With a new bike plan in the works for KC — which lags other cities in cycle-friendly infrastructure — I set out to see how my Bianchi and I handled some basic trips right now

The first thing
I hear is the rumble.

It starts low, distant. It could be nothing — just passing traffic on some nearby street. But then the sound grows louder, gets closer. The rumble approaches. A quick backward glance and I see a pickup truck — not big, maybe one of those midsize Toyotas more suited for moving a couch than hauling drywall. But it’s coming up fast, and I am on a bicycle and we’re in Volker, and there is very little room on either side of the road for evasion. The truck and I, we are coming to an impasse.

Riding a bicycle anywhere unfurls an array of visceral sensory cues: sights you’d miss from a car, odors pleasing and not. But when you ride in the city, it’s the sounds that are most important. A squeak or a rattle from the bike signals some degree of trouble. A beeping means some nearby box truck is backing up, driven by someone who almost surely cannot see you.

And a rumble — well, a rumble means that some high-tonnage machinery is moving near you, in an adjacent lane or at some intersection. Everything will probably be fine, but your fingers still grip the brake levers, ready to squeeze. And a rising, unseen rumble that seems to be racing up behind you means that someone is going to have some fast decisions to make.

The man in the truck chooses to pass me.

It’s the middle of rush hour on a Friday, 8:30 a.m. or so, and traffic is heavy. The truck driver and I are on a quiet section of 41st Street that I use to cross Southwest Trafficway into Westport. I’ve ridden my bike in cities for years, and I move fast. My bike isn’t some carbon-fiber racer, but it’s new and has plenty of gears, and I ride with intent. I also am not shy about the space I use. I want to prevent drivers from passing too close because they think they can sneak around me — “taking the lane,” cyclers call this. But this driver doesn’t care. The rumbling closes in until it’s next to me, the truck passing about a foot from my leg. I glance over as the dude in the truck speeds by. About a hundred feet later, he slams on his brakes at the stop sign at Southwest Trafficway. I pull up next to him, and we both wait in silence for traffic to clear. 

By my standards, this doesn’t count as a close call. But I make a note of the truck and its particular rumble because on this day, I’ve set out to document what it’s like for a cyclist to ride Kansas City’s roads for actual transportation — a thing advocates inside and outside City Hall say they want more people to do. 

Cycling in Kansas City is at a crossroads. For the first time in years, city leaders are poised to detail a new plan that would create the bike lanes, paths and cycle tracks advocates say are key to luring would-be riders onto the streets. The vision, if successful, would mean miles of new on-street bike lanes and, in time, the emergence of a true culture of cycling in the city.

For now, cycling culture here remains a fantasy. Kansas City is a car town through and through. After the city published a damning audit of the existing bike master plan, last December, city leaders scrapped it. Now, with a different plan on the way, I wanted to spend a day riding my bike around Kansas City and document just what it’s like — and what the city should do in the coming months and years to make things better for everyone on wheels. 

Let’s begin this on a high note: I like riding a bike in Kansas City. It can be strenuous and jagged, and it requires creative zig-zagging and some fitness. But an experienced cyclist will find nearly unlimited space and peace around here in which to ride.

At the moment, however, Kansas City is one of the worst bicycling cities in America. 

At a time when both recreational and commuter cycling are increasing nationwide, KC cyclists who embark on city streets are virtually unprotected by dedicated space. For nearly two decades, Kansas City’s elected officials and city staff have understood this deficiency but have met it with piecemeal bicycle plans devoid of any chance for enactment.

“There was minimal political will to really start investing in bicycle infrastructure,” says Eric Bunch, co-founder of advocacy group BikeWalkKC and perhaps the most active proponent of cycling in the city. “They could have had a plan but didn’t have the political will.” Observers say Deb Ridgeway, who for years led the city’s cycling initiative from the pulbic-works department, worked hard to build up cycling culture inside City Hall. But in the end, the paint wasn’t hitting the road. Advocates demanded answers. 

Four or five times, those advocates suggested to the city auditor’s office that Kansas City leaders were failing to achieve the city’s goal of improving life for cyclists and that the office should find out why. By April of last year, investigators from the office had begun combing documents, interviewing city officials and at times riding bikes and driving cars along the city’s existing and planned bike routes to find out what had gone wrong. 

