Though BikeWalkKC spearheaded the advocacy on decriminalizing walking and biking in Kansas City, they didn’t go it alone. Michael Kelley breaks down the process BikeWalkKC used to change city laws that were inequitably enforced and didn’t improve safety.
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EPISODE TRANSCRIPT TO COME
Cohen: Josh Cohen
Kelly: Michael Kelly
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Coming on the heels of implementing zero fare for city buses, Kansas City, Missouri recently decriminalized jaywalking, dirty bike tires, and bikes in poor condition. On The Movement podcast today, we get into how BikeWalkKC advocated for such a huge change in policy with BikeWalkKC’s policy director, Michael Kelly. Let’s go.
F: The freedom of movement to access jobs, education, and social activities is a fundamental human right, but that freedom is not distributed equitably, undermining our ability to create vibrant and sustainable communities for all. Welcome to The Movement where we talk with the leaders who are reshaping their communities with brave decisions, inspired advocacy, and a stubborn unwillingness to accept the status quo all in an effort to inspire the next generation of leaders. Here are your hosts Josh Cohen and L’erin Jensen.
Cohen: So our guest today is Michael Kelly, the policy director at BikeWalkKC in Kansas City, Missouri. This is our third episode to feature Kansas City. We recently talked with Jameson Auten a few weeks ago, “Episode 115,” and back on “Episode 050” we talked with Councilman Eric Bunch, a cofounder and prior policy director of BikeWalkKC. So we talked with him about zero fare transit in KC back in January 2020. So welcome to The Movement, Michael; big shoes to fill here.
Kelly: [LAUGHS] Yes, thank you so much for having me, Josh. I’m happy to be here.
Cohen: Well, good. Well, I want to dig into some of the news here in just a sec, but before we do that maybe just kind of lay the foundation here. Tell us a little bit about BikeWalkKC and, you know, kind of the foundational work that you’re doing and your role there.
Kelly: Sure. So BikeWalkKC is the area nonprofit for cyclists and pedestrians here in Kansas City, Missouri and the broader Kansas City region. We work to make Kansas City a safer place for biking and walking, and we do that through a combination of advocacy—which is my wheelhouse—education, planning, and running the area’s bikeshare program. So in terms of what I specifically do is I work to advocate in city halls across the region for the policies, the plans, and the projects which will help to improve the build environment and make it easier for anyone who wants to walk, ride, or roll to be able to do that to get from point A to point B.
Cohen: Awesome. And you mentioned bikeshare there earlier. I don’t know if I knew that. So that model is probably a little bit different. Most bikeshares are either run by a third party or sometimes by the city.
Cohen: So tell me a little bit about that part of it.
Kelly: Yeah, so we are one of the rare organizations that does education, advocacy, and bikeshare. And so with our bikeshare program we do a bikeshare, which is available in an increasing part of the region. We actually unveiled bikeshare in Kansas City, Kansas just across the state line earlier this week. And so with that program we have classic, pedal bikes; we also have electric assist bikes. And all of them operate under a dockless system, so instead of having to take it back to a hub, you can just end your ride by attaching it and locking it to some sort of apparatus, be it a rack, a pole, or something of that nature.
Cohen: I love that model because it makes basically the whole city the bike hub there, and any place can be the place where you want to lock it up because where you want to go doesn’t always correspond to where a dock might be.
Cohen: And let this be the kind of regular plug that if you’ve never tried an electric assist bike, you are doing yourself a disservice, that—just seek out whatever opportunity. If they’re not in your town with a bikeshare, I’m sure there’s somebody that has one that you could borrow or maybe go to a bike shop, or if you travel to a city that has a bikeshare with E-assist bikes; they are a game changer.
Kelly: Absolutely. My own bike at home that is an E-bike, and I use it pretty regularly to ride around, and it is a very fun experience.
