Category Archives: Omaha Transportation Multimodal

What Will It Take?

I’m starting to get a bit frustrated about multi-modal progress in Omaha. While the city administration seems to react positively to concerns and ideas, in practice they don’t seem to get it. Here’s a few examples of the mayor and her minions not quite “getting it.”

In 2016, Omaha was recognized as having one of the better Complete Streets policies in the country. Admittedly, our policy is pretty decent on paper, but there doesn’t feel like a lot of effort or thought backing it up. At a forum during the mayoral campaign, I asked Mayor Stothert about Complete Streets implementation in a recently announced development project. If I understood her answer correctly (and I’m pretty sure I did,) she said that because the development would only affect two or three blocks of the road it didn’t make sense to follow the policy. Her thinking was that those two blocks wouldn’t lead to or from anywhere. Following that logic, Complete Streets would not be implemented ANYWHERE unless the entire length of the road was developed at once. While I’d love to see that happen, I know that’s not practical. The only way Omaha will end up with a Complete Streets network is if it’s piecemealed together, taking advantage of ALL development/redevelopment opportunities.

My second example is 63rd St. You will remember this thoroughfare from my posts on Plungergate. For a five block (1/4 mile) stretch, this residential street widens to allow for bike lanes on both sides and parking on the east side. Unfortunately, the lanes are only striped and (from what I’ve observed) use of the curbside parking is minimal. This extra width entices motor vehicle drivers to accelerate to highway speeds, and many of them do. This makes what should be a quiet peaceful street next to Aksarben Village a de facto drag strip, menacing pedestrians crossing and cyclists riding the street.

At a neighborhood meeting, the “solution” suggested by Public Works was to remove the bike lanes and allow parking on both sides of the street. This suggestion fails for several reasons. First of all, if streetside parking is not being utilized on the one side already allowed, why would it be used on both sides? The road is still wide, even the hint of narrowing provided by the bike lane is removed, so what will cause the NASCAR wannabe’s to drive reasonably? I don’t see it either. In my opinion, what should have been suggested is a Complete Streets/Protected Bike Lane treatment that… Oh wait! That flies in the face of the mayor’s forum response to me. Carry on! I doubt that the proposed roundabout is going to appreciably affect the safety of vulnerable road users.

My last example today is the widening of 120th St. In reviewing the Environmental Assessment, it appears that they plan on connecting the Papio Trail to the trail system in Tranquility Park. Great idea! No really, it is! However, the detail shows the connection being made north of West Maple up near Old Maple. While the city’s GIS data shows that the trail does reach that far currently, the reality is that it ends in Heflinger Park, south of West Maple. What are the plans to extend the trail northward to meet its soon to be created link to Tranquility? If there are no such plans, I have to wonder: did anyone from the city actually look at the trail, or did they just assume the GIS data was correct?

Now the mayor has a new buzz word to deal with: Vision Zero. I understand that she’ll be tasking ALAC with reviewing other policies and developing one for Omaha. I hope ALAC will take the time to recognize that the goals of Vision Zero can be best reached by rigorous application of the Complete Streets policy. Further, that such application needs to start now and not wait for the completion of the Complete Streets manual. After all, the tenets of Complete Streets can be found in the nine policy documents already adopted by various entities within Omaha.

Roll on!

Keeping the Flow

You’ll recall that last week I wrote about the 63rd & Shirley intersection and its problems with traffic. Well, this week something was done about it, albeit in an unusual way.

In an effort to draw attention to the issues on this stretch of road, a group of cyclists decided to demonstrate the benefits of a protected bike lane. The plan for the project was to delineate the painted lanes already there and measure traffic speed and behavior over a 36 hour period. The delineation tool of choice: bathroom plungers.

Yep, you read that right: the plunger. A tool commonly used to remove clogs in drains was going to be used by this group to improve overall flow through the neighborhood. This “method” of tactical urbanism has been used before, most recently in Wichita KS. The group gathered the plungers (120 of them) and other supplies, and laid out their plan. This plan included meeting with members of the neighborhood who were also concerned that the city might remove the existing lanes (which, as I point out last week, would be pointless.)

