Electronic bicycles and scooters soon could be expressly allowed on Omaha’s public trails, one of several rule changes proposed for the city’s public park system.
Other changes under consideration could allow for 24-hour access to public trails, and specify how people are allowed to operate drones in parks.
Matt Kalcevich has been assessing the park system’s rules with his staff since he took over as director of the Parks and Recreation Department in December.
The Omaha City Council will next consider the rule changes at its June 29 meeting.
Electronic bikes, often called e-bikes, are powered through a combination of traditional pedaling and a small battery-driven motor, which eases some of the strain of riding a traditional bicycle.
Local advocates have called on the city to allow all classes of e-bikes on city trails, in part to ensure that people who use the bikes because of physical fitness, age or ability can still use the trails. Last year, the city considered allowing only certain classes of e-bikes on trails.
Many vehicles would still be prohibited from trails, including motorcycles, utility vehicles, all-terrain vehicles, go-carts, snowmobiles and any gas-, natural gas- or electric-powered motor vehicle.
Electric scooters would also be allowed on trails, per the proposal. The rentable scooters, unlocked and paid for with a smartphone, recently reappeared in Omaha in districts such as the Old Market, Benson and Aksarben Village.
The proposal includes a recommended speed limit of 20 mph for those riding a bicycle or scooter, which Kalcevich said is to ensure the safety of all trail users, including walkers and joggers. The scooters are designed to go no faster than about 15 mph.
Three other notable changes in the parks proposal:
Public trails in Omaha currently close from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m., as do city parks.
Some advocates — who want to see Omaha better embrace cyclists, walkers and others who don’t rely on a vehicle to get around — want the city to keep the trails open to the public 24 hours a day.
“Our trails are truly used for transportation, not just for recreation, and they need to be treated as such,” Julie Harris, executive director of Bike Walk Nebraska, told the City Council earlier this month.
“We don’t close streets at 11 p.m.,” Harris said. “We shouldn’t close the trails at 11 p.m.”
Workers who clock out during nighttime hours, college students heading home from a late-night study session and anyone who doesn’t rely on a vehicle to get around should have access to the trails, Harris and others said.
As presented to the City Council earlier this month, the park rules proposal would not have changed trail hours. But after the public hearing, the council voted 7-0 to delay a vote on the rules, asking Kalcevich to gather more information and work on a proposal related to trail hours.
Kalcevich said he’s open to discussion and assessment of the trail system’s hours, but he said he wants to ensure that the city makes a “thoughtful and educated decision.”
In a city survey of 1,600 people, 22 said they mainly use the trails for commuting purposes, Kalcevich told the council. The rest said they use them primarily for recreation.
Sarah Johnson, a former bike shop owner who advocates for transportation in Omaha, said open trail access is an issue of equity.
“We need to be making sure that we are creating more safe opportunities in places for folks to ride, day or night,” Johnson said at the public hearing.
Kalcevich listed factors that he said need to be considered before making a change to trail hours, including the effect on policing and public safety; trails that extend beyond city limits; maintenance and upkeep; and possible effects on sources of trail funding.
Many council members said they were open to the possibility of allowing 24-hour trail access but wanted to give the Parks Department time to gather feedback from the Omaha Police Department, people who live along trails and others.
“I truly appreciate the passion and conviction of the people who spoke, and certainly we want to be progressive in terms of the way that we meet the expectations of the community,” Kalcevich said.
Drones that weigh more than 0.55 pounds, which are considered commercial drones, would not be allowed to take off or land in a city park or in city right of way unless the operator has obtained proper permits.
Commercial drone users would also need to abide by all Federal Aviation Administration rules.
Drone racing would not be allowed, except by those who have obtained necessary permits from the city and the FAA.
The city worked with the Federal Aviation Administration and the Police Department as it developed the rules, Kalcevich said.
Sledding has always posed a risk of injury, but the city would explicitly state that the activity is an at-your-own-risk activity.
Sledding would also be prohibited at dam sites “in and around” where vents or equipment used to monitor dam functions are above ground. That would apply to dams at Zorinsky, Cunningham, Standing Bear, Flanagan and Lawrence Youngman Lakes.
Signage will alert sledders to the rule.
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