Amid the stream of weekday commuters rushing down Santa Fe Trail Drive, 33-year-old Noah Dunker is happy just bobbing along on his bicycle.
You might not feel safe pedaling alongside all the SUVS, cars and delivery trucks. But Dunker can be found most mornings and evenings hunched over the handlebars of his trusty Trek. Head down. Eyes forward. Sweat pouring in summer. Fingers numb in winter.
Like an all-weather radial, Dunker bikes to and from work year-round, burning calories instead of gasoline on the 12-mile round trip. For sure, he’s not the only bike commuter in Johnson County. I’m one, too, as a matter of fact, and you’re seeing more and more of us out on the roads.
Before dawn, helmet headlights blinking like strobes on a disco ball. Coming home around supper time, our backpacks and saddlebags packed full of folded work clothes.
Of course, people who use bikes as transportation rather than simply for recreation are still a tiny minority in Johnson County. And so, by example and on his blog, KC Bike Commuting, Noah Dunker shows those who might want to give it a try themselves that you needn’t be raving mad to pedal on the crowded streets of suburbia. Choose your routes carefully, take safety precautions, and biking can be a viable alternative to driving in Johnson County.
“The roads that I use are always very pleasant,” he said. “In the two years of bicycling that route, I’ve been maybe honked at twice.”
I’d agree, based on my dozen years of on-road cycling in the metro area. Johnson County is more hospitable to cyclists than some would have you believe. And it’s getting better all the time as cities such as Leawood, Shawnee and Overland Park strive to make themselves more bicycle friendly.
To varying degrees, the county’s 20 municipalities are adding bike lanes, working on bicycle master plans and establishing goals to make streets more friendly to bicyclists and pedestrians.
Some are more reluctant than others — such as my town, Lenexa. Yet recently even De Soto reversed its 12-year bicycle ban along narrow 83rd Street, making it once again part of the most direct route between Johnson County and Lawrence.
And when the many off-road cycling opportunities are added in — fully half of metro KC’s 230 miles of recreational trails are in Johnson County — then Joco clearly has a lot going for it. That’s true whether you’re a hard-core bike commuter, a spandex-wearing street racer or a mom or dad who’s just starting to ride around the neighborhood with the kids.
“I ride all over the country,” said Wayne Byrd, a former Overland Park City councilman who founded the national Bicycle Friendly Communities program, “and I think Johnson County is kind of a wonderful place to bicycle.”
So air up those tires, why don’t you? Today in 913, we take a long look at what Johnson County has to offer cyclists of all levels, the strengths, the weaknesses and opportunities for improvement. With the weather as nice as it is, our timing couldn’t be better. Let’s take a spin.
First stop on our virtual ride through Johnson County is an amenity that county officials have a right to be mighty proud of. Our extensive trail system.
Be it for a leisurely bike ride or a day-long trek free of encounters with motor vehicles, there is no shortage of places to hop on a trail in Johnson County.
In all but the most densely populated northeast corner of the county, which built up long before trail-building became a national trend in the early 1980s, this network of paved pathways spread out across Joco like a web. Some paths stretch but a few blocks. Others, like the Gary Haller Trail through Mill Creek Streamway Park, go for miles without ever crossing a road.
“The trail system is really good,” Eric Rogers of the advocacy group BikeWalk KC said in a bit of understatement.
The most asphalt paths meander past suburban back yards. They yawn on past meadows, along creek beds into woods where you are apt to encounter deer, wild turkeys and, as once happened to me, the occasional rattlesnake.
I stopped and stared at what I had thought was a stick when I’d rolled around it. He rattled, and then we both thought it wise to part ways peacefully.
Many trails connect. And where they don’t, links are planned.
Chalk it up to foresight and good planning.
A quarter century ago, Johnson County voters committed to building a top-notch trail system, and that’s what we ended up with.
Thanks to the countywide streamway trails property tax levy of 1986 and subsequent programs on the local level, such as a Lenexa sales tax to create wetlands and run trails through them, you can now easily spend most of a day on trails and never leave Johnson County.
“I think we get pretty good marks for our trail system,” Lenexa Mayor Mike Boehm said.
Lenexa, Olathe, Overland Park, Shawnee, Leawood, Merriam — pretty much all of Johnson County west of I-35 and south of 95th Street — all rate high marks, because that’s where the bulk of the trail system is. City and county parks departments were able to buy up land along creeks ahead of residential and commercial development in those areas. (Not so much up north, which is why the county trail map shows no trails in Westwood, Mission Hills or Fairway.)
The Indian Creek Trail out south stretches more than 20 miles, from 163rd Place in Olathe to the state line and on into the Marlborough area of south Kansas City. Ultimately, that trail will link with KC’s Trolley Trail all the way to near Country Club Plaza.
Because the Indian Creek Trail either connects directly to or has easy road connections with both the 10-mile Tomahawk Creek and 15-mile Haller trails, there is no shortage of possibilities when planning a bike ride.