This past Monday morning, under cover of full daylight, a small group of these guerilla advocates swooped down on the blocks where the bike lanes waited. Working quickly and stealthily (or as stealthily as one can under the morning sun), they completed their task around 10:30am. After taking a few car speed readings, they departed and waited for reaction.


Plungers for Safer Aksarben

(Photo from Omaha World Herald)

Reaction came shortly after lunch when, as spokesman for the group, I got my first call from the media (KMTV News.) Riding my trusty Trucker to the site, I found that the city had already removed our project. The reporter from KMTV confirmed that Public Works had just finished pulling up the plungers and left, which meant that our demonstration was over in less than four hours (not the 36 we had hoped for.) At this point I figured that this would be our one and only interview.

Fortunately, I was wrong. Laura came to pick me up (to go out for dinner,) and while we were talking to a couple of cyclists who happened by about the project, KETV showed up. While that interview was happening, WOWT came along to finish up the major networks trifecta (sorry Fox; I still don’t count you as major.) Pell Duvall, the Executive Director of Omaha Bikes, made an appearance and offered a counterpoint to our project. Finally, as we drove away, the Omaha World Herald called for a quick interview. Media coverage complete.

Since then, the story has been share on social media. Other news organizations have picked it up and, most importantly, people are talking about it. Even though its life was short, Plungers for a Safer Aksarben has started folks thinking about new ways to view transportation infrastructure. Sure, there are the stalwart naysayers (particularly on in Public Works) who say that there’s no place in Omaha for protected bike lanes. But there’s just as many, if not more who see the value in providing safer transportation options for all.

Will this be the last of our tactical urbanism efforts? I don’t know, but probably not. If we see another opportunity to raise awareness, we’ll take it. I’ve provided links below my signoff to some of the stories about PSA. Until next time…

Roll on!

Bits & Pieces

Just some updates, recaps, and shorts that wouldn’t fill a post by themselves.

The plan on consolidating Fixit station repair has changed. The board over at Omaha Bikes has decided that they don’t have the bandwidth to assure that the stations are maintained. It proved to be more difficult to find a non-profit partner to share the labor portion of the plan. However, Eastern Nebraska Trails Network approached the good folks at Re-cycle Bicycle (a for profit organization) and they have forged an agreement to maintain the units that are to be placed by ENTN and Missouri-Papio NRD. Don’t know where this leaves the sixteen other stations in the metro; guess they’ll continue as is.

Folks wanting to know where to park their bikes in our fair city can download the Bicycle Parking app. Available for both Android (Google Play Store) and Apple (App Store[?]), the app will show you all of the city installed bike parking with data provided to the developer by the Planning Department and Omaha Bikes (with a little help from me.) The developer is also looking to add Fixit station locations to the app. Incredibly easy to use and to add privately installed parking as well.

ModeShiftOmaha is finalizing a candidates’ survey on multi-modal transportation in the metro. This survey will be forwarded to all candidates in the upcoming municipal election. Results will be compiled and published by MSO.

Finally, I’m reflecting on a better focus for this little blog of mine. It will, of course, still be bike transportation (other alt transpo as well,) but I feel the need to set some targets to shoot for. More on that to come.

In the meantime, the weather this weekend looks to be BEAUTIFUL! Time to get out and enjoy yourself in whatever (at least semi-legal) way you choose. Until next time.

Roll on!

Bike Month 2017 (Intro)

Well here it is, February 22, 2017, and Bike  Month is just over ten weeks away in May. This annual celebration of all things wheeled and people powered brings opportunities for riders, old and new, to find new ways to use their bikes for recreation, commuting, and all-around transportation.