Cohen: Yeah. The way I describe it is it makes you feel like Superman. You just—you press the pedal and you just kind of go, and that’s a pretty magnetic experience. So, yeah, I feel like that’s part of what’s missing. Obviously, E-bikes have gotten a lot of publicity over the course of the last year, and bikes in general, which is great. And I know there’s a lot of wait to get them and so forth, but I still think that if more people could just try it they would be hooked.
Kelly: For sure.
Cohen: So let’s dig into the news of the day, of the week, of the hour, if you will. And so recently the Kansas City, Missouri City Council decriminalized jaywalking, also a couple other elements, I think, in the city code, riding a bike in poor condition, dirty wheels, so forth. So these are kind of projects or things that BikeWalkKC had advocated for, and so I want to maybe dig into that a little bit. And, if you wouldn’t mind, really give us a little bit more insight into the role that you played in getting this accomplished. And maybe secondarily, what can other communities learn from what you accomplished to apply in their own communities?
Kelly: Sure. So to take a step back, the push to decriminalize walking and biking was something that came about in part as a result of the murder of George Floyd. So following the murder and the release of the video there were protests in Kansas City that mimicked a lot of what we saw across the country. And it also included the protests for local cases involving people who had been killed by the police, including folks like Terence Crutcher and Breona Hill. And so following those protests the mayor of Kansas City, Quinton Lucas, said that he wanted to do an evaluation of the full municipal code to identify portions that could lead to overpolicing or unnecessary interactions with police. And so BikeWalkKC took that as an opportunity to say, “Well, let’s apply that logic to biking and walking in our communities.”
So BikeWalkKC, we sat down, myself and our executive director Eric Rogers, and we looked through the municipal code. We looked at the transportation sections, the public space sections, and we basically tried to flag key laws that were essentially meeting two criteria more or less; were they written in a way that could lead to overpolicing, and do they actually make streets safer for vulnerable road users? And if we felt that they met those criteria, then we sat them aside and said, “We’re going to take a closer look at these.” And so by the end of it we ultimately identified the three measures that you just mentioned, the jaywalking, the bicycle inspections, and the dirty wheels.
So from there we sent a letter to Mayor Lucas saying, “Hey, these are the measures that we’ve identified that we believe you should pursue decriminalization for,” and that became part of our policy platform for 2021. We believed that we had to stand up for this; this was important for achieving a more equitable transportation system. And we got to work telling our partners about it and trying to raise awareness. We thought it would be a full year of advocacy, only to find out at the end of January that the mayor was planning to introduce legislation. We got an email from one of his staff saying, “We’re going to go forward with this.” And so all of our advocacy for the whole year was effectively crammed into several weeks.
Kelly: And so we did all of this work and we got it through council, and it kind of stalled for a little bit. What really got it moving again was one of the other councilmembers on the city’s transportation committee specifically requested what sort of data the city could produce. And something for listeners to keep in mind here is that Kansas City is one of the few municipalities in the country that does not have local control of its police department, which makes getting data very difficult in some instances. So the data that we ended up getting back showed that of the jaywalking tickets that had been handed out over the last three years, 65% had gone to Black pedestrians, despite the fact that Black residents only make up 30% of the city’s population. And when those numbers came out, that really kind of lit a spark under the legislation and ultimately led to it being unanimously adopted by the full council.
So, to answer your second question about what other communities should take from this, I think what I would offer is that on the side of the electeds, don’t wait for something like a George Floyd to have these conversations. We don’t want more videos of people being murdered for doing everyday things. And this is an opportunity to really think proactively about ways that you can ease that burden on your most vulnerable residents. For the advocates, it’s, “Be willing to speak up about this.” I think that a big part of what helped us to get this done wasn’t just BikeWalkKC speaking up about this, but our members and our various partners in all the parts of the community who came out and said in one way or another, you know, “Decriminalization of walking and biking is important. If we care about housing, if we care about safety, if we care about the environment, we have to take this step to make sure that we’re making a commitment to a more equitable transportation system.”
