Projects to Improve Walkability

26 Jul

At our July 22nd membership meeting, board chair Craig Moody facilitated a brainstorming session aimed at answering the following question:

What projects can Mode Shift complete (or encourage the completion of) that would support, encourage, and/or directly result in improved walkabilty?

Our focus was primarily on projects that 1) could be completed in the near term and 2) we could own and complete. Here’s the list that was generated that night:

  1. Create a campaign to build the idea that walking is cool
  2. Connect the dots of districts & create interest along those walks (e.g. little free libraries, parklets)
  3. Develop walking maps (similar to recently released bike maps)
  4. Create a “walk friendly business” campaign similar to the bike friendly business version
  5. Promote walkability through neighborhood associations
  6. Improve walking transitions to bus stops by including bus route maps
  7. Work with Hy-Vee to expand their fuel-saver program to include discounts on bus passes
  8. Conduct an educational campaign aimed at ensuring people know how to interact with active transportation infrastructure such as bike lanes and cross walks
  9. Start a “If you see something, say something” campaign wherein ModeShift collects images and anecdotes related to walkability infrastructure and situations and shares that information with relevant parties (e.g. City of Omaha)
  10. Stencil paint “more bike lanes, please” or “I walked here”
  11. Use temporary green paint to identify active transportation infrastructure
  12. Add signage at crosswalks that tells drivers it’s the law that they must stop for pedestrians
  13. Advocate for 20 mph speed limit
  14. Start a Vision Zero program similar to that in NYC
  15. Advocate for more one-way to two-way street conversions (a la the Blackstone District)
  16. Advocate for pedestrian head starts at intersections with traffic lights & walk signals
  17. Advocate for the replacement of a stop light with a 4-way stop (e.g. Dundee)
  18. Plant trees along treeless corridors (e.g. Leavenworth, N. 20th St., Florence Blvd)

We really hope to take one of these and run with it soon, so let us know if anything resonates. Build on an idea. Share a new thought. Tell us what you think.

The Expansion of Parking in Downtown Omaha

24 Jul Omahaparking2010

A recent blog post on the Strong Town’s website about addressing the “there’s no parking” argument is timely as Omaha starts to implement changes to parking policies based on a downtown parking study done in 2011 and recommendations from the City Parking Manager. At least one goal of these changes is to balance out supply and demand and ultimately improve land use. As we’ve noted in an earlier blog post, Omaha seems to have a serious “parking problem,” not because there isn’t enough parking—the parking study referred to above found that there is plenty of parking in downtown Omaha—but because ever more space is being devoted to parking cars rather than to higher, more economically beneficial purposes that also enable Omaha to become more walkable, bikeable, and transit friendly.

Check out just how much space has been given over to parking in the last several decades in downtown Omaha (red squares are surface parking lots and yellow squares are parking garages):

Omahaparking1941 Omahaparking1965 Omahaparking1988 Omahaparking2010

These photos are part of a presentation given by Derek Miller from the City of Omaha Planning Department, who allowed us to use them for this post. Thank you!

A planned new development on a parking lot in North Downtown may indicate a hopeful reversal in this trend and the case being made for the Midtown Connector/Streetcar directly relates to improving land use for better economic development, in part by reducing the need to give up so much space to parking. Better, more dense land use is essential to creating a more walk-, bike-, and transit-friendly city.

Let’s Talk About Omaha’s Projected Commute Times

29 Jun

In Sunday’s edition of the Omaha World Herald, a story ran summarizing current and projected commute times in Omaha. In short, Omaha’s standing as a 20-minute city (for automobile commutes, that is) appears to be in jeopardy.

The article rightly points out that Omaha is beginning to better understand its transportation needs, but we took issue with a few things in the article. The most important of which is the assertion that the central goal for transportation engineers and roadway designers should be to move cars as quickly as possible in all cases.

​Automobile level of service (LOS) should not be the ultimate determinant in street design. The similarity of the A – F ratings to grades in school is unfortunate. When it comes to street design, sometimes a C is actually better than an A. In many cases, you want a lower vehicle speed; so a little congestion can be a good thing. Maple Street through Benson is a perfect example. LOS A ​would be horrendous (even though the street serves as a state highway). The slower stop-and-go traffic fosters an environment friendlier to and safer for people walking between the various shops, restaurants, and bars. It has allowed the place to come alive.