There are several groups who give chances to get on your bike and ride.  The first to be covered here is 30 Days of Biking. Participants pledge (starting on March 1) to ride their bikes every day during the month of April. Any length ride qualifies, so if it’s raining, or cold, or whatever all you have to do is ride down the block and home again. Easy-peasy! 30 Days gives you multiple ways on social media to keep up with their community during the month. A great way to warm up and get into shape for the month to follow.

Here in Omaha, you can get your bike looked over and minor adjustments made for free. Just find Omaha Bikes at Earth Day on April 22. In addition to providing bike valet service for the event, Omaha Bikes will have a few volunteer mechanics to make sure your bike is safe to operate.

Now that you and your trusty steed are ready, May brings multiple events and opportunities to celebrate. Yep, May is Bike Month. If past history holds true, just about every bike shop in the city will have sales, classes, and events to keep you riding. As I see these events appear, I’ll add in another Events entry. I”m sure that Live Well Omaha will once again start their season long Commuter Challenge. Running from May 1 through September 30, it allows individuals and teams to log their miles of walking, riding and taking transit to earn bragging rights (and maybe a prize or two.)

Want to double your fun? Join the National Bike Challenge. Hosted by the League of American Bicyclists, the NBC has the same dates as Omaha’s Commuter Challenge. Keep your team and make those miles count twice.

I’ll post more on Bike Month as more details become available. In the meantime, check your bike and map your routes. Spring (and Bike Month) is coming!

Roll on!

Winter Is Coming!

No, this isn’t a reminder that the new season of Game of Thrones is on the way (although John and his friends are coming back soon,) but a statement of fact. The days are getting shorter, the nights colder, and ol’ Sol doesn’t seem to be warming us up as much.

So how do you prepare for Winter’s embrace? Here, I pretty much hang up the road/touring bike and check out the mountain (for everyday errand running) and fat bikes (for when the snow gets a bit deeper.) I also dust off the indoor stationary bike for keeping the lungs and legs ready for longer rides in the Spring.

For clothing, I break out the Merino wool tops and the running tights. I find that using these as a base layer works in most colder situations. Footwear is a switch from sandals to closed shoes, with an overshoe as needed. And wool socks. Can”t beat the wool for keeping the toes toasty!

During the Winter months, I also review my advocacy efforts over the past year and try to look ahead to the coming year. 2017 will bring a mayoral election to Omaha , and I hope to make transportation choice one of the issues the candidates consider. I’ll also be putting similar litmus tests to council members and representatives in the Unicameral. As I get answers to my queries, I’ll post them and give my opinion. Stay tuned!

Roll on!

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!

Modern Zoning and the Problems It Can Cause

If you live in the United States, chances are you are affected by zoning laws. Most counties and municipalities have ordinances that specify to what use each parcel of land within its jurisdiction can be put. All too often these uses conflict with multi-modal transportation.

These ordinances segregate uses of land. For instance, residential areas are isolated from the commercial districts where citizens need to shop, industrial districts where they work, and professional/office areas. Such segmentation of the city increases the need for an automobile to move from point A to point B to point C. By spreading these areas out, it becomes next to impossible to exist without a car.

So how should we be designing our cities? For most of us, there are four basic destination “needs:” home, work, shopping, and social. I list home first as it’s the center of our transportation hub; from home, we set out each day to work, to shop, and/or to play/socialize. At some point, we return home one or more times each day. If our design goal is to minimize the need for fossil fuels and th vehicles that consume them, then the spoke ends of our “wheel” must be reachable by walking, cycling, or public transport. Ideally, the majority of our lives should be within five miles of home.

However, distance is one one factor to consider. My home in Omaha is within five miles of my preferred grocery, some great restaurants and bars, and even some of my health care providers. (Note that I haven’t listed work as I’m fortunate to work from home.) However, to get to almost any of my preferred destinations, I have to cross at least one four lane road/highway. While not insurmountable, it does lend difficulty to the trip. Changes in infrastructure (some simple, some more complex) would allow cyclists and pedestrians to better navigate their neighborhoods. Hopefully, Omaha’s recently adopted Complete Streets policy will guide the city toward making those changes as road projects are considered.