Cohen: Hmm. How important was it that the mayor kind of came out at the beginning saying this is something that he was interested in exploring, even if the way you took it was—I mean, because, again, I’m trying to put this in our audience perspective of how much of this success here can you, like, repeat in other places? Because I want this as repeatable as possible. Right?
Kelly: Sure. Yeah. And we want people to be able to repeat this as well.
Cohen: You probably don’t have the answer to that. I just—
Cohen: I’m maybe asking that out loud rhetorically as much as anything, but I’m curious if you have any thoughts as it relates to how other aspects of that might have impacted your ability to get this done, especially so quickly, all things considered. Right?
Kelly: Yeah. Yeah. So I think the thing that really helped from having the mayor’s backing with this was, you know, we had the top elected official in the city saying, you know, “This is something that needs to get done.” I will certainly say that it didn’t hurt that most of the members of the city council were also vocally in support of this from the beginning as well. And so I think what helped from our perspective was being very specific. So it wasn’t just us saying, you know, “Decriminalize everything and just, you know, let people do every little thing that they want on the street,” but specifically saying, “These portions of the municipal code are leading to overpolicing while not actually making our streets safer.” And so making that very specific ask but getting as many folks and partners in support of that to back that push as we could, made it impossible to be ignored and impossible to not take action on.
Cohen: Hmm. Yeah, I like that. And I think the data certainly helps. And I think that’s a good, stark kind of thing there. I’m also curious. And this is maybe a slightly different kind of way of looking at this as well. You know, I wrote a piece in Streetsblog a couple months ago about your mayor should be riding the bus. You know, part of the thesis there was that, you know, for the local officials, elected officials who are funding and sometimes directly operating public transit in communities it is so important for them to understand the experience of using transit in their community.
Cohen: So to maybe kind of dial that to Kansas City’s perspective, obviously Councilmember Bunch is intimately familiar with BikeWalkKC and, you know, the fact that those relationships that he has with other councilmembers, do you think that might have—or maybe not. I don’t know. I don’t know KC that well. But, like, I’m curious if that had anything potentially that might have impacted that to the degree of he’s bringing that perspective to every council meeting as a cyclist, as a walker, as a transit user, so forth.
Cohen: Do you think that that kind of thing, like, direct experience from your colleagues and maybe some of them as well of that direct experience of, “Hey, man, we have to make this easier for people to walk and bike safely”?
Kelly: Yeah. Well, I certainly think that it doesn’t hurt. And, I think, as much as he’s maybe shied away from it at times, he is someone who is considered kind of an authority on bike-ped issues amongst his council peers. And I think that that is something that is certainly helpful. I think what else is very helpful is that as much as we can, as an organization, we really do try to couch our discussions and our arguments for policy in the broader issues of the day. So whether it be affordable housing, sustainability, economic development, we really have worked to try to not only show our partners as they make the case for us but also to the existing councilmembers, “This isn’t something that’s just going to help the folks in spandex or the people who only want to walk for 0.2 miles or something like that. This really is something that will help a broad cross-section of our community.”
And so that makes it a lot easier for us to say, you know, “This is a health policy. This is a safety policy.” And so even if we don’t necessarily have 13 council members and a mayor who bike and walk everywhere, we do have a council member who cares a lot about safety. We have a council member who’s an expert on health. And the way we kind of tie all that together makes it that much easier for everyone to get behind policies like this.
Cohen: Mmm. I want to wrap this up, but this is such a fascinating thing. And, again, it’s such great work. What was some of the biggest pushback to any changes to this? Because I imagine there must have been some that you had to work through. Maybe it was kind of behind the scenes.
Cohen: But what were the people saying, “No, no, no, no, no. Wait, wait, wait. We can’t do that because…”? And how did you overcome that?
Kelly: So I would say probably the biggest pushback that we got was from the police department. There was—with jaywalking specifically, they were making the argument that the police are the ones who are supposed to be assigning blame if a pedestrian causes a crash that ends up with an injury or their death. And we didn’t agree with that. We reached out to a couple of our colleagues and partners who work in the legal field, and, I mean, as far we could tell they were saying, “No, that’s not true.”
