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

April Coffee Chat Recap

14 May

Here is a recap of the exciting and innovative projects presented at the April 2015 Coffee Chat, along with a reminder:

Next Wednesday, May 20, is Omaha Gives day. Help Mode Shift meet its goal with your participation.

Your participation will enable Mode Shift to advocate for a better city and for projects such as the ones described below.

The April Mode Shift Coffee Chat was hosted by Noddle Companies at their Aksarben Village offices, where their team shared work planned in Council Bluffs:

  • River’s Edge, a new mixed-use development to the east of Hanafan Park, will provide an active destination at the eastern terminus of the Bob Kerry Pedestrian Bridge
  • West Broadway Corridor Plan could radically alter the western half of Council Bluffs. Both projects will greatly increase options for pedestrians, cyclists, and transit users to move about Council Bluffs.


The mixed-use River’s Edge development will embed active transportation networks in its DNA. The existing trail network along the Missouri River will feed into the development via a new landing ‘porch’ being designed at the foot of the Bob Kerry Pedestrian Bridge. The ‘porch’ is an open space envisioned as an extension of Hanafan Park, that transitions into one of the primary public space elements of River’s Edge, currently being called the Piazza. While the Piazza is a road providing connectivity along the west side of the development, it’s designed as a curbless street similar to the Dutch Woonerf, which can be closed to vehicular traffic during events. Avenue A will provide the spine through the development and will feature the metropolitan region’s first and very long overdue separated cycle track. A series of larger infrastructural improvements at the I-480 / I-29 interchange will allow easier access into the development from the Interstate, and from the West Broadway corridor.

The West Broadway Corridor Plan aims to drastically improve the West Broadway corridor with new development and improved transportation infrastructure. When complete, Downtown Omaha and Downtown Council Bluffs will have more of a seamless connection, which could have the effect of altering how we think of the metropolitan region. With the reclaiming a railroad right of way, judicious land use measures, and working with the neighborhoods, Council Bluffs has the potential to lead the region in providing safe and well-designed active transportation networks and seamlessly included into new development. The plan will improve pedestrian circulation through the use of better crosswalks, sidewalks, trails and parks. A new recreation trail linked to the wider network already in place will expand options for recreation cyclists connecting to downtown Council Bluffs, while there is hope that the Bus Rapid Transit line planned in Omaha can be extended to Downtown Council Bluffs. Various right-of-way scenarios include options for safe sidewalks, transit lanes, cycle tracks, and landscaped buffers.

Both projects are well positioned to greatly improve connectivity for pedestrians, cyclists, and transit riders throughout the city of Council Bluffs. If the various elements are implemented as currently planned, Council Bluffs will join other leading cities in the country that understand the benefits of providing well designed facilities for active transportation, while making a big leap towards unifying the Omaha metropolitan region. The City of Omaha will have many good examples to study as it follows Council Bluffs in providing transportation options that enhance quality of life and opportunities to live, work, and play.

Omaha Gives!

6 May

Earlier this year Mode Shift Omaha was granted 501(c)(3) status, which enabled us to register for Omaha Gives!, an annual 24-hour event to raise money for metro-area nonprofit organizations. This year it will be held on Wednesday, May 20. The minimum gift is $10, and there is no maximum.

You can find our Omaha Gives! page here . There is an option to schedule your donation now; however, we encourage everyone to donate on May 20th if possible, as scheduled donations are not eligible for hourly prizes.

We’re also planning a little celebratory party at the Omaha Bicycle Company from 7pm to midnight on May 20. We’ll have our MSO headquarters set up at OBC to stay caffeinated and ready to ask for your contribution (free coffee with your donation throughout the day!!). A little food and drink will be provided that night as well. This will serve as our public monthly meeting for the month of May. Help out MSO and have fun doing it!

Our goal is to raise $5,000 to go towards our mission to advocate for transportation options that enhance quality of life and opportunities to live, work, and play. See more about our activities and strategic plan here.

Please give to Mode Shift Omaha on May 20! Thank you!