Toilet plunger campaign leads to safety makeover of Wichita bike lane

Bike lanes at First and Washington are now sporting vertical barriers after Yellowbrick Street Team prompted the project using toilet plungers. (March 8, 2017)
Bike lanes at First and Washington are now sporting vertical barriers after Yellowbrick Street Team prompted the project using toilet plungers. (March 8, 2017) The Wichita Eagle

Cyclists pedaling through one Old Town intersection have a little more protection now, thanks in part to activists with toilet plungers.

Wichita crews last week installed posts along one side of a bike lane at First and Washington to prevent motorists from crossing into the bike lane to turn right.

The improvement happened about two weeks after members of Yellowbrick Street Team, a tactical urbanism group, installed some makeshift posts fashioned from toilet plungers, reflective tape and masonry adhesive.

“What we were really trying to do was just highlight the issue,” said Alex Pemberton, the group’s organizer. “We just wanted to get some recognition that there is a problem here, and there’s a pretty simple solution.”

One Saturday last month, Pemberton and three friends quietly installed the toilet-plunger barriers, then spread the word on social media. The story was picked up and shared on national websites such as CityLab, Mental Floss and Bicycling.com.

Meanwhile, Pemberton lobbied Wichita city officials for a more permanent solution.

Over the past several years, the city of Wichita has installed more than 30 miles of bicycle paths and on-street bike lanes, bringing the total system to more than 100 miles.

But that expansion has raised safety concerns among cyclists, including Pemberton, who said many drivers don’t allow enough clearance when passing bicycles and aren’t clear about how to navigate urban bike lanes.

“The city’s doing a lot of education programs and things like that to explain how to approach these bike lanes as a driver, but that’s only going to reach so many people,” Pemberton said.

Cyclist Jenn Rygg and friends navigate the hazards of downtown Wichita with the help of new bike lanes. (March 10, 2016/Mike Hutmacher/The Wichita Eagle)

“If you design the bike lane and design the street in a way that enforces the behavior, that’s going to touch everybody who approaches it. … So the design is really the critical piece.”

Scott Wadle, senior planner with the city, said the Yellowbrick Street Team’s inventive campaign – along with citizen reports about problems at the intersection – prompted the city to install about a dozen plastic delineators along the bike lane at First and Washington.

The posts are an interim solution, he said, while officials design a $3.5 million facelift planned for First and Second streets where they pass through Old Town, a popular drinking, dining and entertainment district.

“Wichita residents are some of the most inventive and proactive people in the world,” Wadle said.

The plunger project “shows that Wichita residents care very much about providing safe and comfortable streets for all users, especially at intersections,” he said.

Janet Miller, a Wichita City Council member whose district includes Old Town, said she was pleased with the city’s swift response to the safety concern.

“I hope these kinds of things aren’t necessarily needed to get the city to change, and in this case I’m not sure they were,” Miller said. “But we do want to be responsive … and I’d hope that we continue to be.”

Since crews installed the barriers, some cyclists and motorists have reported cars swerving to the right of the posts and into the bike lane to turn right.

Wadle, the planner, said “public comments and field observations will be used to determine if adjustments are needed” – and if so, what types of adjustments – over the next couple of weeks.

Wadle urged cyclists or others with specific questions or concerns to direct them to the city’s bicycle and pedestrian advisory board at wichita.gov/bicycle.

The website features maps of local bike paths, information about bike laws and tips for cyclists and motorists, including a video explaining bike lane markings and how to navigate them. For example, a solid white line on a bike path means cars should not cross unless pulling into a driveway or parking stall.

Vertical barriers at First and Washington and other intersections are intended to help emphasize those rules, Wadle said.

“We’re working on education, but one of the most important things that we can do is get the physical design correct,” he said. “We want physical design that invites correct use. So we’re tackling it from a variety of different ways.”

Pemberton, who bikes to work in downtown Wichita, was glad to see the plastic delineators installed this week.

“We’re lucky to have a very progressive and responsive City Council and city staff,” he said. “It was less than a week of just talking to them and explaining the problem, and they committed to make that change.”

GoPro footage from an Eagle (amateur) bicyclist testing out the new bike lanes in downtown Wichita, Oct. 31, 2015. (Matt Riedl/The Wichita Eagle)

Suzanne Perez Tobias: 316-268-6567, @suzannetobias