It began with a Kansas City Council member’s concerns about bike lanes and their place in the long list of needs in Kansas City’s often overlooked, less-affluent neighborhoods.
Those concerns coalesced into a proposed piece of legislation that included language calling for the city to remove existing bike lanes if neighborhood associations did not want them.
That ordinance, which Councilwoman Melissa Robinson introduced in late October, has ignited a citywide conversation that encompasses much more than bike lanes.
Now, it’s about the quality of the city’s streets and sidewalks, about the neighborhoods that are prioritized for improvements and the ones left behind, about equity and whose voices are heard.
Robinson said she wants to see more bike lanes in the city, but she also thinks other needs are being unmet, particularly in the 3rd District, which she represents. Of Kansas City’s six council districts, it has the highest number of households without a car.
“The deepest socially and economically disadvantaged communities depend on public transit, and their mobility is walking,” Robinson said. “We need to make sure that our sidewalks are in order.”
BikeWalkKC, a local nonprofit that advocates for safer biking and walking environments, opposed Robinson’s original bike lane ordinance.
“For us, it came down to two key things,” said Michael Kelley, policy director at BikeWalkKC.
The first objection centered on attempts to pit bike lanes and sidewalks against each other as city priorities, he said.
“You can’t make our streets safer for pedestrians by making them more dangerous for cyclists,” Kelley said.
BikeWalkKC also objects to the idea of allowing neighborhood associations to veto the installation of bike lanes.
“The other part was this idea of inclusion — that neighborhood associations are sufficient for inclusion leaves out a whole swath of the community that deserves to have a say in improvements, which will impact their safety,” Kelley said.
But residents like Ron Clark feel differently. Clark was a lifelong 3rd District resident and recently moved into the 4th District. Clark agrees that the 3rd District needs improvements to support infrastructure for bikers and pedestrians. But, he added, the district has bigger needs than bike lanes.
“I don’t think that in Kansas City we do a good job of matching funding to the level of need as far as infrastructure,” Clark said. “There’s such a great need for the very basics such as passable streets and walkable sidewalks. I don’t think that the need there has ever been addressed in my lifetime.”
Robinson’s intentions behind the original bike lane ordinance
The original ordinance that Robinson introduced to the City Council focused only on the 3rd District, which encompasses neighborhoods east of Troost Avenue.
Robinson’s ordinance would have exempted the 3rd District from Kansas City’s Complete Streets, a 2017 plan that creates guidelines for making streets accessible and safe for drivers, bikers and pedestrians.
The proposed ordinance outlined levels of approval needed to install new bike lanes in the 3rd District. These included approval from neighborhood associations and 3rd District council members; repair of sidewalks within one mile of the proposed bike lane; and picking up bulky trash items near school buildings.
Robinson said those requirements resulted from conversations with 3rd District residents and neighborhood associations who expressed priorities other than bike lanes.
“I affectionately called it neighborhood inclusion ordinance,” Robinson said. “How are we responding to residents who are organized through neighborhood associations?”
Robinson said the ordinance was also a response to the city’s Vision Zero resolution, in which the city pledged to eliminate traffic fatalities and serious injuries by 2030. The resolution directs City Manager Brian Platt to develop an action plan, which includes safety improvements at intersections and 30 miles of protected bike lanes.
“I want to see those 30 miles of protected bike lanes, but you’re going to have to have a conversation and we need comprehensive infrastructure,” Robinson said.
After Robinson proposed her ordinance, another council member sought to make its provisions citywide and allow the removal of bike lanes that neighborhood associations did not want — possibly putting improvements like the protected cycle track along Gillham Road in jeopardy.
What the bike lane ordinance says now: no bike lane removal, but a bike plan instead
The City Council approved an amended version of Robinson’s ordinance in mid-December. Introduced by Councilman Eric Bunch, a co-founder of BikeWalkKC who represents the 4th District that includes Midtown, the Country Club Plaza and downtown Kansas City, it omits language that would allow bike lanes to be removed.
