Every city has a stockpile of superlative and rankings, but here’s one stat that speaks volumes about Kansas City’s historically car-centric sprawl: Among major cities, the Kansas City metro area has the most freeway miles per capita. Like all stats, it’s open to interpretation. Realtors in the suburbs can tout easy access to downtown. Cycling and transit advocates, however, cringe when faced with the city's automobile dependence.
More fast facts: In 2010, Kansas City was the largest American city without a professional advocacy and education organization for biking and walking around town. The city’s rates of walking and biking were less than half the national average, residents’ obesity and diabetes were skyrocketing, and Kansas City lagged far behind peer cities in the development of places to walk and bike.
Enter BikeWalkKC. Founded in 2010, executive director Eric Rogers explains the organization’s mission: “We believe that walking and biking are simple solutions to complex problems like health, air quality, transportation, economic development, and quality of life. Cities must be walkable and bikeable to compete in the 21st century global economy. Incorporating physical activity into daily life is the most efficient and effective way to improve the health of our residents.”
As Kansas City lays track downtown for its first light-rail system, BikeWalkKC has shown its initiative and agility in giving the city’s visitors and workers alternative means of transportation around the urban core. Kansas City B-cycle is a public/private/nonprofit partnership responsible for launching the world’s only advocate-owned bike share system in 2012. “Kansas Citians quickly incorporated bike share into their daily routine for commuting, exercise, and sight-seeing,” Rogers points out. “In 2014 we grew to 20 stations across the Downtown, Westport, and Country Club Plaza neighborhoods, with more stations on the way in 2015.”
Rogers spends plenty of time walking the walk – or riding the ride – on the hundreds of miles of singletrack trail available throughout KC - all maintained by the tireless volunteers at EarthRiders.
Realizing that habits form early – for better and worse – and are harder to shape (or shake) as adults, BikeWalkKC focused on a younger audience with their BLAST (Bike Lesson and Safety Training) Kids on Bikes program, teaching kids to bike safely and confidently around their neighborhood. “We bring a fleet of bikes into 5th grade P.E. classrooms to teach traffic safety and bike handling skills,” Rogers explains. “Since 2011 BLAST has impacted over 5,000 kids around the KC region. Today’s kids are the first generation in American history with a shorter life expectancy than their parents. Getting them walking and biking to school is the best way to ensure kids are healthy, active, and ready to learn.”
In addition to those large-scale projects, BikeWalkKC has been busy behind the scenes at local city halls, reforming public policy, winning funding for crosswalks and trails, and improving enforcement of traffic laws. And hearing Rogers talk about his group’s strategy, the mindset can be applied to nearly every nonprofit, corporate or personal challenge.
“When tackling big problems like we do, it’s important to be nimble, take risks, and keep trying new strategies and ideas. This perspective has helped us grow quickly into one of the larger and more successful bike/pedestrian organizations.”