Systems Thinking

Let’s look at our current situation in Omaha. For a couple of hours each day (rush hours), automobile traffic fills our roadways to the point they start to resemble long, skinny parking lots. OK, maybe not that bad: we’re not like NYC or DC yet, but we’re headed that way. The problem as I see it is that the city government keeps trying to build its way out of this dilemma by widening roads, followed by increasing speed. Not necessarily the speed limit, but if you build it and perception makes you think that it’s okay to drive faster, you will. The downside to this road widening is that you either have to curtail street parking or cut down the width of sidewalks. In our car-centric society, the sidewalk is usually the loser.

So does this alleviate the congestion? Maybe for a short period of time, but as stated in Field of Dream, “If you build it, they will come!” In no time at all, we’re right back to waiting in traffic wondering if we’re going to be late again.

So how to fix the problem. Instead of widening the roads, a redesign may help to solve our problem. Before you start thinking “here comes the bike pitch,” my first thought is to redesign our public transportation system. If we find ways to get folks into downtown quicker than it takes to drive to Lincoln, we may be able to convince some to leave the car in the garage at home.

Omaha’s Bus Rapid Transit is a good start. Running from Westroads Mall to downtown, it will provide semi-express service (minimal stops) for commuters. Instead of sitting in your car fuming at the stoplight, the rider will be able to read the paper, work on her/his computer, or maybe even engage in a social activity like conversation with his fellow riders. In my opinion, that sounds a lot better than sitting by yourself in a fuel burning metal box.

So how to get West O to leave their cars in a lot at Westroads and take the BRT when they’re already in their car? How do we disincentivize finishing the trip downtown by car? Let’s start with parking. Once downtown, the average commuter needs a place to store his/her car for 8 – 9 hours. How about jacking up the rates to make the BRT look more attractive? Or (even more radical,) let’s close some of those lots. Right now, a fair percentage of Omaha’s parking goes unused except for major events. Sure, there are pockets where the parking is fully utilized but in most cases a spot can be found within walking distance of just about any downtown destination. So instead of overbuilding parking to meet the needs of the infrequent max capacity event, create spaces that will satisfy the needs of most often. AND CHARGE FOR THE PRIVILEGE! Parking in pubic spaces should be charged for at close to market rates. Currently, parking can be had for pennies in some of the premier areas of the city. Supply and demand. Reduce the supply, then raise the price until demand once again starts to level with it. For those who say that this is inequitable, I say that the venues that are served by those spots are already frequented by those who can afford the additional cost. Sure, they’ll gripe, but they’ll still go. Once they start to see how much easier it would be to not have to search out short term storage for their wheeled boxes, they’ll see public transit in general and the BRT in particular in a new light.

What of those who, having lost “their” parking convenience, choose to bike to their favorite destinations instead? Studies have shown that more people would choose to ride their bikes to commute, run errands, meet friends, etc. if they felt safer doing so. Granted, these studies were in other cities, but the results should apply to Omaha as well. How do we make these potential cyclists feel safe? Let’s take a look at the needs while keeping in mind that they’re all important. No one of them can truly stand alone.

Routes. Many feel threatened by sharing the road with two-ton (or more) metal vehicles. It can be nerve wracking, particularly when the speed of the cars/trucks starts to run over 35 mph. In Omaha, we do have a trail system that does a fairly good job of getting you from A to B IF you happen to be traveling on a north/south vector. Moving from east to west (or west to east) presents more of a challenge. This is because the trail system was designed to run along the creeks and streams that flow into the Missouri (and, I suspect, were initially intended for recreational use.) But since most of the commuting is toward downtown, cyclists must share the road with motor vehicles.

Omaha has made some headway in resolving this by creating bike lanes on roads throught the city proper east of 60th. Further, they have painted “sharrows” on other roads to remind drivers that we cyclist are out and about. The drawback to both of these solutions is that the cyclist is still on the same road on the same plane as the cars and trucks that are headed the same direction. It’s a step in the right direction, but paint won’t stop an errant driver.

As we redesign our road system, there are several options to consider. First is lane width. The posted limit on just about every road leading downtown is routinely ignored by drivers pushing 10 to 15 mph over that limit. The reason: the road is so wide they feel safe doing so. To these drivers the words “speed limit” is read as the minimum speed for the road, not the maximum. Furthermore, giving so much buffer on either side of the car makes the driver feel secure enough to multi-task by catching up on emails, eating breakfast, putting on makeup, or shaving (yeah, I’ve seen it done.) Driving is already a multi-task event. If on redesign, we decrease the lane width from the 12′ that is the current standard on main arterials down to 10′ (or better 9), traffic will slow to the a safer speed (read speed limit.) That frees up 2′ per lane for use in creating a bike lane. Carried a step further, put that lane on the passenger side of parked cars, thereby protecting cyclists from moving traffic. This is a brief discussion, so for now I won’t retell the redesign story completely other than to say it can and has been done elsewhere.

So let’s go back to discussing parking for a few minutes, this time bike parking.  Having routes to primary destinations is great, but they mean nothing if there’s no secure, safe place to lock your bike once you get there. There needs to be an investment in sufficient bike parking. At a minimum, well anchored bike racks need to be installed at popular destinations in sufficient numbers that there are (almost) always a few empty spots. Unlike a car, a bike can’t be locked free-standing. It has to be locked to something to keep it from being permanently “borrowed.” Repurpose some of the parking spaces given up for cars to bike corrals. Ten bikes can fit in the space formerly occupied by a single motor vehicle. Perhaps some industrious entrepreneur will setup bike lockers for short term use.

While I said that all of these are equally important, this final one probably is the biggie: Education. Education for everyone. Classes for would be cycling commuters on road safety, etiquette, equipment, and maintenance. Outreach to employers/businesses on how they can work to improve things for their cycling commuters/customers. Education for those drivers who cannot or will not choose to give up their cars to help them to see us as what we are: fellow humans just wanting to get from here to there, albeit in a different mode.

Finally, a reminder. Every time you climb on your bike, with each push of your pedals, every spin of your tires, you are representing all of us. Act accordingly!

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