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Turning Lemons into Lemonade in KC

This post originally appeared on the Alliance for Biking & Walking’s blog.

Things didn’t go exactly as planned in BikeWalkKC’s campaign to include complete streets treatments in plans for a new streetcar expansion. But no one can say it wasn’t a terrific success.

Knowing that a proposed streetcar expansion wouldn’t be of much use if people couldn’t walk or bike safely to it, BikeWalkKC mobilized neighborhood advocates to lobby the city to include complete streets in the final streetcar expansion plan. They hoped to eventually secure up to $2 million for biking/walking infrastructure improvements along the streetcar route.

They envisioned fully protected bike lanes connecting to the rest of the city’s bike network, racks, and bike-share stations. They wanted curb extensions, automatic pedestrian signals, and traffic calming.

Here at Advocacy Advance, a partnership between the Alliance and the League of American Bicyclists, we could see the potential for a transformative victory in Kansas City. BikeWalkKC asked us for a $3,000 Rapid Response grant to help them mount the campaign, and we approved it without hesitation. The possibility of turning $3,000 into a $2 million public investment into biking and walking along a new transit line was too good to turn down.

After all, that’s what Rapid Response grants are for: taking advantage of a sudden opportunity to leverage a small amount of campaign funds into a significant public investment in active transportation. The grants are approved on a rolling basis with quick turnaround so that the money gets where it needs to go quickly.

It looked like BikeWalkKC was poised for great success.

But then, in August, voters rejected the streetcar expansion plan and the whole thing fell apart.

But does that mean that the whole campaign was for naught? Not at all!

BikeWalkKC laid the groundwork for complete streets advocacy in Kansas City and consolidated the message that any future streetcar expansions should be accompanied by biking and walking improvements. The organization developed meaningful relationships with neighborhood groups and established the framework for a CompleteKC campaign, which is by no means dead. Even after the election confirmed the streetcar plan was going nowhere, BikeWalkKC used their remaining grant money to create graphics for CompleteKC, which evolved to embrace a mission beyond that particular corridor.

Plus, the city passed a “Road Diet” resolution to evaluate all streets in Kansas City and implement at least one road diet.

BikeWalkKC managed to keep itself out of the heated debate over the transit proposal. “Because transit advocacy is a bit outside of our mission we were careful to keep the focus on the opportunity for complete streets and not on the streetcar itself,” said Eric Bunch, BikeWalkKC’s director of education and policy. “Additionally, the city’s streetcar campaign was somewhat divisive, so we felt it was best to ensure that our messaging was clear that we were merely supporting the inclusion of bicycle and pedestrian improvements in a city plan and that we weren’t necessarily supporting the streetcar.”

Indeed, rather than get dragged down with the controversy, the complete streets campaign actually helped lift up the streetcar. One neighborhood association along the proposed streetcar route submitted a letter of support for the project conditional on a complete streets treatment. And the consultant teams working on the expansion plan said that improving conditions for bikes and pedestrians was one of the most common recommendations from their community feedback. Despite the fact that this particular project was a no-go, BikeWalkKC emerged “poised to make great change in Kansas City thanks to the network of neighborhood advocates we created with this project,” said Bunch.

In the end, it was $3,000 well spent, even if it didn’t lead to the results BikeWalkKC and Advocacy Advnace envisioned at the start. “We saw it as an opportunity to regroup and be even better prepared for the next time streetcar expansion is proposed,” Bunch said. “The streetcar expansion will be back. Next time we will be far better prepared for it thanks to this Rapid Response grant.”

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