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Banking on KC – Eric Rogers of BikeWalkKC

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Click here to listen now, or read the transcript below:

 

Kelly Scanlon:

Welcome to Banking on KC. I'm your host Kelly Scanlon. Thank you for joining us. With us on this episode is Eric Rogers, the co-founder and executive director of BikeWalkKC. Welcome, Eric.

Eric Rogers:

Hello, Kelly. Thank you for having me.

Kelly Scanlon:

What inspired you to launch the organization?

Eric Rogers:

It's really two things. One is personal, I was a frustrated bike commuter. Way back in the early 90s, I was working downtown, my first job out of college, and I couldn't afford to park downtown so I started taking the bus and then eventually started biking to work. And this was back at a time in our city's history where there was really nothing for alternative transportation so I got interested in what was going on in the city. And then around 2007, 2008, I think, one of those many lists of city rankings came out and Kansas City ranked dead last for being a bike-friendly city. And somehow, the BBC found that and BBC Radio came to Kansas City, spent a few days here, and did a whole radio documentary on what it was like in the worst place to bike in the United States.

Kelly Scanlon:

Oh, for heaven's sakes.

Eric Rogers:

Yeah. So that was a little bit of infamy that was kind of a wake-up call for the community and the city council at the time set a goal that we would be a bike-friendly community. One of the pieces of that was we were one of the largest cities in the United States that didn't have a dedicated professional advocacy group working on these issues and it showed, obviously. So those kinds of personal and civic elements kind of went into the idea that eventually led us to start BikeWalkKC. At that time, in the late 90s being a Gen Xer, I was of the generation where all my friends were moving to places like Seattle and Chicago, but I realized Kansas City is the type of place where it's actually pretty accessible for folks to jump in and get involved. And I realized I could help make the city more like I wanted it to be rather than moving somewhere else where that work had already been done.

Kelly Scanlon:

Exactly. You decided you could make a difference here. So you launched BikeWalkKC, and as you said, it started out as an advocacy organization. And we're going to talk about that a little bit, but it has evolved into much more than that now. It essentially has three arms, education, events, and the advocacy piece. Let's start with the advocacy piece first because that's where it all started.

Eric Rogers:

Well, our mission is that we want to make our streets places for people to build a culture of active living. And we believe that things like walking and biking are simple solutions to some really complex problems. Things like the environment, the economy, health. What we really try to do with advocacy is change the physical built environment of our community so that the healthy choice and the sustainable choice to get around is also the easiest and the safest choice. So we don't always default to just hopping in our car and driving somewhere. Most trips that people take are under five miles, which is a very easy biking trip, and depending on how close, it can also be an easy walking trip. So we really look at advocacy as a way to change the fabric of the community so it's more safe and accessible for everybody.

Kelly Scanlon:

So what you're talking about here, essentially, is you're talking about biking lanes, you're talking about biking trails, and other places that are dedicated to people who do choose bikes as a transportation vehicle.

Eric Rogers:

Yes. And it's more than bikes. It's also a lot of pedestrian issues, walking. So things like sidewalks, crosswalks, making it safer for kids to walk to school. It's about more than just choice. It's not just that kind of spandex weekend warrior you might think of on a bike, but it's also those folks who don't have access to a vehicle. There are a lot of zip codes in our city where fewer than half of households have access to a car. Oftentimes, those are the same parts of town that have really serious disparities and things like health, health outcomes, asthma, all sorts of the problems that come from all the structural problems that are endemic to Kansas City. So it's really about supporting all of those, whether it's somebody who is walking to the bus stop or somebody who wants to bike to work for whatever reason.

Kelly Scanlon:

And there's an education piece as well. Talk to us about your educational efforts.

Eric Rogers:

So we find that there are a lot of folks that are interested in walking or biking, either for transportation or recreation, but they maybe don't know where to start, or they don't feel comfortable or confident. So that's where we do a lot of education in the community, both adult and youth education. We actually have one of the larger youth education programs in the country. And it's mostly organized around the idea of this concept that we call Safe Routes to School, which is making it safe and accessible for kids to walk or bike to school.

Eric Rogers:

And a big reason why we focus there is that this is the first generation of kids in America who are likely to have a lower life expectancy than their parents. Something that's never happened before. And that was trending even before the pandemic impacted everybody. And if you look at the recent past, back in the 70s, around half of kids were walking or biking to school, and now it's less than 15%. And that really shows in the health problems that our kids have in terms of childhood obesity, childhood cardiac problems, all of those things that are largely a function on sedentary lifestyles.

Kelly Scanlon:

So how do you work with the schools to get your message across?