The office examined various incarnations of the existing bike plan, which was first pondered in the 1997 FOCUS comprehensive city plan and then expanded in multiple city documents over the years, including the 2002 Major Streets Plan, the Walkability Plan a year later, Trails KC in 2008 and so on. That year, the council also pledged to make Kansas City a League of American Bicyclists platinum-level city by 2020. 

Platinum is the top ranking the league can bestow, and the designation is rare. Only five cities won the award last year — Portland, Oregon; the Colorado cities of Boulder and Fort Collins; Davis, California; and Madison, Wisconsin. To gain the designation, cities must show they spend money on cycling, teach bike safety, foster a community of advocates and, above all, provide bike lanes and trails and other facilities.

To help Kansas City build such a bike haven, the City Council created an advisory committee to oversee planning and give city leaders feedback on progress toward the platinum goal. By 2011, the group had recommended that the city draft a full update to the Bike KC plan to include a list of appropriate bike facilities, routes and design standards. The recommendations were crafted so that the resulting bike infrastructure would be easy for anyone to use, even those who weren’t usually inclined to ride on the street in traffic. This meant a network of on- and off-street bike lanes, and paths that would connect vital neighborhoods around the city. 

But while the city has indeed placed green “bike route” signs along hundreds of miles of roads — riding a bike upon some of which would be dangerous at best and deadly at worst — it has installed just 38 miles of dedicated bike lanes around the city. And those that do exist are disconnected from one another, so that there is no way for people to get from one bike lane to the next without riding without them for blocks or miles at a time. 

This detachment means that even when the city has done things right, the effort has done little to inspire new ridership. The new buffered bike lanes along a revamped parcel of 20th Street in the Crossroads, for instance, should be a model for every other line of paint the city uses to separate bike and car traffic. Maybe they will be, but those lanes at the moment connect to no other bike lanes in any direction. In order for riders to put rubber to that particular stretch of road, they must traverse streets that offer scant room for nonmotorized traffic.

According to the audit, fewer than a quarter of the city’s existing bikeways are actually suitable for everyone who might want to ride a bike; more than half received a “D” grade, meaning they are amenable only to a few experienced adults willing to brave fast-moving traffic or hostile road conditions. There just aren’t many streets right now where casual cyclists feel comfortable — which means that the people who need bike lanes to ride on don’t use them, and the people who don’t need bike lanes don’t, either. So the gleaming new lanes on 20th Street await the people for whom they were built. People like me, who are wary of unobservant drivers, veering into the new lanes as they text their way through the Crossroads. So it goes for the rest of the city’s disjointed bike infrastructure.

The auditor’s office grew convinced that the city had mishandled its long-term bike plan enough to render it unusable. Its comparison plans included those in Denver and Portland — two major cities with more established bike cultures than Kansas City — as well as Overland Park, a suburb that mushroomed thanks to the prevalence of car culture. But set against bicycle plans in those and other cities, the Bike KC master plan lacked nearly every building block for success. It included no description of current facilities or state of biking in the city, no implementation plan, no guidelines for how future bike lanes and paths should be designed. There were no goals, no benchmarks. 

“If anyone took a look at the existing bike plan, it was clear it was not sufficient to meet the city’s goals,” Bunch says. “There’s never been a systematic approach to the implementation of bikeways. That’s why you have this system — or the lack thereof.”

When the report was released in December, city leaders and local press called it “scathing.” Doug Jones, the city auditor, said it was simply a critique of the way things had been done in the past. “It was critical,” Jones says. “It was very pointed, and very critical of what had gone on before.” 

Post-audit, the city is building a new bike master plan, consulting with the public and stakeholders on the design, process and funding for a new bike-lane network. That will all take time, of course.

But what is life on a bicycle like right now in Kansas City? 

Hand-wave emoji to that driver and his rumbling truck, I’m headed now to Crows Coffee, a shop nestled in the strip mall along 51st Street near the University of Missouri–Kansas City campus. I ride here once a week or so to drink coffee and work. It has one of those old-fashioned, multi-wheel bike racks outside that actually fits no bikes at all and isn’t attached to anything, so I spend some fraction of my brainpower hoping no enterprising person with a truck comes by and snatches the whole thing, bikes and all. 