Elsewhere, the county trail system continues to develop with the help of local, state and federal dollars. Work is under way to extend Merriam’s Turkey Creek Trail on into Overland Park for an eventual hookup with planned on-road bike lanes along Merriam Lane and Southwest Boulevard in Kansas City, Kan.
Kill Creek Trail in the western reaches of the county continues to grow and will someday extend from the Kansas River through Kill Creek Park to Gardner.
And even in the northeast, there’s activity. Mission developed a trail along Rock Creek, while Prairie Village is trying to shoehorn trail connections between the curbs and people’s front yards.
“This could be 20 years out,” one Prairie Village official said this spring as residents debated building a trail along Nall Avenue, since redirected to Roe Avenue.
But as Johnson County has proved, a lot can be accomplished in a couple of decades.
Trouble is, not everyone wants to ride their bike on trails. The many curves add distance for anyone more interested in biking from point A to point B than taking in the scenery. A cyclist in a hurry also risks colliding with dogs, pedestrians and kids on bikes using the trails.
But the bigger reason that some of my biking friends avoid the trails has to do with connectivity.
“Most transit-oriented cyclists would say the trails don’t go where they need to go,” Rogers said.
Generally speaking, the trails generally don’t link neighborhoods with places to work or shop. There’s not even a place to buy a cup of coffee or a stick of gum along the Haller Trail.
There are exceptions to the rule, of course. If you live in Olathe and happen to work in Corporate Woods, the Indian Creek Trail is like a bicycle version of 69 highway, according to the employees at Foth IE, which in 2010 was named a bronze Bicycle Friendly Business by the League of American Bicyclists.
“We also bike on the trail at lunch for a competition we’re in,” said Foth’s Brian Symons.
But not all of us have that situation, and that’s when cyclists take to the road — their right under state law.
Certainly, some motorists think that’s wrongheaded, swearing up and down that bikes have no place on the road. And I do mean “swearing.”
But that debate’s done and over. The bicyclists have won. And a state law passed last year reaffirmed bikers’ rights by requiring motorists to put at least three feet between their vehicles and the handlebars of road cyclists.
“I love the 3 foot passing rule,” said Jay Mulligan of Overland Park. “My biggest fear is when cars pass too close.”
Education and familiarity are keys to making the roads safer, Mulligan thinks. So about a year ago, he became an activist of sorts. On the last Friday of every month, the 46-year-old financial planner leads a toned-down version of the “critical mass” rides that so infuriate motorists in cities like San Francisco when large groups of cyclists clog downtown streets as part celebration and part protest.
Critical Mass Overland Park is nothing like that. At 6 p.m. sharp, the group heads out from Corporate Woods Building 9 for a 15- to 18-mile ride on city streets. In the spirit of Midwestern nice, the group doesn’t get in anyone’s face the way other Critical Mass riders do. Instead, as Mulligan describes it on the group’s Facebook page, the OP ride is “intended to be a lawful, low-stress and non-confrontational way to have fun while helping to promote awareness of cyclists on the streets.”
Everyone obeys the rules of the road, which are the same for cyclists as for drivers: Stop at reds, signal for turns, etc. Mulligan won’t tolerate the kind of jerk behavior that sometimes occurs on group rides and smears the reputation of other bikers. Running stop signs. Refusing to ride single file when motorists want to pass. Taking dangerous risks.
“The more motorists see cyclists on the roads and riding the way they should, I think it will be safer for all of us,” Mulligan said.
The roads would be even safer, some believe, if more local communities adopted the “complete streets” philosophy that is being promoted nationally and here locally through the Mid-America Regional Council.
Also known as “livable streets,” MARC is pushing cities to plan “roadways designed for safe and convenient travel by users of all ages and abilities. Pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists and transit riders must be able to safely move along and across a complete street.”
It’s incredible to think such a sensible and fair concept took this long to catch on, advocates say.
“The lack of planning for connectivity is kind of mind blowing,” said Ashley Jones-Wisner at Local Initiatives Support Corporation, which succeeded this year in getting the Kansas House to pass a resolution supporting complete streets programs across the state.
Several Johnson County cities have adopted complete streets plans recently, among them Leawood, Roeland Park and Overland Park.
“A lot of what’s in there we had already been doing,” said Overland Park traffic engineer Brian Shields.
For instance, many of Overland Park’s newer four-lane streets have wide outer lanes — 14 feet, instead of the regular 12 feet — to give cyclists more separation from vehicular traffic. In other cases, existing four lanes have been re-striped so that the inside lane is 11 feet and the outer one 13, giving cyclists more separation from other traffic.
Overland Park also has been building 8-foot-wide bikeways alongside main thoroughfares, such as 151st Street, but has yet to stripe a bike lane anywhere in the city. And that likely won’t change until the city develops a bicycle master plan, though there’s no money to pay for it right now.
“That’s when we’ll look at whether bikes lanes are appropriate,” Shields said.
The Johnson County cities with the most bike lanes are Shawnee and Olathe, with Shawnee in the lead. More than a decade ago, Shawnee leaders decided that it was in the city’s best interest to become more bicycle friendly because studies show people are attracted to communities that are laid out to encourage biking and walking.
