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Kansas City's winter road strategy forces walkers and bikers onto dangerous paths of ice and snow

A person riding a bicycle wears thick, winter clothing while peddling on a snowy sidewalk. Behind him are many trees and street lamps in a snow-covered park.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
A bicyclist pedals along Pershing Road through Washington Square Park recently while snow was falling in the metro.

Riding a bike to get groceries, walking from your house to the bus stop, or even just getting a ride to work can be a challenge in Kansas City in severe winter weather. While the city and state transportation officials clear streets, residents without cars say bike lanes, sidewalks and bus stops don't get the same attention.

Zeke Shepherd, a mechanic at Velo Garage and Tap House in North Kansas City, rides his bike to work everyday. To get to work he has to cross the Heart of America bridge, which connects downtown Kansas City with the Northland.

When snow and ice covered the Kansas City metro, he did what he’d always done in the past — swap out the tires on his mountain bike for ones built for heavy snow. He took to social media to beg for the bridge’s pedestrian walkways to be cleared, but nothing happened.

“If I was the only person using the HOA, it wouldn't be that big of a deal, but I know that I'm not," Shepherd said. "It’s never taken quite this much work to get somebody to do something about it.”

Shepherd said he felt lucky to have his snow tires and hiking shoes, but said residents without cars shouldn’t need specialized equipment to get around their city.

The Kansas City metro has consistently ranked among the most car-dependent metropolitan areas in the United States. When the metro is covered in snow and ice, as it has been in recent weeks, Shepherd and others were reminded of the challenges of living without a car in the Kansas City area.

“We as a city, and as a region, don't do enough to make sure that people are able to walk, bike, and use transit, no matter the weather,” said Michael Kelley, Policy Director for BikeWalkKC. “We need to be able to get to work, to the grocery store, to every place that people who drive need to get to.”

While there are procedures in place for cleaning roads and highways in most cities in the metro, plans for clearing sidewalks and bike lanes are often vague, or don’t exist at all.

In Kansas City, Missouri, there is no official policy on clearing either.

‘Most people just ignore it’

According to statements given to KCUR by the Kansas City Public Works Department, the city only removes snow and ice from pedestrian walkways in “heavily trafficked areas.” Elsewhere, home and business owners are responsible for clearing paths themselves.

It’s a system that’s meant to split up the work and not stretch city resources too thin, but some people worry that it puts too much responsibility on residents.

“I understand Kansas City has [a rule] requiring property owners or tenants to remove snow from sidewalks adjacent to their property. It is not enforced. Most people, therefore, just ignore it,” said Kansas City resident Russ Ashley via KCUR’s text line.

According to the Public Works department, residents can report properties who are not removing snow to the Neighborhood Services Department. Then they’ll typically dispatch a Community Engagement Officer to visit the property and speak with the owner.

When it comes to bike lanes, the main issue is the availability of right-sized equipment.

“We have an entire fleet of snow plows for our roads and for our arterials,” said Kelley. “We only have a few snow plows that are sized specifically for sidewalks and trails and bike lanes.”

The lack of equipment often means bike lanes are the last to be cleared, if they're cleared at all, leaving residents who use bikes no choice but to walk, or ride in the street with traffic.

“It's one of those things where it seems like drivers don't seem to understand,” said Shepherd. “It's like, ‘You're supposed to be in the bike lane!’ Yeah, but can you even see the bike lane?”

‘No one’s done anything’

According to Shepherd, the roads on the HOA bridge were cleared for drivers relatively quickly. The pedestrian walkways were another story.

“Every time they run a plow down the street, it shoots whatever's on the road up over the wall onto the [pedestrian] path,” explained Shepherd. “It’s like going for an off-road hike when all you want to do is go to work.”

The bridge’s road and walkways are technically the Missouri Department of Transportation’s responsibility, though their website makes clear plowing walkways are lower on their priority list.

Shepherd said he reached out to MODOT several times after the first snowfall of the year, even posting almost every day about the state of the bridge on his social media. He got no response from MODOT.

“In years past, it seems like they would respond fairly quickly and that same day or the next day there's somebody there doing something about it,” he said. “But this year I started talking about it at the beginning of [January] and I haven't heard anything. No responses.”

In a statement provided to KCUR, MODOT said that the City of Kansas City took over responsibility for clearing pedestrian and bike paths because MODOT’s crews were spread too thin.

Kansas City's City Manager, Brian Platt, responded to a request made via X to clear the HOA bridge, saying that city work crews were on it. He later responded in the same thread saying the job was done.

Shepherd fired back on X three hours later with a picture showing the path still caked with snow and ice.

MODOT subsequently told KCUR that the bridge’s pedestrian walkways were eventually cleared by Kansas City work crews. Officials admitted it took several requests from residents.

Michael Kelley said the lack of attention to walkers and bicyclists in times of inclement weather reflects a policy that reinforces our car-centric culture.

“We don't invest in the maintenance of bike lanes, of sidewalks or transit stops to the same degree that we do our roads,” explained Kelley. “It makes what's already often a difficult task in Kansas City, existing without a car, that much harder.”

As KCUR’s Community Engagement Producer, I help welcome our audiences into the newsroom, and bring our journalism out into the communities we serve. Many people feel overlooked or misperceived by the media, and KCUR needs to do everything we can to cover and empower the diverse communities that make up the Kansas City metro — especially the ones who don’t know us in the first place. My work takes the form of reporting stories, holding community events, and bringing what I’ve learned back to Up To Date and the rest of KCUR.

What should KCUR be talking about? Who should we be talking to? Let me know. You can email me at zjperez@kcur.org or message me on Twitter at @zach_pepez.

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