There are many ways to get from midtown to UMKC, but my route takes me past the strangest and most ill-thought-out bike lane in the city. On a stretch of Oak that runs alongside the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, between 43rd Street and Emanuel Cleaver II Boulevard, the city has painted a single bike lane, along the outside of the southbound lane. It’s a nice gesture — perhaps a nod to bike-clad students going to and from UMKC or the Kansas City Art Institute — but it’s on the wrong side of the road.

Southbound on this stretch of Oak is downhill. This is the easy side of the street. Anybody can coast down a hill — a bike, a car, a baby in a stroller — so a separate bike lane isn’t necessary here. It’s the opposite, northbound lane that could use the protection: It’s a steep climb for two blocks, and the curb is perpetually clogged with buses dropping kids off at the museum, folks taking care of the Nelson’s lawn and whatever else. Go north here, and you’ll likely take up the middle of the lane — which means cars have to either crawl along behind you or try to pass you in the oncoming lane. 

The story goes that, before there was a lane in either direction here, Bunch, of BikeWalkKC, was leading a group of officials from the planning department around the city to help them understand cycling in the city. He took one group to the hill in question and pointed out how useful a bike lane might be on the uphill side of the road. The planners thought it was a great idea. Weeks later, when it came time to put a stripe on the road, a planner who was not with Bunch that day instructed the construction crew to paint it on the downhill side of the street.

The story may be something of a fable, but the hill is real, and if you’re going to ride a bike in the city, you must be ready and able to climb it and many more just like it. It’s easy to forget about the city’s hills in a car, where ascent is simply a question of the angle at which a driver presses the gas pedal. But on foot or on a bike, the city’s ups and downs become obvious. More or less any bike ride from one place to another here requires climbing at least one hill, if not several. And it’s on the city’s hills where you face the reality of riding a bike in KC. 

The muscular cyclists of San Francisco or Seattle would scoff at our paltry Great Plains grades — indeed, the elevation changes only about 400 feet from the river basin to Hospital Hill on downtown’s southern edge. But the most bike-friendly communities grew up around less punishing topography: Neighborhoods around Portland’s Willamette River are flat and easy to ride, and Denver, where Bunch used to live, is flat most everywhere. “A 3-mile bike ride here is a lot different than a 3-mile bike ride in Denver,” he says. 

Bike lanes on the KC’s steepest uphill climbs would make riding on them far safer and more comfortable. City leaders know this. Without the lanes, your only ally is the right bike (ridden with some grit). So I leave Crows and climb the Oak hill until it flattens by KCAI, before dipping down to 40th Street, where Oak momentarily ends. There, I turn left and climb another disheartening rise almost to Main Street, before turning into the angular parking lot of a bike shop that deals in the precise wares an unstriped Kansas City needs. 

Inside her bike shop, Christina Decker shows me different species of two-wheeled steel and aluminum and carbon fiber, each with a different purpose. The road bikes sit across from the register — Bianchi, mainly (the brand I ride at the moment), but also Giant and a few other brands. Next to these are the off-road beasts, with their bulging shocks and their bulbous tires, ready to chew up dirt and gravel; the top model here, a muscular carbon-fiber Pivot that looks like it was beamed from space, runs about $8,500. 

Then we get to what Midwest Cyclery — Decker’s family store, which she took over from her father last year — does best: the commuters. It’s a broad category, one that includes fast-looking cyclocross bikes with disk brakes as well as loopy, steel city cruisers that will get you where you want to go … eventually. There are electric pedal-assist bikes to help flatten those hills; she rides one, though she admits that doing so feels close to cheating. But mainly, there are the hybrids — the road-bike-cruiser crossbreeds that some bike scientist somewhere has decided are the most comfortable and convenient machines for urban use — especially for new or inexperienced riders who want a bike that is easy on the roads and easy on the wallet. Decker sells a ton of them, she says, more than any other style in the shop. 

“You are standing in the middle of what I would lead them [new riders] to,” she tells me as I inspect a set of gears. “It’s the size of the tires and the geometry of the bike itself — the comfort that it gives. It’s a mixture of all of the bikes we just walked around and looked at.” 

