Scooters are coming!

22 Jul

The headline in the World Herald read, “Love them or hate them: Electric scooters are returning to Omaha.” Certainly not the most encouraging framing of the issue. Establishing a binary of good or bad, positive or negative leaves little room for nuance. Instead, we should look at the use of dockless electric scooters on the spectrums of safe to unsafe, inclusive to exclusive. To that end, we can look at the policies, and enforcement laid out in the updated rules regarding the use of scooters in Omaha and see where the second pilot lands.

First, it should be clear that Mode Shift neither endorses nor disparages the use of electric scooters. We advocate for all forms of transportation to the end that they make the city more accessible to everyone. A critique of the implementation is not an indictment of the mode.

Is it safe?

Scooters are not inherently safe or unsafe, any more than any other transportation device, especially one that is new to the user. It takes time to learn how to ride a bike or drive a car — it takes time to learn how to walk or ride a wheelchair. So, setting aside the initial learning curve, are scooters safe to operate? The answer depends on the environment provided for their operation. 

In the city of Omaha, scooters are required to operate on city streets with speed limits of 35 miles per hour or slower. The guidance is to use bike lanes where available. The recommendation is to use a helmet. There are a number of “no go” zones where scooters are drastically slowed and where they cannot be “docked” — these include university campuses, the medical center, around the convention center, the riverfront and the Old Market.

While these “no go” zones are ostensibly for safety, they have the effect of slowing or excluding connectivity between nodes of activity. For example, the “no go” zone around the convention center creates a barrier between the Capital District and North Downtown, an area promising exciting future developments. The “no go” zone around the Med Center creates a barrier between the Blackstone and Aksarben or Benson.

Scooters are specifically excluded from city sidewalks, though users are encouraged to park them on sidewalks and not in the street where they are to be operated. This is to limit friction between people riding scooters and people otherwise using the sidewalk. This policy means people riding scooters are competing for road space with motor vehicles. Even where there are bike lanes, Omaha still has no on-street, protected bike infrastructure. Cars often park in designated bike lanes. Without dedicated spaces for vehicles like bikes and scooters, the danger factor operating them on the street increases.

The fact is that riders will ride where they feel most safe. For some, this will mean the sidewalk in the absence of a safe, specific designated space to ride a scooter.

Is it inclusive?

Making a scooter share fully inclusive of the entire population would be a challenge, but there are a few areas where geographic, demographic, capability and economic factors remove Omahans from the opportunity to use the scooters.

The new rules limit the users to individuals 18 and older who have a state ID or driver’s license, a stricter limit than we have for other motor vehicles. To unlock a scooter, you need to have a smartphone and a credit card. Anyone without any of these three items is effectively excluded from using a scooter, especially with the new policy that each user can only unlock one device.

Councilman Gray initially voted against accepting the proposals of the scooter vendors because he didn’t feel like the distribution of scooters would effectively include his North Omaha district. He changed his vote when the vendors assured him they included North Omaha in their plans. 

We have seen no plans to include adaptive scooters in Omaha, but it is a technology being rolled out in other cities that allows users of a range of physical ability to use the service.

Another question of inclusion is how the city intends to enforce/encourage cooperation with the updated policies. The answer is enforcement. Infractions of the ordinance regarding scooter use will incur a $100 fine, issued by the police. These fines would disproportionately burden poorer people and (depending on patterns of policing) minorities.

What can others teach us?

In San Francisco, the city found that friction diminishes with time, “scooter parking citations and related 311 complaints to the city  . . . dropped.” This suggests that time and familiarity can establish better habits and less distrust. The city also encouraged technological innovations to prevent cluttering sidewalks and making  the devices more accessible to all users.

According to a NACTO study of micromobility, scooter shares work best in conjunction with bike share programs. It seems the two modes are used in very different ways, with bike shares being used during commute times, and scooters being used most during weekends, likely for recreation. According to noted planning theorist, Jeff Speck, “Bikeshare without good bike lanes is foolhardy” a sentiment he echos in his works longer than a tweet. This same idea applies to scooter sharing programs as well.

