This guest article was written by Dr. Russell Arben Fox, professor of political science at Friends University; an earlier version of it originally appeared on his blog, In Medias Res.
The past few years have been good ones for bicycling in Wichita. Thanks to the efforts of many good people over a long period of time, several long-developed and much-improved bike paths, trails, lanes, and shared boulevards have been introduced: beginning with downtown lanes along 1st and 2nd Street, there is the Redbud Trail, Prairie Sunset, Chisholm Creek Park, and over on the west side of the city where I live, the Woodchuck Bicycle Boulevard, have all followed. (That's me at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Woodchuck, in the green shorts second from the left; being a member of Wichita's Bicycle-Pedestrian Advisory Board has its privileges, I guess.) More bikeway and path projects are on the way.
It's great to see so much of this slow-yet-steady development coming to fruition, and it's even better knowing the multiple other bicycling projects--re-purposing an old railroad bridge to get through the I-235/US-54 interchange, which otherwise blocks almost all north-south bicycle and pedestrian traffic on the west side of the city, is the big one, but there are many others--are slowly moving forward as well.
We're not fooling ourselves, of course; Wichita--like so many other Midwestern, Southern, and Great Plains cities--is profoundly automobile-centric. While there are a multitude of ways to measure such relatively underreported matters as bicycle commuting and other alternative transportation choices, the most recent study by the U.S. Census, the American Community Survey which completed five years ago, showed Wichita as having increased its number of bicycle commuters over the previous decade…from .2% of the workforce, to a whopping .3%. While bike and pedestrian counts, as well as anecdotal observations, point to continued recent increases in bicycle commuting in Wichita (the League of American Bicyclists pegged us at .5% in 2016), still, the facts are pretty stark.
Attempting to find political support and funding and public spaces which can provide actual, practical logistical possibilities for bicycle-friendly developments in light of those realities is a humbling prospect.
Still, we do our best. The turnout for ribbon-cutting events and other announcements of improvements and openings have been impressive, and it's always great to see large numbers of colorfully decked-out, serious cyclists heading out on these paths, calling attention to every step the city takes forward. I always have a pretty good view of those packs of cyclists as they head down these paths--because I'm hardly ever part of them, or ever on any of these paths, myself.
Cycling on the Street
Why not? Part of the reason--the main part, really--is, again, simply logistical. The bare-bones network of bike trails, lanes, and boulevards that Wichita has been able to slowly knit together over the years doesn't provide me with anything like a direct route to where I usually need to go--whether to work or running errands around the part of the city where we live.
But another part of the reason is simply a function of how I understand myself as a cyclist. While I still idly dream of someday getting my physical act together--as so many of my friends have--and actually doing some real riding (a century ride, perhaps, or even Bike Across Kansas), the fact is I own no bicycling gear (save my helmet, which itself is an old one that I've duct-taped together), and have never toured. I'm an urban commuter cyclist, and always have been--which means I always ride on the road.
Is that dangerous? Well, sure, but so is driving. That's a facetious answer, I know, but I don't know any better one to give. Yes, I've had a few close calls with an unthinking or angry or aggressive motorist over the years (more than a few, to tell the truth), and there are plenty of times and situations where I choose to get off the main road and onto a side street or sidewalk. But by and large, I simply expect everyone to recognize that bicycles can legally share the road with cars, and by and large they do. (Though my Idaho stop still regularly pisses some drivers off.)
True, by taking to the public streets rather than adjusting my route to take advantage of the bike paths I and so many others have pushed for over the years, I suppose I'm making it one person easier for cynics and cranks to complain that they never see anyone making use of these paths, so how can the city council possibly justify putting a single additional financial drop in the city's (otherwise resoundingly empty) bicycle bucket? But by being out on the streets, I see my presence as contributing to a different kind of impression.
The Cyclist One Lane Over
If you live in a place which, for any number of mutually reinforcing socio-economic or political reasons, has a culture shaped at least in part by broad concerns with health, the environment, and sustainability, then the presence of MAMILs ("Middle-Aged Men In Lycra") all over parks and bikeways, getting their exercise and traveling wherever they need to go, is to be expected. But absent that culture, when you're building whatever sort of bike-friendly resources you can a little at a time, such individuals greatly stand out--and to the extent that they pour themselves into maximizing the use of distinct bike paths and trails, they still stand out, but perhaps also stand out as something distant and separate.
But the cyclist who is dressed pretty much just like you, whose bike is right beside your car at the intersection, just one lane over: that's a difference which is not separate, but is readily and immediately present. The public nature of such cycling arguably invites a sort of democratic reflection and richness which may not be available in other ways.
That's not to say that there isn't good reason to harness the democratic support of a dedicated cycling elite to push forward changes in public spaces that add to the overall ambiance of life in the city. (A city without any bike paths whatsoever is far less likely to recognize the benefits which encouraging cycling can bring than one with bike paths whose use is greatly limited--which is basically true of pretty much every public amenity imaginable.) It's just that, as I make practical decisions about my regular biking routines, I've had more than enough experiences to convince me that, in a small way, getting out on Central or Maple Avenue is shaping Wichita's democratic culture a little as well.
Of course, the most recent experience I had with that shaping was someone shouting curses from their car window at me. But surely, that at least means someone was paying attention to their lived environment rather than their phone, right? It seems to me that, when it comes to matters of city structure, you have to think about short-term goals and long-term change simultaneously.
In the long run, someone who gets annoyed that he has to deal with some guy on a bicycle cutting him off as we negotiate road construction together could well turn into a someone who will carry that annoyance into opposing any kind of alternative transportation development, and into voting down any such funding options he can. But then again, he could also become someone who at least is conscious of the fact that bicycle commuting is a choice some people make.
In a city like Wichita, honestly, that may be half the battle right there.