Harney Street Cycle Track Pilot Project

12 Apr

The project appears as item #49 on this week’s City Council agenda as a proposed pilot project. Testify with us in support of the project on Tuesday and encourage its permanence!

Finally. 

When Mode Shift organized the Heyday on May Day, nearly 10 years ago, it was to celebrate the newly updated Transportation Element of the City’s Master Plan and demonstrate how the newly announced Harney Street cycle track would function. The World-Herald first wrote about the idea Nov. 28, 2011. There were a lot of questions; what is a cycle track, who would ride here, what do you do about snow?

People gathered at the Heyday for the demonstration project.

A question that we did not ask at the time was, how are we going to pay for it? It was part of the Capital Improvement Plan (CIP-Omaha’s plan for construction projects and other capital investments) and a priority of the city to connect Midtown to Downtown. Not only was it in the city plan but it ranked highly on all of the important city metrics for this type of project. Most cities fund bike and pedestrian infrastructure so we assumed it wasn’t an issue in Omaha.

https://omaha.com/news/local/from-the-archives-harney-street-trail-idea-would-connect-midtown-and-downtown/article_5902a12f-c6d0-51e7-8e6c-270f5c9ae5f5.html

A rendering of the bike lane from 2011.

But it didn’t get built, and still Harney Street had more car lanes than traffic demanded. The project was eventually removed from the CIP without discussion, public notice, or an explanation of why it was no longer needed.

Nine years passed, and while advocates still pushed for the cycle track, it did not appear that the city was going to work on it. Then, as part of a press conference where the mayor announced the plans for a $200 million street maintenance bond, she also discussed the Harney Street pilot project.

Now that it’s happening, but only as a pilot project funded mostly by a non-profit, let’s revisit the same questions from 2011.

What is a cycle track?

A cycle track is a bike lane that is separated from the car lanes by some sort of physical barrier. The bike lane operates in two directions with a dashed line in the middle to allow for people on bikes to travel both east and west on Harney. Many people are willing to ride a bike if they have a safe place to do so. A protected bike lane or cycle track provides a clear place for cyclists, and encourages more people to use biking as a form of transportation. Countless other communities have implemented protected lanes and seen a huge increase in people using bikes. 

Bike lanes are not good enough. We know that a simple stripe of paint adjacent to fast moving car traffic does nothing to keep road users safe. A cycle track, or protected bike lane, has either flexible bollards (like we’ll see on Harney for this pilot project) or more significant barriers like concrete curbs.

We don’t have to look too far for inspiration as Lincoln implemented a cycle track along N St. in the downtown area in 2016. Many other cities have also implemented creative street design incorporating spaces for bikes in a safe, separated lane and it’s seen as best practice with bike infrastructure. The photos below show the many benefits.

https://www.lincoln.ne.gov/City/Departments/Planning-Department/Bike-Lincoln/N-Street

Barrier also acts as rain basin along bike lane.

A BCycle Station incorporated into separated barrier.

Flexi Posts and paint where there is not a physical curb. This is similar to how Harney will look.

Green paint at intersections alerts drivers to expect cyclists.

Who will ride here?

This connection provides two important benefits. The first is that it gives cyclists a safe, protected place to bike East/West which in Omaha, means hills. Biking in traffic, up a hill is a very uncomfortable feeling. People don’t mind hills as much as they mind hills when cars are close by. This corridor connects UNMC, Blackstone, Midtown Crossing, and Downtown.

The second important feature is the reduction of a car lane. Harney has too many lanes, more than the traffic volume demands. Removing a car lane will have no adverse effect on the number of cars, but it will encourage cars to drive slower and discourage the kind of lane jockeying that leads to tragic crashes. 

How will you deal with snow?

Snow does pose a challenge but no more than on any street, sidewalk, or walkway. City parks & rec already used small tractors and other implements to clear wide walkways through city parks. Similar implements can be used, though for the duration of the pilot project, the snow removal will be done by the organizations supporting the pilot. When (or we should probably say if) this becomes permanent, hopefully as part of a city-wide network of protected bike lanes or at least low traffic neighborhood network, the city should invest in bike-lane specific snow removal equipment.

How are we going to pay for it?

Now for the question that wasn’t necessary in 2011, funding. This project is not being funded by the city. Private dollars are being used to build a pilot project. While it is fantastic that this project is highly-ranked by the city’s own metrics, we’re disappointed that this project has not been completed due to a lack of political will on the part of the city. Our city needs to start prioritizing bikeable walkable infrastructure projects. 

It is silly, that while other cities are building out their cycling infrastructure, that we have made such little progress. Especially during the Covid crisis, many cities across the globe have made swift moves to implement pop-ups, pilots, and permanent infrastructure improvements to encourage safer mobility. It is ridiculous that a city of Omaha’s size needs private donors to build what should be considered basic infrastructure. It is particularly frustrating, in a year when cities across the world repurposed streets for outdoor dining, recreation, and protected bike space that the city of Omaha has done none of those transformations. Instead, the Parks Department attempted to restrict trail access to certain types of e-bikes. Luckily we stopped that from becoming permanent. There is so much work to do.

How will we ensure its success?