Where do we go from here?

Scooters are a fine mode of transportation. Most users report a positive, even gleeful experience riding them. In Omaha, when it comes to safety, they have a lot of the same risks as other active modes, such as walking and biking, with an added learning curve that initially may make them seem “more dangerous.” If the city wants to make them safer, they need to create dedicated infrastructure, including on-street parking zones. Creating dedicated lanes for scooters and bikes will establish a protected, middle-speed space that will separate scooters and bikes from pedestrians as well as automobiles. 

With the destination data we have from the last pilot, we should also establish recommended saferroutes for scooter users to and from popular stopping points. Another positive step would be to reexamine the no-go zones, and whether they promote safety or create a barrier to mobility.

Finally, we should not make scooters yet another issue the police are tasked with. Enforcement should be a last resort dealing with scooter traffic. Education and infrastructure are our best tools for compliance. 

Without creating a safer, inclusive environment, we fear that shared scooters will not succeed in Omaha. It would be a shame to lose a form of transportation that encourages people to get out into their community and experience it from a unique speed and point of view.

Five Questions for Kimara Z. Snipe

14 Jul

Kimara Z. Snipe is a community servant. In addition to her work as a Youth Services Specialist for the Omaha Public library she serves on the Omaha Public School Board and is the current President of the South Omaha Neighborhood Alliance (SONA). She will also be our guest this Friday, July 17th at 8 a.m. for our monthly Coffee Chat. We will be talking about South Omaha and the work SONA is doing. We asked her five questions.

1. What are the areas and issues covered by SONA? 

The mission of the organization is to enhance South Omaha Neighborhoods through communication, collaboration, empowerment and promoting positive perceptions.  That being said, we focus on issues that affect the quality of living in different neighborhoods, which varies even within South Omaha.  Our areas and issues range from addressing gang violence and graffiti, to acting as a liaison between our neighborhood members and the city and state governments.  We have addressed issues such as violence, transportation, graffiti, police and community relations and more.

2. What is a transportation project or proposal you would consider a success in South Omaha?

This is a great question.  I never want to speak for the entirety of SONA.  I think that transportation is something that leaves a lot to be desired in both North and South Omaha.  

3. What is a specific transportation challenge facing South Omaha neighborhoods?

This answer varies. I’ve had numerous complaints from people who live within the RE/CAP (racially and/or ethnically concentrated areas of poverty) that the elimination of bus lines has caused numerous issues.  I would say that public transit is definitely an issue and needs major adjustments.  I would also say we lack alternative modes of transportation.  South Omaha is full of walkers – they need safe walkways and ways to bike and get around.  South Omaha currently has 2.5 cars per home, this also causes major parking issues which can often lead to penalties, which are disproportionate for people of color as it is.

4. How can people get involved with SONA?

I’m so glad you asked.  The first thing I would suggest is to sign up for our email list.  This way they can receive our meeting invites and other news.  We meet (currently virtually) every 1st Thursday of the Month at 7:00 PM.  Secondly, I would suggest that any person living in Omaha find out if they have a neighborhood association and join.  If they don’t have one, start one and I’m happy to help them get started.  You can verify if you have a n.a. by checking the Mayors website.  Third, reach out to me.  I’m happy to meet up virtually or at a park practicing social distancing to explain the benefits of membership.

5. If you could magically change one thing in Omaha with regard to transportation what would it be?

I would invest in multiple modes of transportation.

Support Transit Oriented Development by 6/29!

18 Jun showing improved streetscape

By: Liz Veazey, Mode Shift Omaha Board member

I am excited to see more dense development in my neighborhood due to the Transit Oriented Development (TOD) Plan currently proposed by the City of Omaha.  The TOD plan is connected to the new Omaha Rapid Bus Transit (ORBT) that is launching later in 2020 and in addition to proposing new zoning for areas surrounding the ORBT route, the plan includes requirements for bike parking and improved pedestrian friendly streetscapes (example in image below).