In addition, commute time projections are based on models that aren’t perfect. The MAPA model referenced in the article does a less than average job of incorporating transit and non-motorized ​transportation (or so we hear). Many models fail to adequately account for the shift between transportation modes that comes with changes in congestion or increased availability of higher quality transit or bicycle facilities. They also often fail to consider people who walk or bike for trips other than their work commutes and assume a never-ending growth in driving. Because of this, there is a national movement afoot to challenge traffic projections.

The article also points to mixed support for transit funding, but survey data obtained through the Heartland 2050 Vision show that there is slightly greater local support for investment in public transportation than the national AP poll cited. Transit is an important investment we’ve been skimping on for years. Metro is grossly underfunded. It receives just $36 per capita compared with a median of $56 per capita for similar sized cities across the country. Increased funding will improve service. Better service grows ridership, which means folks leave their cars at home; thus resulting in less congestion. Better transit also changes the character of our commutes. Twenty minutes reading a book on transit sure beats twenty minutes of driving in heavy traffic.

Still, as our city gets to a more sustainable shape with denser urban development and walkable/bikeable/transit-friendly neighborhoods, the automobile travel times for getting all the way across town will likely increase a bit. But here’s the thing: that’s actually OK. It’s that sort of discomfort that motivates us to actually live in areas that are closer to where we work, where we shop, and where we hang out. It’s also that pressure that inspires businesses to open up closer to where we already live. Ultimately, it’s a quality of life issue, and as our windshield time increases, we begin looking for ways to improve our lives by decreasing or eliminating that typically undesirable part of our lives.

Omaha is indeed seeing its transportation needs in a new light. The vision set out through the Heartland 2050 process could help us create a better community for all of us, if cities take the report’s recommendations to heart. And improvements in transit service and a forthcoming Complete Streets policy mean that getting around without a car will be easier and safer.

However, the article’s central premise that a small increase in the average commute time for drivers is a major cause of concern is misguided. There are more important functions for a city than moving cars quickly. Mainly, we need to create places that are worthwhile to be, not just places to drive through. We need to stop assuming that the amount each of us drives will always increase when we try to envision the future, and we need to understand that there is a limit to what we can do to support automobile travel. It’s time to shift our transportation funding priorities to other modes to provide us with transportation options that are personally and environmentally healthier, and it’s time to shift our mindset away from prioritizing driving speed over all else.


On Complete Streets

29 Jun

Omaha’s Complete Streets Policy will go before the Planning Board on Wednesday July 1 and, assuming it passes, will find its way to the City Council for its first of three readings on July 28. Four Mode Shift Omaha board members served as stakeholders throughout the process, and we’re generally pretty happy with where everything stands.

Here’s our quick take:

This policy doesn’t require anything. It’s not an ordinance. It’s not a change in code. It doesn’t have much for teeth. BUT, it could lay the foundation for something good. Ultimately, it all depends on how it’s implemented.

The next steps in the process are really critical. Namely the creation of Street Design Guidelines, which hopefully include a detailed section on implementation, are the most important aspect of the entire process. The Guidelines should get down into the details of what it means for a street to be “complete” in certain contexts and transects. Treatments will need to vary based on each street’s typology, and the Guidelines should be built to ensure the treatments are good.

The policy specifically references design manuals from the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) and the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE) as models, which is promising. They are both great and form the basis for many cities’ successful Complete Streets programs. For example, Chicago’s guidelines list priorities between the modes for each type of street based on context and purpose. Pedestrians are nearly always listed first, which makes a lot of sense to us.

The proposed policy also makes the case for adequate staffing in Public Works to handle multimodal issues. We couldn’t agree more and hope that means they will be able/willing to hire someone who knows the ins and outs of this work like the back of their hand.

One concern within the policy is the latitude provided for exceptions to occur and the limited transparency around reporting on those exceptions. While these aren’t ideal, we don’t believe it’s worth throwing the baby out with the bath water.

The main questions: how will these new guidelines actually affect the design and construction of our city’s streets? How will these guidelines work with land use controls to create places where driving isn’t the default means of getting around? Will there be a dedicated funding stream for non-motorized transportation projects? These questions will be answered in the next phases of this project: development of guidelines and actual implementation. And, to be successful, the forthcoming process and its outcomes need commitment from Public Works and the Mayor. So far it looks like they’re committed.