We even got, I believe, the executive director of the Midwest Innocence Project to draft a letter of support. And in that letter she specifically said that this is not an accurate way to view how this law is supposed to be applied. And so being able to kind of numb that argument really made it a lot easier to kind of show, you know, we can still interpret this as a measure that’s going to make our streets safer. And once we were able to make that argument it made it a lot easier to go further.
The other thing I’ll say really quick too is that when the ordinance was first introduced, the idea that was put forth by the mayor was that they would modify jaywalking rather than repeal it entirely. And so there were several council members and there were several entities within the community that said, “This isn’t going to go far enough. And the way that it’s written this could actually make the situation worse.” And so we had to be mindful of that, and we took those concerns back to several of the council members who ultimately pushed for an amendment which fully struck jaywalking from the municipal code. So be mindful of what those additional partners have to say, but also using that experience and that knowledge when we could made it a lot easier to get something through that really addressed as much of the issue of decriminalization of walking and biking as possible.
Cohen: Yeah. I mean, it really is going to be neat to see how this plays out and then, of course, kind of where you turn your attention to next as far, you know, advocacy. I want to pivot a little bit towards BikeWalkKC’s mission, which is to redefine our streets as places for people to build a culture of active living.
Cohen: And so I’d love to maybe tease that out a little bit, what you think the biggest factor preventing that goal is today. And what can we do to overcome that?
Kelly: I think a big part of it is that there is still this misunderstanding of what walking, biking, and to a lesser extent transit means within the context of our transportation system. I think that there are large pockets of folks who still believe that it is something that is almost exclusively meant for exercise.
Kelly: Like, “I walk or I bike when I’m trying to lose weight and fit back into the jeans that I put away as a result of the pandemic,” or, “I’m just wanting to ride just to get out and see the trees.” And while it certainly has those benefits, we need to begin to understand that those are also forms of transportation which are good for our economy, that can support equity, and that can help us to create a more sustainable Kansas City. And so the way that we can resolve that is by improving the political will, so making sure that there are more people who have the knowledge and are willing to make the decisions that will make Kansas City more walkable, more bikeable but also committing to build more of the infrastructure we need to make that a reality. We need a robust build-out of sidewalks. We need a robust, connected network of protected bike facilities. And realizing how all of that ties in with the other issues we face is something that we work to do every day.
Cohen: I like the way you frame that, as far as reframing walking and cycling not as exercise but more as transportation modes. Because if you do look at them as a transportation mode, then that will in some ways shift how you can solve it or should solve it. Right? And I think that’s really where I feel like advocates have kind of missed the boat a little bit in the sense that—have not really embraced this as a transportation mode. And, again, there’s all kinds of issues with our transportation codes and manuals and so forth as it relates to where that is, but it’s even worse if it’s just looked as just, “Hey, this is a rich, White person’s exercise genre.”
Kelly: Or worse, if it’s seen as not something—as another form of transportation but as an impediment to the most important form of transportation, which is driving, in a lot of people’s eyes.
Cohen: I do think we’re making a lot of progress there on that front. I think there was some data. I can’t remember the article, but some data that’s talking about the amount of economic activity in communities that had—I think it was open streets or slow streets—
Kelly: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
Cohen: —was so much higher than the ones where folks were driving. And, again, cars don’t buy things. Right?
Cohen: But, you know, again, I think the other key thing I think you said there was talking about a network. Right?
Cohen: And I think, again, we’ve got to be careful with codes and laws that regulate things but don’t think about how it largely stiches together. And I think about this all the time when I see those sidewalks that go nowhere. And, you know, in some ways a sidewalk is better than no sidewalk.