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Mode Shift has encouraged members to attend past neighborhood TOD sessions around town and generally supported increased density in Omaha.  I live on the edge of Dundee and my neighborhood association, Dundee Memorial Park Association (DMPA), has done some good work educating my neighbors about the TOD: see article starting on page 1 from the June newsletter , putting a flyer on neighbors’ doors, a recent Facebook livestream & discussions like this on the DMPA Facebook page.  However, DMPA is organizing people to push back against the recommendations of the city and request a lower density zoning designation for most of Dundee (specifically they want most of the orange color below–TOD 3-MNR to only be TOD 4-SFA). The new zoning is only opt-in and would require each property owner to make the case to their neighbors and City Council before a change would be made to the zoning.

Here’s the Dundee area TOD plan (see key below & more info here)undefined

Mode Shift supports diversity of building types, preservation of historic buildings, and cultivating interesting pedestrian landscapes.  We have been involved in fights to save historic buildings in Omaha including the Specht Building downtown, which was saved from demolition through collaborations between Restoration Exchange, Mode Shift and other groups.  I am a member and supporter of Restoration Exchange, I have worked to preserve my 1940s home, and I support historic preservation. At the same time, I support increased density in our neighborhood and I think we can have increased density and continue to preserve the historic and beautiful characteristics of our neighborhood. 

Here is a quote from a former Mode Shift board member, Stephen Osberg, from the chat during the DMPA Facebook Live event on TOD: 

In response to that question about how the new zoning is applied (which is confusing due to the opt-in nature of things): once the TOD zoning is approved, everyone’s zoning will remain unchanged. If you are R7 now, you will stay R7. If you are R4, you will stay R4. The TOD designation provides an alternative treatment that people can opt into by going through the typical rezoning process. That requires going to the Planning Board and City Council, which require public comment. This doesn’t automatically rezone anyone’s property.

Two things: 1) The zoning for the vast majority of Dundee is higher than what is being proposed (R7 & R8). Much of what people say they fear would actually be easier under the current zoning than the proposed zoning. 2) Because the zoning is opt-in, people could develop under either the new zoning or old. If you want more control over the type of development in Dundee, try to move away from the opt-in route to a mandatory rezoning.”

Show your support for increased density and TOD by signing the Missing Middle Housing Campaign’s petition here and you can submit comments to the City of Omaha on the TOD plan here–includes the full plan (you can include general comments at the end or just reach out to Derek Miller in the Planning Department: Derek.Miller@cityofomaha.org ) DEADLINE is June 29th

For reference here is a Coalition Letter in support of Omaha’s Proposed TOD:

The following groups wish to express gratitude and support for the City’s proposed Transit Oriented Development (TOD) Implementation Policy and Code.  This policy is a significant step towards an Omaha with more home choices of all shapes and sizes, near jobs, schools, and transit, and neighborhoods where all Omaha’s citizens can afford to live. 

By supporting more “missing middle” housing in Omaha like townhomes and pedestrian scale apartments, this plan will help provide seniors the options they need to age-in-place by staying in their neighborhoods, and bring about the vibrant walkable conditions attracting young people and their employers, all while protecting Omaha’s historic neighborhoods through its careful consideration of the TOD zone placement.

We have a choice in Omaha, we can either allow compact and convenient homes near transit as we once did adjoining the early 20th century streetcar system, or we can continue largely restricting our residential neighborhoods to one form of building; the large-lot detached house.  This zoning policy of exclusion has not served Omaha well, stonewalling renters, low and middle-income citizens, and young people in search of a starter home, out of neighborhoods-of-opportunity.  It has created unchecked suburban sprawl and its accompanying vast swaths of pavement, engine smog, and straining city budgets.  While this plan has aspects that can be improved, it was considered after extensive public outreach, input, and deliberation.

We ask the Mayor and City Council to approve the proposed TOD Implementation Policy and Code.

To Sign Your Organization on to this letter reach out to: missingmiddleomaha@gmail.com

All images are from the Transit Oriented Development plan here