruition. After all, things like scooters and electric bikes are just coming onto the scene.

A resident of Hyde Park, Netsell was involved in the Armour Boulevard project and believes it was a success because neighbors were involved.

Benton Boulevard, though, was another story. That neighborhood had little involvement, he said.

One stretch of Benton has a painted bike lane for only three blocks and only in the southbound lane of traffic. It doesn’t connect to anything beyond Linwood Boulevard on the south or East 29th on the north.

On a recent weeknight, several cars were parked firmly in the bike lane in front of the D.A. Holmes senior apartments. He says it’s the kind of misstep that can fuel opposition to much-needed biking projects.

“Those bike lanes that were done on Benton don’t really serve anyone,” Netsell said. “They’re just a line on the street. … Now we’ve shot ourselves in the foot.”

Aside from bringing residents into the process, he said advocates and city leaders need to do a better job communicating the wider safety benefits of giving bikes their own space on the road.

“You have to drive a little bit slower, but the likelihood of getting in a wreck is lower,” he said. “Right now, we’re losing people every day to car accidents.”

secondary photo KCM_BikeplanAug292019me0830(2)
The intersection of Independence and Brooklyn avenues in the city’s Northeast Area, where neighbors worry how more bike lanes would affect traffic. Rich Sugg

‘I don’t think anybody is anti-bicyling’

Virginia Bettencourt thought her Northeast Kansas City neighborhood was already bike friendly.

With limited traffic, and cyclist-heavy Cliff Drive nearby, drivers along Gladstone Boulevard have long shared the road with recreational cyclists, Bettencourt said.

“I don’t think anybody is anti-bicycling,” she said. “It’s a question of making these huge changes that really only benefit a few.”

She said members of the Scarritt Renaissance Neighborhood Association weren’t initially included in the city’s efforts to rework the street. Neighborhood leaders found the city had already drafted designs to add a protected bike lane, funded by a federal grant, along Gladstone Boulevard using a barrier to separate cyclists from drivers.

Scarritt Renaissance residents protested with letters and a petition, arguing that the proposed bike lane would stick out with the aesthetics of the stately, historic homes lining the boulevard. Plus, bike lanes would cut the amount of on-street parking spots.

“I have no garage. I have no driveway,” Bettencourt said of her Gladstone Boulevard home. “You have to park on the street.”

Scarritt Renaissance neighbors convinced City Hall to budge. After meeting with them, city leaders agreed to not extend the bike lanes into that neighborhood.

“Then on the flip side, Pendleton Heights was very supportive of wanting to do the protected facility that was proposed,” Green said.

So the city plans to install a two-way cycle track — a separated lane that allows bikes to move in both directions on one side of the street — in Pendleton Heights. But it won’t reach Scarritt Renaissance to the east.

Her neighborhood’s experience brought Bettencourt to the Independence Plaza meeting in early August. That meeting focused mainly on the bike master plan’s prescription for adding protected bike lanes along busy Independence Avenue.

While projects proposed in the bike master plan won’t be completed until funding is available, Bettencourt, who has now been contacted to help other dissenting neighborhood groups, urged Independence Plaza residents to start objecting now — before it’s too late.

Cliff Drive.JPG
Cliff Drive is a popular spot for joggers and bicyclists. File photo by KEITH MYERS THE KANSAS CITY STAR

The thinking

At Independence Plaza, neighbors and cyclists gathered in the basement of a Salvation Army center and rattled off a bevy of complaints over the city’s long-range bike plan. They criticized the influence of local advocacy group BikeWalkKC and the effect that people from affluent neighborhoods had on the plan. In all, plan supporters said 1,500 Kansas Citians participated in surveys and meetings — less than one third of 1 percent of the population.

Bunch said BikeWalkKC gave input and spread the word about community meetings. But he said that the survey was likely skewed toward affluent neighborhoods and that the city doesn’t “do a good enough job of meeting people where they are.”

“We’ve got to get out of the mode of expecting people to come to us,” Bunch said.

Two cyclists present complained that the plan was aimed at encouraging inexperienced cyclists to take to KC streets rather than leaning on the preferences of avid cyclists already on them.

That’s a critique the city does not dispute.

The bike plan aims to bring in new users, said Kyle Elliott, who leads the city’s long-range planning and preservation division. Bike infrastructure is designed to help the average person — not necessarily an experienced cyclist — feel more comfortable on the streets.

Likewise, city officials don’t shy away from the claim that the bike plan targets some of the city’s most bustling streets for major bike development.

Near busy Independence Avenue, neighbors wonder why the city would want to cut lanes of traffic rather than put bike lanes on a quieter and safer side street.

But Elliott said the plan seeks to connect bicyclists with public transportation hubs and amenities, not funnel them away.

“If you look at a primary arterial street, there’s a reason it’s primary,” he said. “It has all the locations people want to go.”

Broadly, the city aims to build a transportation system that safely connects cars, buses, pedestrians, scooters and cyclists. But whether the additional bike infrastructure will prompt more cyclists to hit the streets remains unseen.

“I hope they use it if we build it,” Elliott said.

Related stories from Kansas City Star

Kevin Hardy covers business for The Kansas City Star. He previously covered business and politics at The Des Moines Register. He also has worked at newspapers in Kansas and Tennessee. He is a graduate of the University of Kansas
Allison Kite reports on City Hall and local politics for The Star. She joined the paper in February 2018 and covered Midterm election races on both sides of the state line. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism with minors in economics and public policy from the University of Kansas.