A Conversation with Assistant City Manager of Kansas City, Rick Usher

Kansas City was an early adopter of Bird, embracing the opportunity to provide a safe, affordable and environmentally-friendly transportation option. One of the first cities to create mobility lanes, Kansas City maintains a regional goal of becoming the “most entrepreneurial city in America,” pioneering transportation solutions that positively affect commuters, residents, and visitors. We were pleased to get the chance to catch up with Kansas City Assistant Manager, Rick Usher. 

Take it away, Rick! 

Tell us a little bit about yourself. What led you to where you are today, and what drives you to serve Kansas City day in and day out?

I’m the Assistant City Manager for Entrepreneurship & Small Business at the City of Kansas City, Missouri. I’ve had 10 jobs in City Hall over the last 34 years and I have been driven by the opportunities I have in my work to engage the City and our residents with startups, entrepreneurs, small business owners and all of us in the field of entrepreneur ecosystem building.

In what ways has Bird, and/or other micro-mobility offerings, impacted KCMO thus far?

 Under the Interim Operating Agreements, two companies were allowed to scale their fleets to 500 scooters while the City planned a year-long pilot program. In November 2018, a local non-profit entered the market with scooters and e-bikes. What we saw was a broad adoption of micro-mobility as a transportation option in the city. In cooperation with the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority, the three companies deployed their vehicles at or near transit stops and we immediately realized the benefits of shared e-scooters as last-mile transportation for commuters, residents, and visitors.

The City launched the Scooter/eBike Pilot Program in May 2019 with Bird, Spin and RideKCBike as participants. We are excited to have these three as they represent a scaling startup, an innovation-led corporation and an innovation-led non-profit. As we see other cities reacting to emerging technologies in micro-mobility, we are pleased the National League of Cities has dubbed our approach as “intentional, incremental, and equitable.”

 Kansas City was a pioneer in the transportation industry by creating one of the first mobility lanes. What did this experience look like?

 BetterBlockKC designed and built the Oak Street Mobility Lane as a temporary traffic intervention for the month of October 2019. The City has a long history of working with BetterBlockKC on similar traffic calming interventions but they typically lasted less than a week.  With the mobility lane, we saw reduced automobile speeds, a signalized intersection was converted to a four-way stop with no negative effects on traffic and many positive effects on pedestrians and adjacent small businesses. The City has since built a number of protected bike lanes but not on Oak Street. Grand Blvd, 3 blocks to the west, has painted bike lanes through the downtown area.

 What is your take on the current state of the micro-mobility industry, and where do you see it going in the future?

Through our pilot program, we are learning, testing, and documenting best practices in scooter and ebike deployment.  We see micro-mobility as a positive addition to the array of transportation opportunities in our city. We are still facing challenges in improving rider behavior related to riding in the streets or bike lanes as well as parking in ways that do not impede accessible use of the sidewalk and curb ramps. At the completion of our pilot program, we plan on proposing a licensing/permitting process for companies seeking to operate micro-mobility services. We will also complete a review of traffic regulations affecting micro-mobility, automobiles and bicycling that may include some regulatory changes.

 Fast forward, and it’s 2050. What does the state of transportation look like for Kansas City?

Buildings that once were parking garages have been converted to residential, commercial and industrial uses because increased density and myriad transportation options have made car ownership an unnecessary burden. Many of our downtown streets have been repurposed as pedestrian greenways that are also designed to retain stormwater and solve the City’s sewer overflow control issues. Interstate highway right-of-way and infrastructure spending has been reduced because more residents are working from home, neighborhood coffee shops and coworking spaces due to the realization that distance working is a better way for businesses and startups to attract and retain top talent. And we’ll be responding to our complaining grand-children that they are better off than you because you “had to drive 30 miles in a car on a congested highway to get to work.”

Any advice for other cities adopting e-scooters/developing their regulations? 

We are having success in Kansas City because we have a cross-departmental team of City staff monitoring and managing our pilot program. Responding to Bird with a “yes and” attitude has led to a high level of collaboration and cooperation with the micro-mobility companies we are working with today and is leading to the development of a program that will have lasting positive effects in our city. This means developing an understanding of the emerging technologies being deployed, how the new business model is disrupting the market and possibly the regulatory environment, completing regulatory due diligence of your local and state laws quickly, and implementing interim agreements and/or pilot programs while you take the time to develop a reasonable licensing/permitting process that will bring certainty and predictability to the regulatory environment. Lastly, cities are all experiencing similar issues, so reviewing best practices across the U.S. and globally is the best place to start.

Anything else you are excited about? We’re all ears! 

We are discussing an Emerging Technologies Governance Board as a means of assisting the City in understanding emerging technologies and ensuring that Kansas City reaches our regional goal of being Most Entrepreneurial City in America while bringing the benefits and opportunities to all Kansas Citians.

Thanks, Rick!

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