The ordinance directs Platt, the city manager, to develop a five-year bike plan in collaboration with each City Council member.
Platt must present the new bike plan for City Council approval within 120 days. Construction on bike lanes or trails is prohibited before then, unless council members in that district approve. The ordinance requires Platt to notify neighborhood associations and seek feedback about proposed bike lanes 90 days before installation begins.
Robinson said she’s disheartened by the new wording of her ordinance. She called its approach “paternalistic,” and said it doesn’t address what she sees as the devaluing of longtime residents and neighborhood associations.
“The 3rd District is tired of being crushed by the walls of City Hall,” Robinson said. “And so we talked about Black Lives Matter. And we talked about how people can’t breathe. This is another instance of smothering the Black voice in our community.”
The original bike lane ordinance drew big opposition from bikers
More than 100 people sent public testimony to the city regarding Robinson’s ordinance, with many arguing that the city should not remove bike lanes that have already been installed.
Mitchell Williams is a 3rd District resident and an avid biker: He leads a local cycling club, teaches bike safety and represents the 3rd District on the city’s bicycle and pedestrian advisory committee. He was concerned that the ordinance would reverse the progress the city has made so far on bike infrastructure.
“It would be a signal that we’re going backwards,” he said.
As the ordinance has evolved, Williams still thinks the city is missing the bigger picture — that many 3rd District residents don’t own a car.
“So the bigger picture is that this little, small thing — people riding bicycles, being able to get on their mobility scooters and go places that they could not go before safely, riding, walking — these things help the community,” Williams said.
Williams said the original ordinance pitted bike lanes against sidewalks, when improvements to both are necessary and can be accomplished. He sees the debate around the ordinance as indicative of a broader class issue.
“This whole issue with people — adult people riding bicycles, not the ones that are in spandex, the people that have to ride bicycles, for transportation — they’re looked at as less than,” he said.
Stephen Krauska is active in the Longfellow Neighborhood Association, which extends into the 3rd and 4th council districts. He didn’t agree with potentially spending money to remove existing bike lanes, though he agrees that sidewalks need improvements.
“We’ve got advocates fighting for scraps over what is basically an overly car-dependent transportation system,” Krauska said. “The roads are going to get resurfaced and potholes replaced — that’s just going to happen. And when it comes to what we can do to improve the experience of people who don’t get around with cars, we shouldn’t be pitted against each other in terms of ‘we need a sidewalk or a bike lane.’”
Kelley with BikeWalkKC agrees that sidewalks have been neglected across the city, particularly in the 3rd District. He said Robinson’s original ordinance prioritized sidewalks over bike lanes, when it should have prioritized sidewalks over street resurfacing, which is the precursor to a new bike lane.
“By excluding bike lanes, you don’t actually solve the problem of priority,” Kelley said.
Kansas City’s progress on bike lanes
Kansas City has seen recent biking improvements, such as the two-way cycle track along Gillham Plaza and Gillham Road. But the city does not have an official plan in place to guide future bike projects. A master bike plan, drafted in 2019, was never adopted by the City Council.
“Because we have never formally adopted that plan, we are stuck with this kind of weird void where staff don’t have a clear direction on how to engage with the community,” Kelley said. “In the absence of that, confusion reigns. And when confusion reigns, that’s when things get crossed, and that’s where people get upset.”
Support for ordinance stems from wanting better for the 3rd District
As the city moves forward with the new, amended ordinance, Councilwoman Robinson said she wants to address the disinvestment in infrastructure in 3rd District neighborhoods.
“I believe that we have to walk and chew bubble gum at the same time,” she said. “We have to address the need for making sure the cyclists are safe, but also the dwindling and nonexistent investments in the 3rd District.”
Clark, the longtime 3rd District resident, said many opponents of Robinson’s original ordinance may not see or understand the infrastructure challenges facing many neighborhood streets east of Troost because they don’t live there.
“I think that there are places in the 3rd District where nobody else would ever go unless they live there,” he said. “I think that hyper-segregation reflects people’s understanding of the infrastructure of Kansas City.”