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Kansas City, Kansas, is adding 12 miles of levee bike trail, but riders still worry about access

Three bikers - two men and one woman- all in bike gear, pause their ride on a gravel road at the top of the levee along the Kansas river.
Courtesy Rick Behrens
Biking enthusiasts regularly take to the 5 miles of existing levee trail in Kansas City, Kansas. All are hopeful the 12 mile extension will allow easier access.

Kansas City, Kansas, finished the first 4-mile leg of the bike trail on the Armourdale levee in 2016. Now, it’s extending the trail. The levee trail is part of the county's effort to get more people outside and exercising, but some residents say lack of access has made trailheads difficult to find.

Rick Behrens, pastor of Grandview Park Presbyterian Church, loves to ride the five mile bike trail that runs along the top of the levee backing up the Kansas River in the Armourdale neighborhood of Kansas City, Kansas.

On a recent spring morning, he surveyed the stretch of levee as heavy construction equipment moved slabs of concrete designed to extend the trail to 17 miles.

But it’s not just about recreation for Behrens.

He’s been the Levee Trail coordinator since 2015, working closely with the Wyandotte County Health Department in an effort to improve chronically poor health metrics by enhancing outdoor recreational amenities. He sees the beauty of the river as a draw for walkers and bikers moving toward a more fit lifestyle.

“It was really a good effort to educate the public that it exists,” he said, “and to also educate our legislators and local politicians to the reality that this is an infrastructure that’s ideal for healthy outcomes.”

Army Corp of Engineers construction crews are raising the levee by four feet to prevent major flooding like that in 1993. Waters spilled over the levees, doing $20 billion in damages across the Midwest, much of it right here in Wyandotte County.

But advocates like Behrens argue that the potential health benefits are equally as important as extending the biking and hiking trail.

Letters spelling out levee trail stand against a wooden fence as people walk a trail in front of the fence
Courtesy Matt Kleinmann
The Armourdale levee trail hadn't yet been started when residents put up these letters. Now the five mile trail is being extended by 12 miles.

Wyandotte County ranks third to last among Kansas' 105 counties in health outcomes. Obesity rates are at almost 50 percent among adults, according to 2023 data from the Kansas Health Institute.

Nearly 30 percent of adults are sedentary, the most in the state. Neighboring Johnson County has the fewest number of sedentary adults, according to a 2021 study by Kansas Health Matters. In fact, Johnson County gets among the highest marks for physical health in a number of categories.

Former KCK Mayor Mark Holland, who was in office between 2013 and 2018, worked with Behrens on efforts to improve the county's overall health metrics. Holland became increasingly convinced the city needed to invest in upping the physical activity among its residents.

That’s one reason he supported infrastructure to establish Healthy Communities Wyandotte, an initiative that invested in transportation as well as more recreation to get people up and moving.

Developing opportunities along the riverfront was a main focus, said Holland.

“It was important to give residents entry to the riverfront because most of the waterfront in the metropolitan area has been given to industrial use," he said.

Kids on bikes along a residential street with bearded grey-haired man in right corner
Courtesy Lee Trotter
Lee Trotter gathers school kids for a bike ride once a week, hoping they'll establish fitness routines. He's frustrated he has to cross the state line to find suitable rides because the levee is either hard to access or closed.

Access remains a challenge

Once a week, avid cyclist Lee Trotter meets up with kids for a weekly bike ride in Kansas City, Kansas. He's the director of an organization called Free Wheels for Kids, focused on bicycle training, fitness and exercise opportunities for public school children in KCK.

They recently came together to start a ride along the Jersey Creek Trail, a 1.8-mile path located a couple of minutes from the levee. Trotter argues the effort to establish these outdoor amenities has fallen short. He said there still aren’t enough green spaces or hiking and biking trails in Wyandotte County. He’s tired of having to cross the county line to find what officials in Wyandotte County have been promising for years.

“I go to other areas of town and people are out walking their dogs, riding their bikes, and walking just to be walking,” he said. “I don't see as much as I'd like here in Kansas City, Kansas."

Trotter loves to ride along the river and enjoy the reflection of the sun and lapping waters along the banks. But getting to trailheads is not easy. He said heavy brush often obscures the trails. They can be hard to find unless you already know where they are. Bikers new to the sport often give up as semi-trucks traveling to and from the surrounding industrial areas block roads.

Bikers often are asked to pedal back to where they parked to move their cars so trucks can pass through.

“The city has talked about making some nice trailheads, but we haven't seen it yet,” he said, “so we're hoping that they're going to keep to that. I’ve seen some nice drawings but until we see these nice parks come up we're just going to keep our fingers crossed and hopefully that happens.”

Mata Townsend with Groundwork N.R.G. agrees. Groundwork's mission is focused on revitalizing the Northeast corridor of Wyandotte County. In her current position she is coordinating the project for the KCK Heritage Trail, a hiking and biking path of historic landmarks between Kaw Valley Point and the historic Quindaro township.

Townsend is Black and says she has seen the impact of the lack opportunities for exercise on her community. Poor markers showing where the trails start and where you can jump on are lacking, she said.

“It’s really interesting because there probably are a lot more trails than you would imagine, but they are not, as you would say, accessible.”

Officials say the extension of the KCK levee trail will be finished in 2026. The existing trail is close for construction at the moment.
Courtesy Rick Behrens
Officials say the extension of the KCK levee trail will be finished in 2026. The existing trail is close for construction at the moment.

Officials with the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kansas, are aware of this problem. Sara White, project manager of levee trails, understands existing trails and other efforts by the Unified Government have not significantly improved health metrics.

“Most people who live one to two miles from the river have not actually been to the river,” she said. She believes the trail extension will change that.

“We will be able to engage one of the community’s biggest assets that has not been fully utilized throughout the years.”

White said this new stretch of the trail will reach approximately 27,000 people, around 16 percent of Wyandotte County’s population, in parts of the county most affected by poor health. She said the project is ahead of schedule with 60 percent of the construction done.

Wyandotte County might look to Carrollton, Georgia, an hour and a half outside Atlanta, for some insights. The 18 mile Greenbelt Trail is the longest looped trail in Georgia. Students at the University of West Georgia conducted a survey in which they asked 300 people about the Greenbelt. Almost all responded that they exercised more than they did in the two years before the trial's official completion in 2016.

Rick Behrens hopes something similar will happen in Kansas City, Kansas. He's part of a cycling Facebook group whose members are attempting to grow Wyandotte County’s cycling community. Once this new section of trail is done, he’s optimistic ridership will increase.

“We’re eager to see when the trail will be open to the public,” he said. “Once it's done, KCK residents will have something extraordinary to be proud of.”

I was raised on the East Side of Kansas City and feel a strong affinity to communities there. As KCUR's Solutions reporter, I'll be spending time in underserved communities across the metro, exploring how they are responding to their challenges. I will look for evidence to explain why certain responses succeed while others fail, and what we can learn from those outcomes. This might mean sharing successes here or looking into how problems like those in our communities have been successfully addressed elsewhere. Having spent a majority of my life in Kansas City, I want to provide the people I've called friends and family with possible answers to their questions and speak up for those who are not in a position to speak for themselves.
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