If this summer is going to be your first on a bike in this city, your bike will matter. Your old, rusty Fuji or Schwinn that has been harboring cobwebs in your garage since the Clinton administration might not do the trick. Decker and her mechanics tell stories of people dragging their old steel beasts into the shop to get tuned up, only to learn that replacement parts and labor send the bill into the triple digits fast. Meanwhile, the shop’s new bikes start at around $300. The same is true at most any commuter-focused bike shop, including the excellent Family Bicycles in Waldo, or even at the corporate bike stores in the suburbs where your dad bought his $3,000 Specialized.

Sacrilege to some, but here it is: A new bike will last longer, ride better and make your life easier. 

I’m sure the folks at 816 Bike Collective scoff at such disregard for the potential of older bikes, and I know firsthand how nice they can be. I have a 1986 Fuji Allegro, top of the line for that year and a true steel beauty even now. I’ve dropped a couple hundred bucks on the thing already — new handlebars, brakes and saddle — and she’s still not my daily driver. That’s my 2014 Bianchi, lightweight steel with a carbon fork, a triple chainring up front (don’t judge) and nine more gears in the back. It fits a rack for my bags or my kid’s bike seat, and it crushes every hill it meets. This is the bike you want in the city. 

Even the entry-level hybrid at a good shop has most of what you’ll need — the lightweight frame, the soft ride, all the gears you need. In a city with next to no bike infrastructure whatsoever, being able to ride at a good clip while climbing hills and navigating whatever other impediments might be in your way is crucial. If owning a good bike means you ride more often and feel more comfortable doing so, then it’s worth it — even when new and better bike facilities begin to appear on city streets. 

Again, a plan for those facilities isn’t in place yet — more on that in a minute. But for now, the city has planning projects out for bid or nearing construction that should lead to new bike lanes on city streets this summer — if the city can navigate the maze of bureaucracy and funding that for years has stood in the way of such projects. 

Bikes aren’t cars, and bikes aren’t pedestrians. They’re a third thing, and forcing people who ride bikes to do so on something intended for drivers, or something built for foot traffic, makes life harder for everyone. 

Bikes are extraordinarily efficient transportation machines. They require minimal fuel (“20 miles per burrito,” or however that joke goes), they are lightweight and they omit no greenhouse gases. They also move far faster than any pedestrian, so to put them on sidewalks, as some critics of bike lanes suggest, is madness. I don’t want to navigate my bike around people strolling the sidewalks of Brookside, and no one pushing a child in a stroller or walking a dog wants me riding up behind at 10 miles an hour.

And sidewalks in Kansas City are treacherous enough as it is. It’s one thing to have to step over a slab of pavement that’s been twisted by a bulging tree root; it’s another to safely surmount that obstacle on a bike. (Also, Missouri statute bans cyclists from riding on a sidewalk “within a business district.”)

Bikes can also be grindingly slow. Bikes that are geared and constructed for off-road conditions simply cannot move very quickly — and a confusing number of Kansas City bicyclists tend to ride such things around the city. This category also includes the 150 B-cycle bike-share vehicles that are installed in 30 pay-as-you-go corrals between Waldo and downtown. The B-cycles are exceedingly easy to ride in part because they have only three gears — which means they are not fast. 

Another trade-off for the people-powered efficiency of the bicycle is safety. If basically anything bumps or jostles you on a bike, or if you are forced to brake suddenly at high speed, there’s a chance you’ll lay the bicycle down. This is part of why expecting bicyclists to share car traffic lanes with drivers is unrealistic — especially in Kansas City, where the lack of traffic density encourages habitual speeders.

Leaving the bike shop, I head north. I’ve taken a full day off from my job, primarily to do this ride but also to take care of a few other errands. So I’m going to get a tattoo, at Mercy Seat in the Crossroads. 

Rather than take my chances on Main Street during the Friday lunch hour, I ride up 41st a few blocks east and then turn to ride north. I’ve chosen Warwick rather than any number of perfectly fine north-south residential roads because I know it is wide, its traffic is light, and its hills are passable: easy riding to 39th, then uphill north to 36th. But the road ends at the box-store plaza where Costco sells people enormous amounts of stuff they don’t need. I jog over to Gillham.

Gillham is six lanes wide here, and traffic is steady and moving quickly. I just need to make it to Linwood before I can take Cherry into the Crossroads, so I wait for a few cars to pass, turn left and move to the far-right lane. Traffic lightens, and the riding is easy. I turn right on Linwood, then quickly left onto Gillham Road and cross 31st Street, where the street name changes to Cherry and everything calms. 

