They’re everywhere: riding to work, school, dinner, the grocery store and the dentist’s office.
In other words, they’re doing just what Kansas Citians in cars are: getting where they need to go.
While sharing the road is the law, it’s not always easy to do. Kansas City is large and spread out, bike lanes are nearly nonexistent and drivers and cyclists are undereducated about how to safely get through the morning commute.
Suzanne Hogan, a founding member of the 816 Bike Collective, struggles with these issues every day: “It’s a frustrating town to be a cyclist in,” she says. “If you think about routes to Kansas City, Kansas, or North Kansas City, there’s not a lot of options.”
Kansas City was ranked 41st of the 51 most-populated cities in biking and walking levels, according to a 2012 study released by Alliance for Biking & Walking. Organizations such as BikeWalkKC, the 816 Bike Collective and RevolveKC work to change the infrastructure problems and educate cyclists and drivers.
The city is working to remedy the frustration, too. A project was recently initiated to label, through painted pavement and signage, more than 600 miles of bike lanes, both designated and shared-use. More than 200 miles of shared-use trails will also be marked throughout the city.
But all of those issues won’t be resolved any time soon.
Regardless, Hogan thinks biking is a possibility for every Kansas Citian. “You can come up with hours and hours of excuses why you can’t ride your bike, but when you just start doing it all the time … you find it’s not that hard.”
Meet a few of these dedicated cyclists, covering 5 to 30 miles each week on their bikes: Hogan, Eric and Kaitlyn Bunch, Matthew Long-Middleton and Tara Tonsor. They explain why overcoming obstacles to bike in KC is well worth the effort and encourage everyone to give biking a shot.
Cycle safely: Suzanne Hogan
Suzanne Hogan, reporter, announcer and producer for KCUR and founding member and bike mechanic for the 816 Bike Collective, has been using her bike for transportation since high school, both in Kansas City and in her college town of Santa Fe, N.M. Hogan owns a car, which she uses when restricted by time or large cargo loads.
A lot has changed in the 10 years she has been biking, she says, but cyclists have to be proactive about safety when the city isn’t designed for easy riding.
Drivers “aren’t trained to look out for pedestrians or bicyclists,” she says. “They open car doors quickly, don’t signal. … It’s really scary (as a bicyclist) when someone passes you quickly within inches. That perspective is something I really, really wish people would be a lot more aware of.”
Hogan acknowledges that cyclists have work to do as far as safely sharing the road. They should be wearing helmets, which Hogan admits she doesn’t always do, using lights and following traffic laws.
Safety is also on Hogan’s mind sometimes as a woman riding alone at night. “I actually feel safer on my bike than I do on foot,” she says. “But (safety) is something I think about as far as what routes I take home. There’s certain routes I wouldn’t go by myself or try to avoid.”
As a bike mechanic, Hogan knows the peace of mind a woman feels from understanding how her bike works. She thinks all riders should be empowered by knowing how to fix their bikes. “I feel comfortable on my bike because I know how it works, and I’d be able to fix it if something went wrong.”
Bike local: Eric and Kaitlyn Bunch
For Eric and Kaitlyn Bunch, choosing a home within walking and biking distance of their jobs wasn’t an accident. They own a car, but they bike and walk for most of their transportation to and from work, the grocery store and — starting soon — child care.
The couple live in midtown, and they both work well within biking distance: Eric downtown at BikeWalkKC, and Kaitlyn at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.
When choosing a home in KC after a move from Denver, they sought a neighborhood where daily needs would be within biking or walking distance. “We’ve actually taken great care and made a lot of specific choices so that we do have all of those things,” said Kaitlyn, who is 6 months pregnant. “We’ve made biking easier for ourselves by placing that type of lifestyle as a priority for our family.”
“Honestly, though, it started out with money,” Eric said. “The average American spends something like $10,000 a year on a car. … Riding a bike works for me because I wasn’t stuck with a bus route; it’s a lot faster than walking. It’s easy to park and find parking most of the time.”
