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It was a warm 70 degrees on a late April evening in Kansas City — perfect weather for Dede Palmer and her Girl Bike Gang’s weekly Thursday night bike ride.
Together, the group of eight women biked about 6.5 miles from her Brookside neighborhood to the World War I Memorial in downtown Kansas City. It’s one of many weekly bike rides Palmer has led since starting Girl Bike Gang last August, and one of many ways she’s embraced biking as a way to explore Kansas City during the pandemic.
“Because my schedule is a little bit more flexible and there’s not the busy schedule of go, go, go, I can ride my bike to the gym versus driving my car,” Palmer said. “So I find myself choosing my bike over my car more because I’m not in such a hurry.”
Palmer isn’t the only Kansas City resident who’s embraced biking during the pandemic.
New data from BikeWalkKC, a local nonprofit focused on making Kansas City streets safer and accessible for all people, shows that Kansas City residents are biking more than they had in the years before the pandemic. For some, what started as a pandemic hobby has turned into a way to make new friends and even become a primary mode of transportation.
“I think that this was an opportunity for folks to try out new ways of getting around the city,” said Eric Rogers, executive director and co-founder of BikeWalkKC. “When they didn’t have to be somewhere at a certain time and maybe didn’t have to worry about all the other errands that they would normally need to do during the day.”
BikeWalkKC’s data is specific to rides through RideKC Bike, the rental bike program for the Kansas City metro, which includes pedal bikes, scooters and electric bikes. It does not include rides where a person is using their own bike.
In 2020, the number of total monthly bike trips logged through RideKC Bike spiked in early spring, when stay-at-home orders in Kansas City shut down many businesses and pushed many people to explore outdoor activities. Kansas City saw nearly 3,700 total bike trips in 2020 — an all-time high.
BikeWalkKC’s data also shows where people are more likely to bike in the metro — and it’s in areas that already have bike infrastructure in place. It shows that people ride where they feel comfortable, said BikeWalkKC policy director Michael Kelley.
“A lot of places where we saw increased ridership are places where there was protected on-street facilities or trails,” he said. “I think it speaks a lot to where we need to focus as we kind of try to build and emerge from this pandemic.”
Rogers is optimistic the trend will continue, even as cities loosen restrictions on indoor activities.
“We know that the region’s built a lot more infrastructure in the last few years in terms of trails and bike lanes and other places to walk and bike,” he said.
“We’re hopeful that as the interest increases, people will also see that there are now more places where they will feel safe and comfortable doing that.”
Bike ridership in Kansas City has been on the rise for years
When the pandemic hit last spring, Tyler Chapman, 30, was hardly driving.
With his home and office both located in downtown Kansas City, he could walk, ride the streetcar or bike.
So at the start of 2021, Chapman sold his car and bought a bike — the first time he’s owned one since childhood.
“I bike around, I still use the scooters, still take the streetcar,” he said. “But it was a journey for me, having to give up the car. Now, I don’t think twice about it.”
Chapman has embraced the transition from driving to biking — he gets groceries from the local farmers market and bikes to meet up with friends around the city.
“I didn’t realize how easy it was to get from place to place on your bike,” he said. “And you actually have to worry less about, ‘Where am I going to park my vehicle?’ There are all kinds of spots — you can tie up your bike and go into a restaurant or a bar and have a cocktail with your friend.”
The spike in bike ridership in Kansas City is not just a pandemic-era trend — it’s been on the rise for years.
From 2015 to 2020, the total number of bike trips increased from about 1,200 to nearly 3,700, according to data from BikeWalkKC. From January to the end of March this year, about 2,800 bike trips have been recorded in Kansas City.
Maggie Green, public information officer for Kansas City Public Works, said the pandemic catalyzed the city’s efforts to increase bike facilities in the metro.
“Seeing more people out riding is definitely helping with the momentum and the push to increase our efforts (and) improve our efforts to continue building out the infrastructure,” she said.
The use of RideKC’s electric bikes, which were introduced to the public in 2018, has also been on the rise. Electric bike ridership saw its highest number of trips last year, reaching about 2,600 total rides.
The rising popularity of biking in Kansas City has also led to increased interest in biking groups like Girl Bike Gang.
