Kansas City’s bike boom: Born in a pandemic, what happens next?

Johanna Kelley and her daughter Nora play at the temporary pedestrian-exclusive section of Swope Park

Like towns and cities all over the world, Kansas City is experiencing a “bike boom” as the novel coronavirus rages on. With people working from home, kids attending school online, and families fighting cabin fever, many are turning to bikes as a way to get outside, exercise, and experience their neighborhoods. Local bike retailers report low or no stock and long lists of customers seeking to fix up old bikes that have been lying dormant in garages and basements. 

Members of a local Girl Scout troop work on their bronze award as they discuss the topic of bike and pedestrian safety.
Members of a local Girl Scout troop work on their bronze award as they discuss the topic of bike and pedestrian safety.

Outdoor recreation like bike riding is considered relatively safe, presuming proper social distance protocols are followed (and masks are properly worn when social distancing is not possible). Exercise remains critical to support not just physical health, but also mental and emotional health. BikeWalkKC has worked with local governments to assist with “open streets” opportunities that create more space for people to recreate outdoors, and progress on bike projects like the new cycletrack on Gillham in KCMO are quickly being discovered by those looking to ride for transportation and recreation.

Yet there are broader ramifications for the unique moment we find ourselves in, especially from a transportation perspective. How we understand this moment, and respond to it, will largely impact our recovery from this crisis and our work to address the issues that existed before the pandemic and will remain after it is over.

With that in mind, we need to ask: what are the key lessons that have been learned?

  • The most vulnerable before are even more vulnerable now. We are all aware of how COVID-19 has been particularly hard for Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities, but we’re also seeing how the pandemic is manifesting this divide in a number of our systems, including transportation. Early on in the pandemic when transit was limited, frontline workers were largely stranded by the limits on bus service. To help address this, BikeWalkKC stepped in with a program to help those essential workers and restaurants move around the city and deliver food.
  • There still isn’t sufficient space for people to safely walk or bike. Like many communities across the country, there has been a major increase in the number of people walking and biking. While this is good, the problem is that there aren’t many places for people to ride. Largely confined to trails because there isn’t an equivalent network of protected on-street facilities, the benefit of the physically-distant activity could be limited, and the broader hope for a permanent shift in transportation mode remains stuck in neutral (no pun intended).

Understanding both of these elements have begun to inform how we can use the momentum of the bike boom to ensure a stronger recovery for KCMO and the region as a whole. While there is much we intend to do, our focus will primarily fall upon two key priorities:

Johanna Kelley rides on the new Gillham Cycletrack in Midtown KCMO
  • Furthering efforts on a more equitable, multimodal transportation system. The longer, more destructive pandemic of this nation is systemic racism. To treat the impacts of this disease on transportation, we have to begin by acknowledging and removing the base elements that make it so. That means advocating for the decriminalization of biking and walking as well as understanding the broader barriers to biking for people of color.
  • Setting an appropriate tone for the recovery. It’s no secret that for most municipal governments, the money will not be immediately available to make the changes we need to see. But a lack of funds is not an excuse to make the necessary commitments elsewhere. That is why we continue to support the work around Vision Zero in KCMO and are working with partners in other communities to help them adopt Complete Streets ordinances which place an emphasis on developing a multimodal transportation network. When the funds are available, we need to be able to take advantage of that, and policies like this will quicken and broaden our overall recovery.

The divisions this pandemic has laid bare and the challenges it has heightened mean that we all must work that much harder, collectively, to rise to the occasion. BikeWalkKC remains committed to working with our partners and the broader community to meet the moment by building a healthier, safer, and more equitable transportation network for everyone.

Health Forward Foundation
2300 Main Street, Suite 304
Kansas City, MO 64108
(816) 241-7006