Not everyone is lucky enough to live within biking distance of his or her job. “We’ve allowed our city to sort of sprawl and have displaced a lot of necessities,” Eric said. “City policy should encourage development within the city. Development should be mixed use; not separating residences from errands.” He suggested biking to run errands after work if commuting by car is unavoidable.
Eric and Kaitlyn do not plan to change their cyclist and pedestrian lifestyle after their child is born. Once the baby can hold his or her head up and they’re given a doctor’s go-ahead, the Bunches will be cycling with a baby on board.
“The bike trailer was the first ‘baby’ thing Eric and I picked out,” Kaitlyn said. “We plan to still bike a lot and not necessarily use the car any more just because we have a baby.”
Eric has some advice for people looking to ditch their cars: “Pick a place to live wisely; proximity is the most important factor in our transportation choices.”
Biking hungry: Matthew Long-Middleton
Just like the Bunches, Matthew Long-Middleton chose his Kansas City home based on proximity. Distance is an essential factor in Long-Middleton’s life: He does not own a car, relying on only his bike for transportation.
“My bike dictated how I searched for a place to live,” he said.
Before his recent move from Brooklyn, N.Y., Long-Middleton created a custom Google map, setting a radius around his new employer, KCUR, for 30- and 45-minute bike rides. Based on this map, he chose his South Hyde Park home.
While Long-Middleton is pleased with his five to 10 minute commute, he is not so happy about the lack of grocery stores along his route.
“The way Brooklyn is laid out, I could stop at Trader Joe’s or 20 different grocery stores on my way home from work,” he said. While in Brooklyn, Long-Middleton could stop for one or two items just for that night’s dinner. This is no longer an option. In his midtown neighborhood, the only major grocery store is Marsh’s Sunfresh.
Long-Middleton now often bikes to Brookside Market or the Brookside Price Chopper. The distance between his home and Brookside, however, makes grocery shopping much more of a time commitment.
“If I’m going to Brookside Market, (I don’t want) to spend 40 extra minutes round trip just to get a gallon of milk,” he said.
In addition to planning for extra transit time, Long-Middleton must also plan for cargo space. He rides with panniers and a mesh bag attached to the frame of the bike, but that space doesn’t really accommodate a jumbo pack of toilet paper, for example.
Because of the layout of his new city, Long-Middleton is considering buying a car — the first one he will ever own — to run errands and make longer-distance trips. “It would be the ability to not have to think five days in advance all the time,” he said. “It is really, really easy to have a car here.”
Learning to ride: Tara Tonsor
Art teacher Tara Tonsor is relatively new to cycling — she has been biking for transportation for only about a year, since her car unexpectedly died. She couldn’t afford to repair the vehicle, so she dusted off her bike from the 816 Bike Collective and began riding to work.
“I realized I lived in a 5-mile radius to everything I needed, so I kind of just grinned and beared it,” she said. Now she’ll alternate riding and taking the bus, depending on how far her destination is from her midtown home.
The past year has taught Tonsor biking logistics. She has learned to layer leggings under dresses and make sure her tops cover enough that she’s not flashing passers-by. “You do get hooted and hollered at,” she said.
Tonsor was once harassed while riding home from the grocery store. “A guy from the backseat of an SUV reached down and smacked me on my hiney. … My friend Sarah charged … and reached in and smacked the guy.” Tonsor left this incident shaken but thankful that the hit didn’t cause her to lose her balance and fall under the moving car. “I was really lucky,” she said.
Leaving bars or restaurants after nights with friends can present another challenge. “You may have to decide to be more ‘responsible’ than some of your friends. … You don’t want to ride your bike drunk,” she said. “I definitely have had my moments, but I try to walk my bike (if I’ve had too much to drink).”
Like Hogan, Tonsor feels safer on her bike than she would on foot. “We’re more badass on our bike than on our feet. … It presents you as a more aggressive female,” she said.
Tonsor rides her bike for fun just as frequently as she rides it for transportation. She often goes on “lady bike rides” with friends and loves what cycling has done for her life.
She said she has lost weight, become more confident and found a new happy place: “It’s meditative. … I know it sounds hippie, but I go inward,” she said. “Some people have yoga, some people have meditation, some people go to church. My bike has done that for me.”