That’s been borne out, at least anecdotally, in Shawnee, said parks director Neil Holman. The city has added half of the 34 miles of bike lanes laid out in its bike master plan, despite the added cost. Bikes lanes can add a couple of hundred thousand dollars or more for every mile of road — but they make neighborhoods alongside them more desirable.
“A lot of our system is connected to schools, parks and commercial areas,” Holman said. Between bike lanes and the “Share the Road” signs posted along many Shawnee roads, he says, “it makes it safer and it raises awareness.”
It’s a whole other story in neighboring Lenexa.
“We do not have bike lanes and we do not have ‘Share the Road’ signs,” said planner Laura Turnbull, and Mayor Mike Boehm makes no apologies for that.
He claims it’s part of the city government’s philosophy.
“We’d rather have the bikes in the flow of traffic,” he said, but he also thinks cyclists like Dunker are unwise for using Santa Fe Trail Drive as a bike route because of all of the trucks.
“For the most part, Santa Fe serves the industrial area,” he said.
In other words, they’re sending out mixed messages in my town, which cycling advocates blame on a former city engineer who was focused entirely on accommodating motor vehicle traffic.
Whatever the reason, the mayor and other Lenexa officials acknowledge that the city has yet to give serious discussion to a complete streets approach. As such, no accommodations for cyclists were added in the project to reconstruct one of its two main, east-west thoroughfares — 87th Street Parkway — now in its second phase.
But for every Lenexa, there is a Leawood, which is trying to join Shawnee among the ranks of the nation’s Bicycle Friendly Communities.
“We’re making progress, but it’s slow,” said Alicia Jennings, a member of Leawood’s Bicycle Advisory Committee.
That could be said of the county as a whole, says Dale Crawford, who retired from the city of Olathe, where he helped guide that city’s bike-friendly efforts and went onto head KanBikeWalk, a non-profit that promotes a safe bicycling and walking environment for Kansans.
Recently, I met with Crawford and blogger Randy Rasa of KansasCyclist.com at a restaurant in Olathe, and I gave them an assignment: Write a report card on Johnson County from a cycling perspective.
The grades were middling. We all agreed that some parts of the county are more bike friendly than others. North of I-435, the streets are laid out in more of a grid system, with the occasional diagonal boulevard — Tomahawk Road, for example — which provides lots of alternatives to riding on busy streets.
But south of Interstate 435, in parts of Overland Park, Leawood and Olathe, there’s far less connectivity. Neighborhoods don’t always connect. Residential streets curve and empty out onto busy arterials every mile or so that more resemble freeways than city streets. And because there are so few straight collector streets that can serve as alternative routes connecting residential pods, cyclists have little choice but to use those busy arterials with speed limits as high was 45 mph. That or ride on the sidewalks, which can be dangerous when vehicles make turns.
Clearly, not many novice cyclists are going to want to ride on streets like that without bike lanes, we all agreed.
“As a county, taking all of the cities into consideration, it’s pretty deplorable,” Crawford said.
But he also saw room for optimism.
“It is getting better,” Rasa said.
Both pointed to a newly constructed stretch of 127th Street in Olathe as an example. It practically welcomes cyclists to be part of the traffic mix. Pedestrians, too. Once a narrow strip of two-lane blacktop, 127th between Mur-Len and Black Bob roads is now a divided four with a grassy median strip, bike lanes on both sides of the street, and sidewalks, as well.
“A truly complete street,” Crawford said.
Though he and Rasa are less complimentary of the city’s decision not to extend the bikes lane farther east, replacing them instead with a wide shoulder where a cyclist might catch a tire in the seam between the curb and the roadway.
But then there is a debate even within the cycling community over whether marked bike lanes are preferable to giving the right lane slightly more pavement. Some cyclists even think bike lanes make motorists more likely to become enraged when a biker leaves the lane to make a left turn, for example.
Still, Rogers at BikeWalkKC says that without bike lanes, biking on Johnson County streets will never grow beyond the current population of hard-core road riders.
“There are a huge bunch of folks who are just not going to bike without these bike facilities,” he said. “Plus, there is good data to back up that bike lanes do make people safer.”
It becomes a chicken and egg thing, Crawford says. The roads will be safer for cyclists in Johnson County when there are a lot more cyclists on the road, but there won’t be a lot more cyclists until the roads are safer.
Even so, those numbers are building. I’ve noticed it on my daily bike rides home from work at The Star’s downtown office to my house in Old Town Lenexa.
So has my cycling friend Doug Havach of Prairie Village. He’s seen a difference over the past five years or so, and the added bike traffic is having a positive effect, he thinks.
“The more cyclists get on the roads, the more normal their presence as road users becomes,” Havach said. “I have noticed that drivers of autos are more patient than they used to be a few years ago. The concept of waiting a few seconds because a bicyclist is taking up part of the road is becoming easier for motorists to accept.”
And acceptance will make Johnson County an even better place to go biking.