On Metro’s Improvements

15 Jun

11108994_858740484220738_2909379279663814656_nMode Shift Omaha is on record supporting the now recently-implemented changes made by Metro Transit. Improvements include increasing bus frequency, making the routes more direct and easier to understand, and expanding hours of service on weekends and into the evening. All of these are happening without any increase to Metro’s funding (which by the way is NOT great—Metro’s funding is $36 per capita compared with a median of $56 per capita for similar sized cities across the country).

Without additional funding, or changes to land use patterns, tradeoffs have to occur for these improvements. Extensive data gathered by Metro suggests the new changes will lead to significant benefits for large numbers of people—and we will keep monitoring the degree of this benefit—but some people are unfortunately negatively affected.

The reality is that currently there are many parts of the city (especially out west) that were built at densities and road configurations that make transit service extremely expensive. To serve these areas means pulling resources away from other parts of the system (assuming no additional funding). Sadly, many people live in these areas and could benefit from better transit. Without the ability to increase its budget by an amount greater than inflation, Metro cannot possibly hope to offer city-wide service at frequencies that make the system reasonably usable for many people.

If we want to make improvements to the system AND adequately serve lower density areas of the city, we need to advocate for increased support for transit:

  • One option for this could include an increase in the property tax devoted to transit to the maximum allowable level (0.10%—currently it is 0.05%) within the City of Omaha or beyond depending on the scope of service. Several similar funding options are outlined in the Regional Transit Vision report here. Contact your state senator to ask them to support policies that provide additional funding for Metro.
  • Another option is to change how we invest in transportation. We spend millions of dollars regularly subsidizing the very expensive car-centric transportation system that we have now, which inevitably leads to sprawl and the low densities and other problems that negatively impact transit and other non-auto modes of transportation. Transit costs much less comparatively and brings about all sorts of benefits. Contact your city council representative and the mayor’s office to ask them to support policies that invest more in transit and transit-friendly design.

Let’s all work together to make sure transportation options are available for everyone on our community.

Omaha Gives! Update

20 May

Thanks to so many of you for your generosity during Omaha Gives! We are overwhelmed with excitement and gratitude. As of 2:19pm, we have raised $2,014 + $1,000 hourly prize + $2,014 match = $5,028. Boom!

But here’s the thing: we’re in the running for the prizes that will be awarded to the organizations that have the most unique donors during the 8am – 4pm timeframe in their respective classes (we’re in the small organization group). So if you haven’t dropped us a little ($10) love yet, please consider doing so.

Let’s bring this thing home so that we can make Omaha more vibrant, walkable, and beautiful!

Donate here.

UPDATE: Our unofficial tally just after midnight:

$5,198.15 in donations from 203 donors!
$1,000 3am prize
$2,300 board match/extra bonus funds
$3,000 anticipated most unique donors (4pm – midnight)

TOTAL: $11,498.15

Wow, we’re blown away! Time to get busy making Omaha an exceptional place for people that walk, bike and use transit.

Omaha Gives! 2015

19 May


A message from the Mode Shift board:

Tomorrow is 2015 Omaha Gives! an annual 24-hour event to raise money for metro-area nonprofit organizations. All donations are made online with a credit card or your Omaha Community Foundation charitable account.

We are proud of our past accomplishments. Thanks to our efforts, parts of Omaha have wider sidewalks, options for cyclists, better transit, and safer commutes.

With our newly acquired 501(c)(3) status, we can engage new partners and enlist more help than ever, and we believe that within the next year, we are positioned for significant positive impact on major projects in Omaha – from Bus Rapid Transit to Complete Streets, from neighborhood streetscape designs to pedestrian safety.

Help us make this happen – give throughout the day tomorrow by clicking here.

Thanks to the $1 for $1 Match, your donation will be doubled, up to the $2,300 raised by the Mode Shift Board.

Join us at our Celebratory Party at the Omaha Bicycle Company (7pm – midnight) – help out Mode Shift and have fun doing it!

Your donation will go to projects that make Omaha a better place to work, play and live.

Thanks for your consideration!

The Mode Shift Board