Study shows bikes are a lifeline for KC men experiencing homelessness

If you own a bike, what does it mean to you? For some of us, bikes represent a choice — a recreational choice, a fitness activity option, or a green transportation alternative. 

Take a minute to imagine if your bike was your only form of transportation. It’s no longer a choice; it’s a necessity. What does that bike mean to you now? 

UMKC researchers Amanda Grimes and Michelle Smirnova explored this very question among men experiencing homelessness in Kansas City. Full disclosure, Grimes serves on the board of directors for BikeWalkKC.

Their conclusion? Bikes are a lifeline.

Grimes and Smirnova published their findings in a recent Journal of Transport & Health article titled “Perspectives on an earn-a-bike intervention on transportation, health and self-esteem among men experiencing homelessness”. The abstract may be found here.

They conducted in-depth interviews with 16 men ranging from 30 to 65 years of age. Half of the men identified as Black or African-American and half identified as White.

Interviews took place between August 2017 and May 2019, at which time two-thirds of the men “did not have permanent housing and most of them had experienced between two and three episodes of homelessness.”

Social isolation undermines a person’s self-esteem and sense of belonging. The ability to maintain, strengthen, and grow one’s social networks, or “social capital,” is critical to a person’s overall well-being. 

The men had participated in BikeWalkKC’s earn-a-bike program offered through Hope Faith — a local homeless outreach agency — and its Hope Cycles program. Earn-a-bike programs are typically associated with youth education programs. However, BikeWalkKC has always provided its earn-a-bike program to both adults and kids. As Grimes and Smirnova point out in their article, the impact these types of programs have on adults from underserved communities is worthy of more in-depth study. 

BikeWalkKC’s adult earn-a-bike program provided the men with introductory training on bike equipment, maintenance, and repair. They also learned bike-handling skills, rules of the road, and how to ride safely, especially in traffic-heavy areas. At the end of the program, the men earned a free bike, helmet, and additional gear.

The men interviewed shared how the bikes provided more employment opportunities because they could broaden their job search’s geographic area. They also expressed a greater sense of freedom and independence. 

Bikes are so much more than a recreational choice … bikes are a lifeline.

The bikes became a lifeline to primary and secondary health care services. For one man, the ability to ride his bike to the pharmacy to pick up his prescription for depression is important “because having my mood stable is [an] incredible gain for me.” Without reliable transportation, he expressed doubt about whether he would be able to get to the pharmacy each month.

The men experienced increased physical health, too. For another participant, 56, the bike aided in his recovery from a stroke:

“Yeah, and I also used [my bike] for a walking tool. In 2011, I suffered a stroke, so this has helped me with my lack of use of my right foot. So this has given me exercise to build strength back…”

The bikes helped the men strengthen their family and social relationships, too. Social isolation undermines a person’s self-esteem and sense of belonging. The ability to maintain, strengthen, and grow one’s social networks, or “social capital,” is critical to a person’s overall well-being. 

As the authors point out, “preliminary evidence suggests that biking and city designs that promote biking may help to improve social capital” and, “People who live in neighborhoods that are pedestrian and bike friendly report higher levels of social capital.”

Bikes are so much more than a recreational choice. For underserved and vulnerable communities, bikes are a lifeline. Grimes and Smirnova describe BikeWalkKC’s adult earn-a-bike program as a “cost-effective and sustainable intervention to improve transportation, employment opportunity, health, social capital, and self-esteem in men experiencing homelessness.”

At BikeWalkKC, we dedicate resources to programs like the adult earn-a-bike program, but we also advocate for systemic changes through public policy and tangible changes to the built environment. 

That is to say, one bike may be a lifeline for someone, but without systemic changes that benefit the most vulnerable communities, free bikes will only get us so far. 

BikeWalkKC works with community partners, neighborhoods, and elected officials to advocate for policies that support multi-modal transportation options in our region. Recent successful policy campaigns include the adoption of a Vision Zero resolution by the KCMO City Council in spring 2020. A Vision Zero task force made up of City staff and community stakeholders are working on a plan to eliminate traffic fatalities and serious injuries by the year 2030. 

There are a number of current advocacy campaigns that BikeWalkKC is moving forward, including the final adoption of a new Bicycle Master Plan for Kansas City, Missouri. 

This month, BikeWalkKC is working with the KCMO City Council to pass an ordinance that will decriminalize walking and biking. A good example of a law that criminalizes biking in KCMO is one that allows police to stop someone with dirty bicycle tires. This type of infraction creates the potential for arbitrary stops and over-policing of people as they move through our streets and public spaces — especially of people of color and individuals experiencing homelessness. 

To read more about BikeWalkKC’s programs and advocacy work, as well as its partnership with Hope Faith, visit: Building Community Capacity and Transportation Access at Hope Faith Ministries and Hope Faith Ministries Earn-a-Bike participants find independence on a bike.

Editor’s note: For a copy of the full article of the study, contact BikeWalkKC directly, and address your request to Attn: Amanda Grimes.

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