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Wheels turning for Hays bike plan

By DAWNE LEIKER

dleiker@dailynews.net

Local bicycle enthusiasts have a reason to celebrate a recent Hays City Commission decision.

Phase one of the Bike Hays master plan, approved by commissioners in late January, will link destinations including commercial districts, recreational facilities, museums and neighborhoods. The plan, estimated to cost $252,000, entails restriping city streets to include bike lanes and sharrows, or shared lane markings.

Developed by RDG Planning & Design as a supplement to the city's comprehensive plan, the Bike Hays plan has received community support.

"It's rare that a community really does something," said Marty Shukert, RDG principal of the plan. "Especially a city of Hays' size.

"It's very exciting to see this."

Shukert, an avid cyclist from Omaha, Neb., regularly bicycled the streets of Hays during his visits to town while developing the comprehensive plan. Overall, he said he thought the streets were conducive to bicycle transportation. Finding manageable distances, wide and flat streets, and adequate connectivity, he began to envision a bike plan.

However, it was community members who drove the process.

"As somebody who is a committed urban bicyclist, I always try to be careful about imposing this on communities," he said in a phone interview. "In the case of Hays, it really came from the community, because I think that people intuitively realize that this was a very, very good way of moving around the city."

The need for a bike plan has been a recurring theme in Hays, identified first in the city's 1996 comprehensive plan. Then in 2007, an $11 million hike and bike master plan, which was fiscally out of reach, was developed. The bike plan, although it has recreational benefits, differs from the 2007 plan in it is geared more to transportation improvement.

Efforts of a Fort Hays State University class two years ago helped put the idea of a bike plan back on the radar for the city. The class, "Seminar in Sustainability," promoted bicycle education through a series of activities.

Tori North, a former member of the class, said she sees a need for bicycle lanes in the city and further education of residents. She said she has experienced the dangers of bicycling in Hays.

"My little brother has been the victim of a hit-and-run on his bike," North said. "I've almost been hit several times.

"It's kind of an almost ignorance of people behind the wheel. ... They don't pay attention to cyclists."

North, who now is mother of a 2-year-old, doesn't ride as frequently as she did during her days at FHSU, primarily because of safety concerns.

"But I think once the bike lanes are actually implemented on the roads, they'll be much safer," she said. "And I really plan to get back out there with him, because he loves being on bike rides."

Road safety was identified as a concern by most of the class members, said John Heinrichs, chairman and associate professor of geosciences who taught the course in sustainability.

"There was a perception that drivers in Hays are not used to bicycles and don't allow as much room as needed for bikes," he said.

As temperatures warmed Tuesday afternoon, a few bike racks at FHSU were at capacity. Cyclists on or off campus, though, were few and far between.

Cynthia Rodriguez grabbed her bike from a rack outside Rarick Hall. The freshman from Kansas City said she looks forward to bike lanes being added throughout the Hays community.

"I don't like riding my bike outside of campus because there's cars and I wouldn't be safe, so I usually just get a ride from my roommate," she said. "So I have to wait for her to go to Dillons or Walgreens or anywhere I want to go."

Cycling up Sixth Street, Weston Cossman, an FHSU junior from Jetmore, stopped for a moment to talk about his biking habits. If it's not freezing, he said, he can be found riding his bike every day. Similar to Rodriguez, he doesn't venture far from campus and usually bikes approximately eight blocks home each day.

"I try to stay on the sidewalk as much as I can," he said. "Sixth Street is kind of tight if you have to pass a car or something."

The Bike Hays master plan will encompass 25 miles and be implemented by striping city streets and incorporating signage to indicate either a bike lane or sharrow. A unique feature of the plan, Shukert said, is its incorporation of streets such as Canal Boulevard and General Custer Road. The bike lane on those streets will run adjacent to the median drainage.

"Basically it's a wide one-way street," Shukert said. "There's ample room for a bike lane.

"But the bike lane is much more safely done adjacent to the median to the drainage. One place where I saw that done effectively was Commonwealth Avenue in Boston, so I thought why not Hays?"

Another aspect of the plan is its creation of road diets, specifically transitioning a few roadways from four lanes to three lanes. Shukert said he believes motorists will find the transition painless.

"On streets that are operating under-capacity, engineers will prefer three lanes to four lanes because the left turn, which is the biggest bottle-necking problem, is out of the way," he said. "It's as much a safety issue as it is a bicycling issue.

"People generally, after a couple of weeks of getting used to it, will feel it's exactly as it should have been."

Progress on the bike plan will move smoothly if a community constituency develops, Shukert said. In addition, he pointed out education and special events on bike safety will help community members make the transition to a more bike-friendly city.

The city will apply for a transportation enhancement grant from the state of Kansas on Feb. 15. The grant would allow for phase two of the Bike Hays master plan, a further development of the plan that adds multi-use pathways to draw neighborhoods into the system. Receipt of the funds will be announced in June.

If awarded, Assistant City Manager Paul Briseno said he estimates bike lanes will be installed in late summer or early fall. If funds are not awarded, he said, the city will proceed to contract out the bike lanes and sharrows for mid-summer.