At 25th Street, on the edge of Hospital Hill, Cherry ends. Rather than ride farther east, I aim again for Gillham and try to experience at least a bit of what it’s like to ride a bike where people actually drive. Traffic is light but steady. I ride north for a moment, then duck onto Locust, which here is a short service street that runs alongside Children’s Mercy Hospital. The detour is rewarding; from that perch on the hill, the downtown skyline stretches out in front of me. 

The road deposits me back onto Gillham — which immediately becomes Oak because whatever — and there I am, in traffic, going across the bridge that spans the railroad tracks leading to and from Union Station. There is no shoulder, only the concrete wall of the bridge, and it would be harrowing in perhaps another city with more traffic, but here and now it is just as easy and scenic as any other stretch of my daylong ride. A car passes in the lane next to mine, but there is no one behind me and everyone seems comfortable with their speed. In a few blocks, I turn on 17th Street and get to McGee. A few minutes later, a series of needles deposits ink into my epidermis. 

Later, after lunch at Lulu’s nearby, I ride to those new bike lanes on 20th Street. If things were different, I would then use any of the three major north-south thoroughfares — Main, Broadway, Grand — to return to midtown. But I don’t. I’ve done it before, and it’s just unpleasant enough to dissuade me from doing it today. Grand, where the city has long planned to shrink the street by two lanes and install separated bike boulevards, provides an easy ride through the Crossroads but elevates at Crown Center, slowing you down. The rumble of traffic behind you can be incessant — and then it spills out onto Main, where traffic is almost constant and taking a lane can feel treacherous. 

So I ride east, first along the lanes of 20th and then, when it ends, north to 19th Street. To get back to Westport, I decide to take Charlotte, a one-way, southbound street that pairs with the northbound Holmes a block over. Charlotte and Holmes have bike lanes on them through the Crossroads, and Charlotte’s lane stretches north until it connects to the Heart of America bridge and beyond. But the lane ends at 19th Street for no reason other than the failures listed in the Bike KC audit. Still, I turn onto Charlotte and begin the climb up Hospital Hill — not some killer incline that forces me up out of my saddle, but a long, slow burn of elevation change past Truman Medical Center and up to 27th Street. 

Even with the grind of the hill, though, I’m experiencing the best parts of riding a bike in Kansas City. Charlotte is Missouri River–wide at first, and even when cars pass, they are so far from me that I hardly notice them. And when the lanes narrow and traffic grows around the hospital, I still find plenty of space to ride in. 

Connecting Charlotte and Holmes from the Plaza to the Crossroads is on the city’s list of potential bike gains this year because both are due for resurfacing. Count me in favor: Charlotte south of 27th Street is a pleasant, rolling ride down a quiet one-way street, and it would be the perfect place for the city to experiment with different kinds of separated bike lanes. It could, for example, put a one-way lane on each road between the parked cars and the curb, protecting cyclists while maintaining all of the space and parking that residents will surely demand. 

Rides like this make clear how great an opportunity the city has as it rewrites its Bike KC plan. The city has a network of quiet, spacious streets just waiting to be connected to the infrastructure proposed for key thoroughfares. 

Finding where to make those connections is one task now before Wes Minder, who took over from Deb Ridgeway as the city’s primary bike and pedestrian coordinator the day the audit was released. To do it, he must unite different branches of the city’s bureaucracy, install some oversight over our roads and boulevards and then plan and construct a comprehensive bike network, all while navigating the city’s addiction to wide roads and ample parking. 

A couple of weeks ago, Minder and Joe Blankenship, the planning official in charge of running the Bike KC update, rode the length of Ninth and 12th streets, from downtown east to Winner Road, to see which would be easier for bicyclists. (In this case, the wider and ostensibly busier 12th Street seemed to offer more space and less traffic than Ninth.) But Minder and Blankenship — both avid cyclists — can’t ride every road. They need people to get out there and ride, and then tell the city what works and what doesn’t. “We’re looking for that kind of feedback from people who ride corridors that we’re not aware of,” Minder says. 

The city has also put together a steering committee that includes advocates and officials from around the city and local government. Mark McHenry, co-chairman of the bike-pedestrian committee of the Mid-America Regional Council, sits on the steering committee and says the city has done a good job getting the right parties to the table to help design the new bike plan.