When the pandemic bike boom hit, 33-year-old Jennifer Lin found herself giving advice to more friends who were buying bikes.
It’s that educational and safety aspect that influenced the Brookside resident to start a Black Girls Do Bike chapter in Kansas City, which is part of a national movement to build community among women and girls of color who bike.
Black Girls Do Bike members share tips from the best helmets for protective hairstyles to advice for first-time bike buyers.
“I wanted to provide a bit of education for all the new cyclists that were coming out and giving them a place to kind of ask questions, figure out which bike is best for them,” Lin said.
Palmer’s group started with an email to friends asking if they would want to do a weekly ride.
Since August, Girl Bike Gang has met nearly every Thursday evening for a long bike ride. This year, Palmer started organizing shorter bike rides on Monday nights, too. Now, she has over 60 people on her Girl Bike Gang list.
“The interest is definitely there for people to ride,” she said. “I think especially women, we like to ride with other women because we’re comfortable, especially if you’re starting out.”
Challenges persist in biking in KC, with just 4 miles of bike lanes
According to data from BikeWalkKC, trails make up the bulk of the metro’s bicycle infrastructure, at 440 miles. In comparison, the Kansas City, Missouri and Kansas, area has only 4 miles of protected bike lanes.
In North Kansas City, Brandon Smith, 39, said the streets near his home aren’t the safest for pedestrians or bikers. Now there’s construction, making biking more dangerous.
For others, it’s the drivers who are the problem.
“Don’t ride Gillham northbound to work,” Katherine Hambrick told The Beacon on Instagram. “Drivers get irritable and dangerous between 39th and 27th.”
Rogers agreed and added that the first challenge to making biking more accessible is addressing physical infrastructure problems, so people feel safe when biking and walking.
“That means fixing the crumbling sidewalks, it means adding bike lanes and trails that are protected from car traffic, and that those types of facilities are connected to each other,” he said.
It’s important because many households have to rely on biking and public transit.
According to 2020 U.S. Census data, 5.9% of households in Kansas City, Missouri and Kansas, do not have a vehicle — that’s 49,261 households. These households are predominantly located east of Troost Avenue, where neighborhoods are majority Black and face higher rates of poverty and lower life expectancy, according to data compiled by mySidewalk for BikeWalkKC.
Kelley at BikeWalkKC said it’s a lack of facilities and connection to resources that causes concern among residents who want to bike more but feel unsafe doing so.
“I can ride something, but is that going to take me to the grocery store, to school, to a medical facility?” Kelley said. “When we don’t have that, it becomes much less viable of an option for the majority of potential riders.”
The bike boom in Kansas City parallels growth in the city’s bike sharing system and expansion of public transit options, from the introduction of electric bikes and scooters to expanded bus routes, the streetcar line and fare-free transit on RideKC buses during the pandemic.
The city is also adding more bike lanes. The city has completed construction on the first section of a protected bike lane that will stretch from Gillham Plaza to McGee Trafficway in midtown Kansas City. The bike lane, stretching less than a mile right now, has physical barriers to separate riders from cars.
Green said construction on the Gillham bike lane will continue this year to complete a 2.5-mile bike lane stretching from Brush Creek Boulevard to Union Hill.
Green said there’s renewed emphasis within the Public Works department to continue creating a connected network of facilities for cyclists.
“The more we build, the more people will ride,” she said.
Tips for new bikers in Kansas City
What to know about RideKC’s bike rental system:
Through RideKC, you can rent a regular pedal bike or an electric-assist bike that offers a boost when you need it. To use the bikes, download the RideKC Bike app on your Apple or Android phone.
E-bikes cost $1 to unlock and $0.15 per minute. The pedal bikes cost $1 to unlock and $0.10 per minute. To park the bikes when you’re done riding, tether it to any bike rack, pole or RideKC Hub.
Where can I find bike paths in Kansas City?
The Mid-America Regional Council has an up-to-date map of bike trails and bike lanes throughout the Kansas City metro.
I’m thinking about buying a bike. What should I know?
Jennifer Lin, who founded the Kansas City chapter of Black Girls Do Bike, created a bike-buying guide for first-time riders. Check it out here.