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Kansas City B-cycle rides into a town that might at last be ready to share the road

A new bike-sharing program, B-cycle, rolled downtown last Tuesday.

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Traffic slowed on the Heart of America Bridge late last Tuesday morning as drivers gawked at a pack of cyclists winding their way downtown. The 88 gray Trek bicycles were headed for Ilus Davis Park, in a volunteer-aided delivery organized by Bike Walk KC to mark the arrival of bike-sharing service B-cycle.

"This is how we take Kansas City to the next level," says Eric Rogers, executive director of Bike Walk KC. "Bike sharing is helping to transform a lot of other cities. We wanted to figure out how to make it happen here."

KC is the 12th city to install the bike-share system developed by B-cycle, a company based in Waterloo, Wisconsin, that's a partnership of bike manufacturer Trek, managed-care company Humana and ad agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky. B-cycle first rolled out the concept in Denver in 2010, with bikes featuring adjustable seats, built-in locks, and embedded GPS that tracks mileage and calories burned.

The local iteration launched last week, with 12 docking stations between the River Market and Crown Center. (Each station resembles a standard bike rack that has been crossed with an airport luggage-cart dispenser.) The 90 bikes that are spread among those docks are accessible via daily ($7), weekly ($15), monthly ($25) or yearly ($65) membership cards. The first half-hour is included in the membership price; every additional half-hour costs $2. Rogers likens the model to Redbox's DVD-rental kiosks — you can return a bike to any of the B-cycle stations.

"The thing I see here in Kansas City is that we don't like to walk very far," Rogers says. "But downtown, there's still a lot of those awkward distances that someone might consider too far to walk and too short to drive. That's where bike share comes in."

Blue Cross Blue Shield of Kansas City is the primary first-year sponsor of KC's $400,000 bike-sharing program. It funded a 2011 feasibility study by Vireo, a Kansas City design and planning firm, to assess residential and employment density and visitor attractions around the city. Vireo then aided in the design of a transportation model centered on short-term downtown rentals.

David Gentile, CEO of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Kansas City, says the company is looking for additional support from the downtown business community, in order to expand the program to Westport or the Plaza. "[The Blue Cross offices in] Minneapolis and Omaha saw an increase in the interest of wellness overall, and that got our attention," he says. "I think that's because it's something small that someone can take and run with."

Last week's stifling heat added a degree of difficulty to the kickoff event. At Ilus Davis Park, which sits at 11th Street and Oak between City Hall and the Federal Courthouse, riders were already sweating as they ambled up to the registration tent a little before 11 a.m. Helmets dangled from backpacks and belt loops. Dress shoes, sneakers and bike shoes alike awaited their pedals.

"I don't ride much, but I'm getting better," Matt Filing said, sliding a bright-yellow shirt over his head. "There's a kiosk in front of my office on Main Street, and I could see hopping on a bike to go to Union Station or somewhere else downtown."

Rogers, standing near the registration tent, heard his phone beep every few minutes, signaling a steady flow of tweets about the event. With the temperature climbing toward the century mark, he was eager to get everybody on the bikes.

"This is a short ride," Rogers said. "But it will be a big one."

Three buses make the seven-minute drive to a grassy field on the north side of the Heart of America Bridge, which had been set up as the staging area. The first-time bike sharers held their helmets on their laps and chattered like kids on a school field trip. Their two-wheeled return trip would take 20 minutes.

"Step right up and take a bike," Rogers told them when the buses discharged their passengers. He spread his arms in a ringmaster gesture.

The volunteers found their bikes, adjusted the seats, and secured bags and water bottles. They glanced at the advertisements below the handlebars and on the baskets, one of the funding streams for the program. A few passing cars honked to signal support.

"I'm happiest when I'm riding my bike," Peggy Mulvihill said. "I think this is great for the city. It's going to make the city safer for bikers because there will be more bikes on the street. If more people in Kansas City rode their bikes, they'd be happier."

When the ride started, at 11:27 a.m., Mulvihill put her left foot down and then her right, slowly pedaling up the incline. The heat promised to make the ride feel longer than one-third of an hour.

"It was a good ride across the bridge," Rick Usher said afterward, back at the park. The assistant to the city manager looked remarkably sweat-free, despite a necktie he hadn't taken off. "I'm a commuter biker. I live a mile from City Hall and I've been riding to work every day. Fourteen years ago, it was just me and another guy who rode into town. Now I'm seeing a lot more bikes in the morning and evening."

In 2007, the U.S. Census Bureau ranked Kansas City 50th out of 50 cities for bike commuting — an estimate of just 50 bike commuters out of a workforce numbering about 216,000 people. In July of that year, the city hired Deb Ridgway to be its bicycle and pedestrian coordinator. By 2009 (the latest year for which numbers are available), Kansas City had risen to 39th.

"I know there's a high interest in bicycling," Rogers says. "People are starting to do it for reasons of health or transportation or finance. And with all of the development downtown, there's a lot more to do and see. It's a better environment to be out bicycling."

A little before 2 p.m. last Tuesday, as traffic halted for a red light at the corner of 12th Street and Grand, bikers pedaled through the crosswalk on their way to a B-cycle docking station at 1233 Grand. One of the bicyclists, seeing that the light had changed, urged her fellow riders to pick up the pace. None of the drivers honked.

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