There’s some good news and some bad news coming out of Oklahoma City.
The good news: Much like many communities across the country (including my hometown of Tulsa), more people are spending time on trails to hike, run or ride bikes. This is a good trend for urban and suburban communities, which for decades have been zoned and sectioned to death, leaving residents stuck with seas of rooftops with the occasional park thrown in. Trail systems in our cities are getting more people back in touch with the natural world, as opposed to the more sanitized version of the outdoors that we normally see.
Now the bad news: Friction between different trail users has caused city officials in Oklahoma City to propose banning pedestrians from Bluff Creek Park, as popular place for local trail users. In doing so, they’re hoping to avoid accidents between people on foot and those on bikes.
According to this recent report, no one is happy with this. Runners and hikers feel like they’re being unfairly targeted, and cyclists feel like they’re being turned into a public safety scapegoat. All sides believe the proposal was rushed, without getting input on solutions from people who use the trails. The matter is being brought up at an Oklahoma City Parks Commission meeting on Wednesday.
When I look at this, I do it from the vantage point of someone who uses a busy urban trail system regularly. Here in Tulsa, we have a couple: Turkey Mountain Urban Wilderness Area in south Tulsa, and the trails on the west side of Chandler Park, in west Tulsa. In the former, our users are runners, hikers, cyclists and equestrians. In the latter, a lot of hikers, runners and in one area, rock climbers.
I’m most often at Turkey Mountain, and it is by far the busier of the two trail systems. It’s also become more popular every year. And yet its users manage to get by just fine without one specific group being told to stay away. (One small counterpoint, however – Turkey Mountain is a much larger trail system than Bluff Creek Park.)
So, when I look at the proposal floating around Oklahoma City, it seems like the solution was long on overreach and short on common sense. When it comes to common sense, execution is in the hands of the trail users. So here are some suggestions:
First, people need to keep their ears and eyes open. Be listening and looking for the sounds of bikes or pedestrians and don’t get too lost in the moment in what you’re doing.
Second, it’s far easier for the person on foot to give way to a rider. Do that and avoid a lot of confusion, and take care to give way to the person going downhill.
Third, if you have dogs, keep them leashed. I know it’s more fun for the pups to be off-leash, and maybe they’re trained to obey voice commands very well. But you have more control with they’re leashed, especially when a cyclist is rounding a corner.
Fourth, if you’re on a bike, verbally announce yourself if you’re coming up behind people on foot and slow down.
Fifth, lose the earbuds. In tighter spaces with trees obstructing views, you need to be able to hear what’s going on around you. This applies whether you’re on foot or on the saddle. A compromise might be having an earbud in only one ear, keeping the other free to hear outside noises. But I’d say it’s better to go without.
It should be noted that the proposal to make the trail system for mountain bikers only came as a result of a user survey, one in which less than a third of respondents wanted to ban pedestrians, and less than 2 percent had reported an accident with another user. And yet, the pedestrian ban is what’s being floated as a result of the survey.
Oklahoma City parks planners would do well to avoid discouraging trail usage from its residents, which is exactly what this proposal would do. We need more people getting outside and moving, not less. It sounds like what is needed here is a strong effort from the city and trail user groups to educate people on how to be safe when they’re on the trails, and to learn a little trail etiquette. Banning entire groups of trail users is overkill.