Yesterday The Star ran a profile of Deb Ridgway, who recently moved from Bridging the Gap to the City of KCMO to be its first ever Bicycle and Pedestrian Coordinator.
Job challenges for KC’s bike coordinator are personal
By DEANN SMITH
The Kansas City Star
July 25, 2007
As a broke graduate student, Deb Ridgway shivered in snowstorms for delayed buses and nervously waited alone at dark out-of-the-way stops for tardy buses.
She knew there had to be a better way to get from the center of St. Louis to the suburb where she had a second job. Then a friend convinced her to hop onto a bike as her primary mode of transportation.
“That was a defining moment for me,” she said.
So her new job is quite personal for her.
Light rail and buses may get all the headlines, but as Kansas City’s newly hired bicycle and pedestrian coordinator, Ridgway is tasked with encouraging more residents to turn to two wheels and their feet to get to work and errands. With gas now regularly at $3 a gallon and higher, city officials hope the time is ripe to get more residents walking and riding.
Ridgway also is charged with overseeing city projects, including street projects, to ensure that they are bike- and pedestrian-friendly and that any impediments are removed.
City officials and bicycle enthusiasts hope Ridgway’s hiring will help Kansas City, which they say is significantly behind other cities when it comes to alternative transportation.
“My personal vision is we have a bike-friendly, pedestrian-friendly community that we can use in the span of our lifetime,” the 44-year-old Ridgway said. “We can do it. We’ve got a lot of work to do in the next five years.”
A native of Ohio, the self-described farm kid grew up riding her bike on country roads but abandoned the two wheels for four as she got older. She received a bachelor of arts from Siena Heights University in Michigan and worked in various Midwest cities, including Milwaukee and Chicago, in the nonprofit and social service sectors. In 1996, she headed to Washington University in St. Louis for graduate school. She sold her car to help pay for graduate school.
“I was forced to go into alternative transportation,” she said. “I couldn’t go anywhere without a bus schedule.”
But irregular bus connections meant it could take almost two hours to go from the university or her home to her job in the suburbs, a trip that took only 20 minutes by car. When she turned to the bike, she discovered she could zip to and from work in 30 minutes.
“I fell in love with biking again. It’s fun. It’s a great workout. It’s my mental health time. More ideas come to me when I’m biking. I can clear my head,” she said. “And I realized it could be a career path.”
She began taking classes at Washington University and St. Louis University in urban planning. She graduated with a master’s degree in 1998. In October 2005, she moved to Kansas City to become a coordinator for Bridging the Gap, a nonprofit agency. She chose a home near the Country Club Plaza that was close to a bus stop.
“When I moved to Kansas City, I made a conscious choice of where I was going to live. I wanted to live near public transportation so I can drive my car as little as possible. It’s too easy not to do it,” she said. “It makes absolutely no sense to take the car.”
This very passion for alternative transportation is one of the reasons Ridgway was chosen for the new post, said Patty Hilderbrand, a manager for the city’s Public Works Department.
“Deb has an incredible ability to communicate with people,” she said. “She is an effective and respectful force and is always positive.”
Federal grants through the Missouri Department of Transportation are paying for Ridgway’s position for the first two years, but after that City Manager Wayne Cauthen has committed to covering the salary of the position with local funds, Hilderbrand said.
As part of her job, Ridgway will work on the city’s strategic plan. If walkers or bicyclists notice a hazard to their travels, they should alert her. Other responsibilities include working to ensure street projects, including sidewalks and bike lanes. Even tasks such as having bike racks built so bikers don’t have to hitch their wheels to a light pole fall into her domain.
She will look for places where new or better crosswalks can be installed or push buttons can be added to change traffic signals for bikers and walkers. Knowing there will be throngs of walkers to the new Sprint Center, Ridgway will look at street projects around the center to make sure downtown is accessible for them.
Hilderbrand said she is excited because Ridgway will approach the issue globally and push city officials to think of alternative transportation as part of projects while serving as the contact for those outside City Hall. This will lessen the chances of their concerns or complaints getting lost.
“She will pull people together. It won’t be just one project here or there,” she said. “No matter where you live or where you work, you should be able to walk or bike in a quality and safe environment.”
And safety is key. Educating bicyclists, walkers, runners and motorists about their responsibilities to each other is near and dear to Ridgway. She is continuing in her role as chairwoman of the Share the Road Safety Task Force.
She said more people would commute to work if they felt safer.
She also urges bikers to get “fitted” for their bike much like runners get fitted for their shoes. She said the height, seat and pedals should fit each person’s body or a cyclist risks injury. She says the fitting should occur at a certified bike shop.
“There is a whole science to it,” she says.
Some in the bicycling community are encouraged by the creation of the position and the hiring of Ridgway.
“About time,” said Sarah Gibson, co-owner of Acme Bicycle Company at 412 E. 18th St. in downtown Kansas City. “I am really hopeful. It gives me a new sense of belief that our city government is looking to the future and not stuck in the 1950s.”
Gibson said she is glad city officials hired a Kansas City resident.
“Deb has a lot of experience in this specific area. She is very knowledgeable. She knows what works and what doesn’t,” Gibson said. “She is already way ahead of the game. She knows people in City Hall. She has been involved.”
In addition, Gibson said, Ridgway’s personality is well suited for the job.
“She is awesome,” Gibson said. “She is very likeable. She is very easy to talk to.”
Aaron Bartlett, a bicycle and transportation planner for the Mid-America Regional Council, said he is glad that City Hall will now have someone who can address issues rather than taking a scattershot approach. He said bicycling and pedestrian issues are complicated and the city must take a coordinated approach, adding that he hopes other cities will create similar positions.
“Deb is very enthusiastic about the issues. She is also tenacious. I think she’ll approach this job from a very strategic mindset and how she can best use her time and talents to accomplish what the city has asked her to do,” Bartlett said.
While Kansas City needs the new coordinator post, he said, there are no guarantees.
“I think only time will tell, but I think she is well suited for this. I think it is good to be realistic about these things. It takes time for new ways of thinking and policies to take effect,” he said.
Hilderbrand said Ridgway will face challenges and asked for patience.
“It is not an overnight process,” she said. “We mean well, but we are not going to solve every problem overnight.”
And from doubters, Ridgway asks for a chance.
“I am a partnership builder. I do have a big challenge ahead of me,” she said. “I know it won’t be easy, but I know we can do it.”
To reach DeAnn Smith, call 816-234-4412 or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2007 Kansas City Star and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.