Kelly: For sure. And especially here in Kansas City I think that there are historic ramifications for how we have chosen to invest, and it really is kind of a stark contrast, because you see that we haven’t built out the city’s east side that is predominantly made up of people of color and has higher concentrations of low-income earners. And when you overlay that with the lack of infrastructure which supports walking and biking and the amount of people who have poor health outcomes it just becomes much more clear that the way that we’re doing things is simply not working, and we have to change it.
Cohen: So let’s maybe wrap up with this. I’m curious, as you’ve gone through your career and you’ve interfaced with elected officials and other great folks in your career along the way, I’m curious what some of the lessons that you’ve learned about good, effective leadership that you’ve either integrated into your own life or your own leadership or maybe something that you’re hoping to do down the road but have really resonated with you.
Kelly: Well, I think, one big thing that I’ve really taken to heart and I tell folks a lot working with BikeWalkKC in particular is advocacy is a team sport. Like, I appreciate getting the accolades and the retweets and everything and shout-outs, but the only reason that I’m able to say that we were able to do something like decriminalize walking and biking in Kansas City is because of our partners; it’s because of folks like the Midwest Innocence Project; it’s because of folks like the KC Tenants; it’s because of neighborhoods like Paseo West and Marlborough.
We have to understand that the best way for us to make walking and biking more of an issue that people care about is to get more people to speak up about it. And as much as we can, it is incumbent upon us to listen to those voices, to hear those concerns but also to take that to heart and use that to build a stronger message that resonates with more people. When you’re able to do that, you’re able to build something that people have a hard time standing up against. And when you have that, you’re in such a better position to be successful. So if there’s anything that I can stress to folks who are listening and wanting advice from me, advocacy is a team sport absolutely.
Cohen: Hmm. And having those relationships and building those relationships with those partners, any insights from your experience on how to do that as effectively as possible?
Kelly: I would say that it comes down to two basic things. The first is make clear what it is that you’re trying to achieve. So if everyone understands what the game plan is, what we’re trying to get done, then it’s easier for people to get behind it, but also make your ask simple. So when we were trying to advocate for this, I was doing outreach to partners and effectively asking for two things; “Can you share this and make this clear with your own members and your own networks? And can you give us a letter of support? Here’s a template.” And so being able to make it clear that we all wanted to get decriminalization done but also this is the easiest way to make your voice heard and to get involved made it real easy for us to get a bunch of partners from a broad cross-section of the community to back this issue and ultimately to show that this was something that mattered and get the votes we needed to get it passed.
Cohen: I love that, and I think that also just reinforces that, you know, when it comes to those elected officials, what they want to make sure is that whenever they make decisions that they don’t want to end up on an island like they’re the only one that’s advocating for something. So when you can walk into that meeting and say, “No, it’s not just BikeWalkKC, but it’s all these other groups that have identified this as something important,” that’s some good tactical advice. And I love the—I mean, I’m a big fan of simplicity, so you had me at “two simple things.” I’m down with that all the time. Where can folks learn more about the work you’re doing there at BikeWalkKC?
Kelly: Sure. Just check out BikeWalkKC.org, and you can also follow us on social media; we’re on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram. And we always appreciate a follow here and there.
Cohen: Awesome. Well, congratulations, Michael and the team—just to be clear—with BikeWalkKC on some great advocacy work here to decriminalize jaywalking and biking as well with bike registrations and dirty wheels and so forth there in Kansas City. It’s tremendous progress, and I think will be hopefully a template for other communities going forward on how to bring more equitable access to mobility throughout their communities. So thank you so much for joining.
Kelly: Thank you very much, Josh. Appreciate the invitation.
F: Thanks for listening. If you like what you hear, head to Apple Podcasts and subscribe, rate, and review this podcast. You can find out more at TransLoc.com or follow Josh Cohen on Twitter at @CohenJP. Be sure to join us next week for another episode of The Movement.
Hear more from Josh Cohen in this blog and take this two question quiz (seriously—only two questions!) on how we can build this community to truly create the equitable, accessible, and verdant mobility future we all deserve?