Eric Rogers:

So we partner with about 15 to 20 schools every semester, primarily focus in the urban core, in the first-ring suburbs. We bring a variety of programs into schools, either as part of physical education classes or afterschool programs. So we'll bring a fleet of bikes in, and we'll teach kids how to bike, how to do all of the bike handling and stopping and starting and signaling. And then at the end of the program, they go on a graduation ride in the neighborhood around their school.

Eric Rogers:

With older kids in high school, it looks more like a youth development program. We'll get old donated bikes and we'll teach the kids how to fix the bikes up and then they earn the bike at the end of the program. And then they also have the skills to keep that bike working on their own. And then we'll do things like have city council members or school board members go on bike rides with the kids and we'll bike down to City Hall and have them meet the mayor and use the bike really just as a vehicle to get them involved in the community and really start developing their skills with community service and community involvement.

Kelly Scanlon:

So many different ways to think of a bike as a way to get you going places.

Eric Rogers:

Yeah, absolutely. I like to talk about transportation as kind of, it is infrastructure, but it's also something that underpins so many other things. It's a foundation that supports economic development, personal growth, personal health, community involvement. It really is something that is underneath everything that goes on and that we care about in our community.

Kelly Scanlon:

Yes, it definitely does. What are some of the events, that's the third arm, is events, what are some of the events that you hold so that you can invite the community in and some of the kids that you've worked with and others?

Eric Rogers:

We do have a variety of events to build community and help people discover that walking and biking are really great ways to explore their own community and see them in a new way. What you see out of the window of a car at 50 miles an hour, is much different than what you might see walking down the sidewalk at two miles an hour. When we do events, we often hear feedback from folks that, "I had no idea this was in my neighborhood because I had never stopped and really explored in that way." So we have a program called Women Bike KC where we focus on getting more women biking.

Eric Rogers:

So that's a variety of community-building events, bike rides, kind of social events to support folks who just want to get out and explore in a non-threatening and accessible way. We work on a lot of larger community events with other organizations. So there's the Green Commute Challenge with the Mid-America Regional Council where we work with employers to help them get folks into other ways to get to or from work. In the spring, in May of every year, there's National Bike Month. And then in October, there's International Walk to School Day. So it's a variety of things throughout the year.

Kelly Scanlon:

So all kinds of different ways to engage with your organization and to ride or to walk. What has the community impact?

Eric Rogers:

We've now had more than 30,000 kids in the Kansas City region come through our educational programs. Before the pandemic, we were on track to serve 10,000 kids in 2020. That's exciting because we know that kids who grow up learning how to bike safely ultimately become safer drivers.

Kelly Scanlon:

Interesting.

Eric Rogers:

We've also started to really see an impact on the physical environment of Kansas City. Folks may know a couple of years ago, there was a big infrastructure bond that KC voters approved to invest in streets and bridges and things. And through our advocacy, we were able to get $150 million set aside for sidewalks, to fix the crumbling or non-existent sidewalks in many of our neighborhoods. And that was a really important policy change for equity as well because we were also able to get the financial responsibility for sidewalk repair shifted from property owners to City Hall. We won't find what we were finding before where somebody may get a $10,000 assessment when the city comes and fixes their sidewalk on a house that's worth 40,000, that just doesn't work.

Eric Rogers:

So getting that financial burden off of some of our most vulnerable neighborhoods was a really important thing to do. This also saves lives. We've been going through a surge in traffic fatalities in Kansas City the last few years. And often, those are impacting some of our most vulnerable communities. So communities of color and people that live in those neighborhoods are much more likely to be injured or even killed while they're out walking or biking. So it's an important equity issue that we tackle. We did some work with some researchers at UMKC a couple of years ago to do an assessment of the city's new bike master plan. And we found that if the city fully built out the 600 miles of bikeways that are proposed, it could save up to 35 lives a year. And that's through things like reducing traffic crashes, improving air quality, and then improving health, people's own personal health. So it does have an impact on lives and it can save lives if we do this work.

Kelly Scanlon:

One of the things that I think is interesting is that Kansas City had the first advocate-owned bike-sharing system in the entire country. What does that mean, advocate owned bike-sharing system and how did it come about?

Eric Rogers:

So originally bike share was really something that was often driven by a mayor or a City Hall. They are often nonprofits that operate those programs. We started our bike share system because we had an opportunity to do it completely privately, actually. Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Kansas City were really interested in community health and public health and saw bike share as something that can make an impact. So they invested in some seed money to help us come up with a plan and do a business plan and a feasibility study. And then they invested as the private sponsor that helped us get the program going. And then from there, we've been able to partner with municipalities around the region to invest in the program and grow and keep it moving forward. We've done some really unique things in Kansas City to integrate bike share.

Kelly Scanlon:

Yeah. What are some of those?

