Category Archives: Urban living

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!

Plunger Aftermath

More on “Plungergate!”

A couple of weeks since our little protected bike lane demonstration, and we’re still getting comments on it. When I went to the dentist last Monday, the dentist and two of the hygienists/assistants asked me if I had been in the paper or on the news. After telling them the purpose and how we did it (with names withheld to protect the “innocent”) they proclaimed us heroes of the cycling community. Doesn’t hurt that the doc and at least of the assistants are cyclists.

63rd_Shirley

There’s also been a bit of semi-official reaction to the demonstration. Apparently, at the May meeting of the Mayor’s Active Living Advisory Committee, there was an agenda item titled “Guerilla Bicycle Facilities on 63rd Street.” While the minutes/notes of the meeting have yet to be published, I’ve heard that the group was of two sides: one side wanted to condemn the action, while the other suggested letting it pass. I look forward to reading the notes to see what (if anything) good will come of it.

The residents of the 63rd & Shirley neighborhood haven’t let it go yet, either. A Facebook page has been started to continue pointing out the dangers of that intersection and the speeding traffic on 63rd. At least one local station has continued coverage of the issue.

I don’t know what will come of this long-term. I do know that there hasn’t been this much attention paid to ped/bike infrastructure since the firing of Omaha’s “Bike Czar” (I hate that term) in the early throes of the Stothert administration. If folks continue to talk and react, and if they promote change where it’s needed, then I count the action as a success.

Roll on!

Making Decisions

Once Omaha’s Complete Streets Policy is in place, how will the city Planning and Public Works Departments make decisions on street design. One only has to move throughout the city (by any means) to know that there will be ample opportunity to put the policy into practice. But who will the decision makers design for?

If they look at current usage of the roadways to decide on walking/biking infrastructure, I fear that we will be doomed to more of what we now have: corridors designed with the automobile as priority. In my opinion (such that it is,) they should quit looking at the past. Furthermore, they shouldn’t design for the future; instead they should take the opportunity to design the future, a different concept altogether. I suspect that comment may need some explanation.

If the Planning Department designs for the future, they will look back at historical data and trends, extrapolate expected numbers, then adjust them actuarily to come up with what they feel will be the future use. The problem with this approach is that it is based solely on the past and will, therefore, continue to elevate the use of private automobiles over other means of transport. Hence, roads will be widened, parking added, and other transport options left to share what may remain (if anything.) In other words, more of the same on a grander scale.

However, if the planners instead utilize their education, knowledge, experience, but most importantly their imaginations, they can redesign our cities as more pleasant, enjoyable places to work, live, and play. Consider a concept I like to call Complete Neighborhoods. Currently, we look at neighborhoods as a collection of homes contained within the same area, borders defined often by busy streets. Imagine instead a neighborhood that contained not only homes, but also included businesses that provided central services: grocery store, drug store, hardware store. Those places we often need at least once a week all located within a mile or two (easy walking or biking distance) from home. Those places not needed as often, such as clothes, beauty or barber shops and entertainment, could be located another mile or two (still bikeable) out, with public transit granting access to those who don’t want to ride. Delivery services could provide a means for getting those big ticket items home. Workplaces (for those not employed in these shops) and green spaces could be intermixed throughout. These concepts are found in the book “A Pattern Language” which should be on the shelf of every designer in my opinion.

Allow me to state that I am not promoting a full-city teardown and starting from scratch. Instead, let’s look at current zoning laws and change them to allow these ideas as redevelopment occurs. In Omaha, we already see the desire for such development in areas like the Crossroads Mall, where it appears the zoning and bureaucracy have come together to stifle the creative thinking that Omaha will need as more folks see the opportunities that our city provides now and, hopefully, will provide into the future.

Think creatively!

Roll on!

Tools for Omaha Commuters (and Others)

Thought I’d share a couple of things that I hope will make life easier for people who bike in Omaha.

First, a map I’ve been working on and adding to. Those of you who know me are aware of the map I created (and continue to curate) showing the Fixit repair stations in the Omaha region. I started this map back in 2014 and it has seen some use. Hopefully, the fixit stations have as well. I had been thinking of what things might also be of use to Omaha cyclists and realized that one of the questions I have before setting out is “Where’s the closest parking to my destination?” So I started working on adding that to the map as well.

With some help from Omaha Bikes and the city’s Planning Dept., I got my hands on a file of all of the city-installed bike racks in Omaha. There’s quite a few of them! After some quick searching and finagling, I was able to import it into the map. You can see the results here. It’s much easier to see/read on a PC than on your phone, but it is still usable. FixitOmahaI’m still playing with a couple of ideas with icons, data, etc., so keep checking back.

(UPDATE: I’ve created a Google Form so that you can report a bike rack or Fixit Station that is missing on the map. Just click here, fill in the form, and I’ll take care of the rest.)

(UPDATE 2: B-Cycle bike share stations have been added. Also, sometime next week, I hope to be adding (with help from the Planning Dept.) the formally recognized bike commuter routes.)

(UPDATE 3: The Planning Dept. came through, not only with the promised commuter routes, but also with the trails in the city. I’ve added them to the map. I think I’m done for the time being. If you have suggestions, please put them in the comments section.)

Since my map is a bit cumbersome to use on a smart phone, I started looking for other solutions, and I found one! The Bicycle Parking Project gives an opportunity to download their bicycle parking app for either iPhone or Android. I sent the above mentioned data file to the developer, and he graciously added the bike racks in Omaha to his database. It’s also incredibly easy to add new racks to it; just take a picture of the rack through the app and send it. You can see that’s what I did for the bike parking at Natural Grocers on Dodge. Bulk loaded racks are yellow, and those added by individuals are blue. You’ll note the button “Park Here.” If you select a rack and click on the Park Here, it will turn green; you can walk away and be able to easily remember where you left your bike. I’ll also be reviewing the map in this app periodically to see where new racks have been added and update the above map.