“We’re definitely heading in the right direction,” he says. “I’ll tell you, having lived here awhile, we’re a much more bike-focused community than we were 20 years ago.”

The main difference, he tells me, is that people are engaged now. As the audit pointed out, residents now look to bikes for more than just recreation and exercise. They want to get places — to work, to the store, to their kids’ daycare. They want a bike culture — not to replace cars but to exist alongside the Midwest’s affinity for driving.

“You literally have to get out and get on a bike,” McHenry says about how to create this culture. “It seems simple, but that’s the truth.”

Dan Fowler has war stories about biking. The 2nd District councilman is a serious and confident rider, and he logs scores of miles on big group rides whenever he has time. So he has ideas about how dedicated bike lanes around the city could make cycling among KC’s cars feel less like combat.

Most folks would like to try riding a bike in town but feel intimidated by drivers and the city’s lack of any discernible bike culture. That hesitation creates a chicken-and-egg paradox in the minds of city officials and bike advocates: How can the city’s bike culture improve if people are too afraid to actually put their bikes in the road and ride? And if people won’t ride en masse, how can bike culture ever improve? 

The answer to the riddle is easy to say and difficult to execute: The city must craft a comprehensive plan to construct bicycle-friendly facilities on the roads of Kansas City. Those facilities must create both the feeling and the reality of safety. The city must also integrate these facilities into the existing car-based infrastructure so that drivers and cyclists are aware of one another and are able to safely interact in places with the most potential for harm — at intersections and along the city’s hills. 

Observers are confident that process is in place now. Bunch, from BikeWalkKC, says he can see deep shifts within city government that suggest a desire to change the culture and structure of biking in the city. “I think that we’re starting to put the recipe together,” he says. 

Everyone I talked to for this story expressed admiration for City Manager Troy Schulte’s swift response to the audit. Just eight days after it came out, Schulte’s office issued a statement, agreeing with its findings and lamenting the state of the existing Bike KC plan: “Simply put, the current plan does not assist the city in achieving the objective of making Kansas City a platinum-level city for bicycle mobility.”

Schulte directed the staff shake-up that put Minder in charge of overseeing bike facilities in the city and Blankenship in charge of the new Bike KC plan. Jones, the city auditor, says he has never seen a city manager react to an audit so quickly and decisively. 

Still, if the new Bike KC plan will continue to strive for a League of American Bicyclists platinum status, the city has a long way to go. KC holds a bronze designation from the league — the lowest rank. To reach even a silver rank, the league asks cities to install bike facilities on about half of their high-speed commuter roads, so that cyclists can use the most practical thoroughfares as easily as drivers do. Kansas City has none. The league also recommends that just more than half of all city roads have bike lanes; this is also part of the path to silver. Just 6 percent of Kansas City roads have such facilities at the moment. Ridership too low, bicycle fatalities too high. The list goes on. 

As part of a recent bike-plan meeting in midtown, at the Foreign Language Academy, Blankenship and other officials huddled outside as attendees and others took turns riding B-cycle bikes up and down a temporary, two-way cycle track the city had built on Warwick. Schulte, the city manager, rode a couple of laps as people snapped pictures on their phones. 

Blankenship says that even though the new plan won’t be finalized until sometime in 2018, people should expect changes now. The downtown bike loop, from Grand to Third Street, will soon connect to those fancy new lanes on 20th Street. A long-planned bikeway along Armour Boulevard might happen this summer, too, but issues remain before work there will begin. Leaders expect the new plan to address some of those lingering concerns — including the difficulty of obtaining and using federal and state funding, and the barriers to soliciting and receiving bids from contractors to do the work.

Blankenship squints in the sun. The challenges to constructing a comprehenvsive cycling plan in Kansas City loom before him and his staff. They are starting from scratch. Nothing that came before — no half-baked plan, no green “bike route” sign or green line on a map — matters now. Everything must transform: the way the city plans for, pays for and executes bike facilities. The culture, too, must evolve — both in the neighborhoods, where cars and the parking they require rule, and in the city’s urban corridors.

“I don’t have the answer today,” Blankenship says. But any change for bicycling in Kansas City starts with him and starts now.