Eric Rogers:

Bike share in Kansas City is increasingly integrated with public transit. We recently rebranded as RideKC Bike to show that it's part of the family of transit agencies under the RideKC umbrella. Bike share is co-located with most of the streetcar stops, the MAX, bus rapid transit lines, it's part of the region's strategy for something called mobility hubs, which is a designated area where a lot of different things come together. So streetcar, bus, bike share, Uber, Lyft, all of those things where you can have lots of options in one place.

Kelly Scanlon:

As you might imagine, there's been a huge increase in biking and in bike sales during the pandemic. In fact, at one point, I'd heard that it was hard to even get your hands on a bike in Kansas City early on when people were looking for ways to get outside and move about safely. Do you think that that trend will hold?

Eric Rogers:

I think we'll see a lot of it stick around. I think people realized, especially during the stay-at-home phase in the spring, that being outside and being able to walk and bike and be socially distant was really important, not only for people's physical health, but also for their mental health. And you're right, there still is a global bike shortage. And even if you have a bike, you're going to wait to get it into the bike shop to get it repaired. That was another instance where we were able to go to City Hall and advocate for more space outside for people to be out and active. So a lot of neighborhoods closed down residential streets so that there was more space for people.

Eric Rogers:

And the city closed some streets around parks so that there was more space on the trails around the region. And I think we will see a lot of it stick around. I think we haven't even begun to see the ways that the pandemic and the recovery are going to reshape our lives. A lot of us are talking about, "I just can't wait for things to get back to normal," but the reality is, for a lot of folks, normal wasn't that great to begin with. So this, like many issues, is an opportunity for us to talk about what would a better normal look like?

Kelly Scanlon:

We've talked today, mostly about neighborhoods, but you're starting to see trails that go through states in a coordinated effort among those different states. So talk to us about that.

Eric Rogers:

Yeah. A lot of it is because communities are seeing the bikes mean business. There's a really strong economic development case. The workforce of the future to recruit and retain those talented mobile folks. They want to see these types of things in their community. The Katy Trail that goes across Missouri through lots of little small towns, it's really revived a lot of small towns with BnBs and wineries and breweries. It's something like a $100,000,000 annual economic impact from the Katy Trail. Something that we're working on at BikeWalkKC and with our partners across Missouri and Kansas is to finally connect the Katy Trail all the way into Kansas City. And then the next thing will be to connect South and West, so the Flint Hills Nature Trail and to the Kansas trail system.

Kelly Scanlon:

Yeah. That would really be a huge accomplishment. For someone who's interested in learning more about biking, what would you recommend?

Eric Rogers:

So one of the things at BikeWalkKC is we offer a lot of classes during the year, things like Confident City Cycling, Maintain Your Ride. So if you check out our events calendar on our website at bikewalkkc.org, you can find classes in your area. A lot of those are virtual right now so you can even learn a little bit at home. I also encourage folks to check out their local bike shop. These are really important local businesses that are a vital part of our local economy. Those local bike shops often offer classes and opportunities to come in and learn more.

Kelly Scanlon:

Eric, you mentioned that BikeWalkKC is a nonprofit entity. How do you get the bikes that you use and how do you sustain the organization?

Eric Rogers:

Well, like any non-profit, we rely on the generosity of our members and our individual donors, as well as some great leaders in the Kansas City philanthropic community. So we're fortunate to have support from folks like the Health Forward Foundation, Paul Family Foundation. It's really great to be a nonprofit in Kansas City because our community is so generous with their time and their treasure.

Kelly Scanlon:

Yeah. That's very true. So anyone who is interested in learning more about biking can go to the website, bikewalkkc.org. But if you're interested in donating whether that's monetarily or whether you have equipment, not just bikes, but I'm sure you are in need of things associated with the ride, like the helmets and gloves and other items, they can go out to the website and get information on how to contact you, correct?

Eric Rogers:

Yep, absolutely.

Kelly Scanlon:

It's been great having you with us on this episode of Banking on KC, Eric. Thank you for all you're doing to bring the community together in Kansas City.

Eric Rogers:

Thank you, Kelly. Thank you for having me.

Joe Close:

This is Joe Close, president of Country Club Bank. Thank you to Eric Rogers for being our guest on this episode of Banking on KC. We applaud the efforts of Eric, his team at BikeWalkKC, and his regional partners to advocate for a more walkable and bike-friendly city that redefines our streets as places for active living. Their work has had a direct impact on connecting communities, enhancing quality of life, improving the safety of our neighborhoods and streets, and advancing walking and biking as practical forms of transportation. And just as BikeWalkKC promotes healthy and engaged communities, Country Club Bank has supported the building and growth of the vibrant sustainable metro since our founding. We embrace that philosophy in the broadest sense, whether lifestyle, business, cultural, or socio-economic. Thanks for tuning in this week. We're banking on you, Kansas City. Country Club Bank, member FDIC.