NtGrocRack

Hopefully, folks will find these little tools useful. If you can think of other information that you think would work, let me know, and I’ll see what’s possible.

Roll on!

More Parking? Really??!?

Last week I listened to a recording of an interview that Mayor Stothert did with KFAB radio here in Omaha in which she reviewed her tenure as mayor and touched on her future plans for the city. One of the topics mentioned for the future was the development for Lot B near the Centurylink Center.

During that discussion the mayor noted that a large portion of parking downtown is unused for most of the day. She went on to say that Lot B was prime property for development and should be utilized more along the lines as mixed use. My initial thought was “My god! She’s finally getting it!” That sentiment lasted all of three seconds as she followed with a statement that those 850 parking spaces would have to be moved elsewhere.

Now I’m just a lowly accountant/consultant, but if they’re largely unused now, won’t that still be the case if you pave over another plot of land to put them elsewhere? And, if I heard correctly, the area she wants to move them to is closer to the river which also seems to me (the lowly accountant/consultant) prime real estate for a park or other public development.

Unfortunately, this is just a continuation of the car-centric thinking that pervades almost all of American society. There is an innate belief that if you own a fuel burning vehicle, you have the right to subsidized parking close to whatever destination you wish to choose. Wouldn’t it make more sense to find ways to provide MORE than adequate transportation to desired destinations other than hopping in your car? Instead, we add to an infrastructure burden that we already are unable to maintain. Personally, I’d much rather see the water infrastructure fixed (over a dozen main breaks in the last month) than widen 168th street. Sure, I know that the money for the roads will largely be coming from the state and federal governments, but that only shows that the mind shift needs to come from levels higher that City of Omaha government. But the shift has to start somewhere.

So let’s start by NOT moving those parking spaces, but eliminating them. Provide alternative transportation to those events that MECA makes their money on (sure would be nice to see their books.) If we want Omaha to be a city for the future, we need to start taking the future into consideration. Right now, I’m not seeing it.

Roll on!

Widening 168th Street

The city of Omaha is planning to widen 168th Street from three lanes to four and adding a median. The stated goals of this project are to enhance safety, to increase capacity, and to reduce traffic congestion. While these may sound like worthwhile goals, only one (to increase capacity) will be realized, and this at the expense of the other two goals. So let’s consider this goal first.

As noted above 168th street is currently three lanes, with the center lane used for turning. Effectively, that means that the through traffic is two lanes. Increasing to four lanes sounds like it will double the throughput potential, and it may. But for how much of the day is that increased throughput required? While I haven’t seen the study, I suspect that it will only be during rush hours: one direction in the morning and the other direction in the evening as commuters return to their homes. This means that for the majority of the day, the increased width of 168th Street will remain empty and unused.

How will this enhance safety (or will it?) For pedestrians who are crossing the road, there is now an additional lane, plus the width of the median to cross. Which means they’ll be having to hustle a bit more to get across. They’ll also have another lane to watch for oncoming traffic. Suffice to say, I don’t see how those who walk are made safer.

What about those in cars? They may be safer for a time (more on that in a bit,) what with more room on the road. But, again, in the less than long term, I don’t think this will bear out either. This brings us to congestion. Conventional wisdom says if you want to relieve congestion, widen the road. The reality, however, is that induced demand will set in and in a much shorter time than expected, the roadway will be just as crowded as before the widening. And with the return of the congestion, the same safety issues return for the motorist in his four wheeled metal box, possibly multiplied since there are now more cars surrounding the driver.

One part of the project I have no issue with is the enhanced sidepaths. These will allow pedestrians and cyclist to travel in the same directions of the road more safely than if they were to share the road. As noted above, this safety only lasts until they try crossing the road.

There are many infrastructure needs in Omaha. A fair number of our roads, bridges, and sidewalks are in need of repair. Is spending the money on widening 168th Street really the best use of limited transportation funds?

What Makes a Bike Shop?

Recently, one of my friends on Twitter asked, “What turns you off about your LBS?” I’ve paraphrased the question, but that’s the gist of it. While I could spend time telling you what’s wrong with bike shops, to me it’s more appropriate to describe a great one.

Let’s look at the physical shop itself first. If I walk in and am reminded of a MegaMart, that shop is going to have to have something pretty damn spectacular to keep me inside the door. Brand shops and stores that try to be all things to all people generally are going to leave me cold. My experience has been that if you try to do too much, you won’t do too much of it well.

No, what I like is the small local shop, the LBS. Here in Omaha, we are graced with several such shops, each with its own distinctive look and feel.  In visiting them, they each seem to gravitate towards a specific “tribe” of cyclist (mountain, road, commuter, touring, etc.) With enough overlap to satisfy those with whose interests may be more inclusive.

But what make a LBS truly great is the part they play in the community. Not just as a purveyor of cycling paraphernalia, but as a hub where cyclists can meet to ride, to socialize, and to discuss the state of cycling in town.  Even better if they can lead those advocacy efforts without turning the cause into a commercial for their business. Those owners are the ones who truly believe in what they do, that it will one day make your town a better place to live.

So do yourselves a favor: go out and find that LBS. Support it however you can. Help them to amplify their voices in the automotive wilderness. Band together so that the city knows: WE ARE HERE!!

Roll on!