Biking Not Allowed In College Hill Park... Again
Last month, the City of Wichita placed signs in College Hill Park prohibiting bicycle riding. The signs took many people who live in the area by surprise, but technically, bikes aren't allowed on interior walkways in any Wichita parks.
According to a city codes, bicycles are only allowed "on designated bike paths and in designated areas." That includes city streets and sidewalks outside of the central business district. But those rules have resulted in more confusion than clarity for the College Hill neighborhood.
Seven red and white signs, similar to "no smoking" signs, were installed in the northeast Wichita park in early December. And it's not the first time such signs have been there. Similar ones were put up in 2012, but according to the City of Wichita Parks and Recreation Department, vandals took them down.
Troy Houtman, director of the department, says earlier this year he “received a complaint recently that there was an incident at the park and that the signs were removed by vandals.”
Another formal complaint last year alleged that a “speeding biker” injured a child.
Houtman says that puts the city in a compromising position because of the past history of similar incidents and injuries in the park. The complaints create liability issues, so the city had to post signage.
“The city’s response is to replace [the] signs and to educate and reduce safety issues,” Houtman says.
Of the close to 150 parks in Wichita, those with "biking prohibited" signs have warnings posted because of similar complaints. Houtman says there are bicycle-designated areas within certain parks and parkland, however, such as the Riverwalk.
As far as what’s next for College Hill, the city has a process to change old, outdated ordinances or, as Houtman puts it, “refocus an ordinance to make it more effective.”
“Our department does not have the authority to change an ordinance and we do support the activity of bicycle riding and we do need help in educating the public on safe riding,” Houtman says.
However, he says, there is a difference between making policy decisions and doing day-to-day tasks.
Houtman says the city plans to work with residents find a solution that doesn’t require changing the ordinance. At any rate, Patricia Hileman, president of the College Hill Neighborhood Association, says she wouldn’t be surprised if the neighborhood chooses to fight to change the ordinance.
"We have to decide, as a neighborhood, do we care enough to try to get the ordinance changed for College Hill Park to allow biking within the park on trails and flesh out what that means," Hileman says.
The neighborhood may to try to create some kind of bike paths in the park, according to Hileman, which would involve working with the park board and the city council for approval.
“I’m going to go to the stakeholders—the people who are in this park daily, live around the park and bike in the park—and ask that question,” she says. “It’s going to need to be the stakeholders who carry this forward. And I’m totally willing to support in any way that I can."
Hileman says area residents realize they don’t “own the park.” The city does, and that gives the city the right to post signage in any way officials see fit. But the signs just don’t communicate the message people in College Hill want to surround their beloved park.
“The signs aren’t very welcoming. They’re ugly and obtrusive,” she says.
As an alternative, Hileman suggested wooden signs with softer messages to emphasize kindness and consideration.
“Even sort of a nice, aesthetic wood heart or something saying, ‘use the park with care’ or ‘take care of the other people in the park,’” she explains.
That solution doesn’t account for the liability issues for the city, though.
“I mean, it sounds like a cop-out and that’s too bad, but it’s sort of the reality of our world that since there were specific complaints about this activity and because it’s an ordinance, they have to post the signs,” Hileman says.
Hileman has requested topography information from the city about other parks, so she can suggest alternative places for bikers to ride. She says one of the reasons bikers like College Hill Park is because it has contours and hills to ride up and down.
“So I asked them to send me information on parks where bikes are appropriate so we can also try and educate the people who are using our park currently outside of the rules,” she says. “I mean, we want to welcome all people, but in the meantime, here are some options.”
Welcoming people to the area is something Molly Lavacek, who lives on the southwest edge of the park, is adamant about.
“I think the more use you get in the park, the more safe the park is,” she says. “The last thing you want is a park that people stop coming to. That when you have a higher risk of issues.”
Lavacek jokes saying she and her neighbors worry less about bikers than people coming to the park to play Pokémon Go.
“This summer, our park was literally crawling with people all the time,” she says laughing. “I mean, day and night you’d look out in the dark and see the phones glowing in the park with people wandering around.”
People walking around, staring at their phones and not looking where they're going was more concerning to her than people on bikes have ever been, she says.
“I have a hard time believing that bicycling is something that we should be so concerned over that we need seven signs in a very small park,” Lavacek says. “There are lots of city ordinances that apply to our park that we do not have signs for including dogs off leash or people not picking up their dogs' messes, but we don’t have signs up for those things.”
Lavacek says she doesn’t want additional signs for the other ordinances; what she wants is better communication.
“I think as a neighborhood, a lot of people felt like… ‘Wait a minute. Is there a problem? We don’t see a problem.’ And so I think that was the shock,” she says. “I haven’t spoken with anybody who has actually seen this as an issue."
She says historically, the College Hill neighborhood has had good communication and a great relationship with the city. And while area residents are annoyed, Lavacek says they understand that the parks department is just doing their job.
“It’s the spirit of the signs,” she explains, echoing the concerns of neighborhood association president Patricia Hileman. “They’re a big red circle with a slash through the bike and then it cites a city ordinance. And if there isn’t a plan to follow through with that it seems silly to have a sign that’s official and threatening.”
Follow through, or lack thereof, by the city is an additional piece of the Wichita biking ordinance puzzle. Hileman says that in her discussions with city officials, the signage is less about policing and more about, once again, liability.
“They can point to the sign and say, ‘We’ll see. We told people not to do that. I’m sorry you got hurt, but we told people not to bike,” Hileman says.
The College Hill Neighborhood Association plans to meet Monday, January 23 to discuss the issue further. The meeting will be held at Love of Character on Douglas and Hillside 7 p.m.
Follow Abigail Beckman on Twitter @AbigailKMUW.
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