We need to ride this thing once it’s built! They city and partners will be gathering data since it’s a pilot project. We reached out to the city to clarify what makes it a success in their eyes. Here’s what we received:

“The project is aimed at gathering data and establishing best practices for this kind of infrastructure.  Intensive data compilation will include automatic and point-in-time bicycle counts, as well as complementing e-scooter data.  Subjective data like surveys of riders, drivers, pedestrians, and corridor businesses/residents will take place throughout the pilot term.  We are verifying an increase in corridor ridership with minimal conflicts towards vehicular and pedestrian traffic.  This pilot does have a targeted term date of September 30, 2022, but with mutual options for extension.
The pilot basis of private financing/development offers us the opportunity to implement this project immediately.  A permanent commitment would have to come out of programming in a very tight CIP budget in future years.  Prior to doing so, the City wishes to have some best practices established in regards to infrastructure treatments, operation and maintenance, and specifics like snow/ice removal, coordination of parking & bus stops, etc.”
Kevin Andersen, Deputy Chief of Staff

We are excited to see this bikeway finally come to fruition and remain hopeful that it will be the first of many protected bike lanes in Omaha! We will continue to track the progress of the project and encourage you to testify via email or in person in support of this project and expanded bike infrastructure. 

The Big Sweep

1 Apr

Safe sidewalk infrastructure should not be a joke. Yes, we’re publishing this on April 1st, but there’s nothing funny about the lack of maintenance and care that sidewalks in Omaha currently receive. Mode Shift Omaha plans to address this issue and sweep the sidewalks and intersection of 72nd and Dodge Streets, a job that the city says belongs to property owners. The property owners say either they don’t know about their responsibility or they view it as the city’s problem because the city is the one dropping loads of gravel, salt, and snow in the winter.

Creighton students from Dr. Wishart’s Environment and Society sociology course are volunteering with Mode Shift for this effort as part of their service learning about how transportation equity and sustainability are part of the larger environmental justice social movement. Keep Omaha Beautiful has supplied us with the gear to do the work. Please join us on Saturday, April 10th at 11:45 a.m. on the sidewalk in front of 7001 Dodge Street for “The Big Sweep” as we clean up and demand changes from our city. Avoid parking in private parking lots to participate in the event.

A hard to navigate sidewalk along Dodge Street is full of reddish sand and debris. A man in an electric wheelchair is trying to make his way up the street but is having a hard time. Wheel chair tracks are apparent in the soft mud next to the sidewalk because it's too difficult to make it by on the pavement.
Photo by C. Tefft; A mobility device user is maneuvering around the sand filled sidewalk.

Omaha Public Works has indicated that sidewalks will be dealt with on a complaint by complaint basis. This strategy is shortsighted, neglectful, and inefficient. Until sidewalks are truly recognized as modes of transportation with rules and regulations that are designed to keep pedestrian traffic flowing and safe, we cannot be the city of the future. As it stands right now you can legally park a car blocking a sidewalk for 24 hours before anyone will do anything about it. Even then it takes a complaint to get anything accomplished. We are stuck in neutral, choking on our own exhaust. We need immediate capital investment from long standing revenue sources with high quality maintenance and care contracts that prioritize pedestrians.

Without walkability, multimodal transit, and micro-park systems, Omaha has no future with young professionals who are uninterested in the current auto-centric system. A failure to attract young talent by virtue of our infrastructure alone is a shame and against so much that the Omaha Chamber of Commerce is working toward. While reading Omaha’s vision and plans, one feels like this may be the best place on earth by 2050. But how can that happen if we don’t start making the small choices now to invest in walkability and mobility and change the culture of Omaha? Do we want Omaha to be a place people rush through or a place to come and stay, shop, and play?  We know anyone can buy online, give them a reason to come to Omaha. Join us for the Big Sweep on April 10th, to demand Big Change and until the system is really fixed, light up the Mayor’s hotline with your sidewalk complaints (402) 444-5555.  

City Council Candidates District 6 & 7

4 Mar

For the final installment of our Omaha City Council candidate questionnaires, we’re combining districts 6 & 7 since we only had one reply from each district. So, here’s Naomi Hattaway from district 6 and Sara Kohen from district 7. They’re running against incumbents Brinker Harding and Aimee Melton, respectively, who did not reply to our questionnaire yet.

Naomi Hattaway has short curly dark hair and great dangly earrings. She is wearing a green jacket over a black and floral dress, smiling at the camera from a brick road.
Naomi Hattaway
Sara Kohen has long, light brown hair and is smiling widely at the camera. She's wearing a dark blue top standing in front of a window of a building.
Sara Kohen

What are Omaha’s most pressing transportation needs? If elected, how will you address these needs?

Naomi Hattaway: “Outside of some of the well-known transportation needs (accessibility, access to routes for all of Omaha, clearing of sidewalks, etc.), I have a vision for more diverse thought and lived experience being showcased in our community engagement efforts and planning processes. We have amazing and excellent talent across our City, yet we tend to ask the same questions, in the same manner, with the same results. Too often we only act on feedback from a particular subset of residents, and that’s a disservice to a city’s built environment. Additionally, the “language” spoken by our elected officials, planners, and decision makers of Omaha is quite different from the language of everyday residents of our city. This dissonance doesn’t allow for forward innovation and problem solving. My vision is that we see more equitable policymaking, to dovetail with improved community building (in part, city planning with the true needs of people at the helm of design). It might not appear as a transportation need, but my vision is that we have less transactional management and more intentional dialogue. Less “this is how we’ve always done it” and more opportunities to listen to and learn each other’s language so we can make progress together.”

Sara Kohen: “I hear a lot from people in my district about streets and other transportation-related issues. We need to prioritize these issues and address them in a methodical, strategic way. We should identify transportation needs and goals, gather stakeholder feedback, collect data collection, and then proceed strategically to help us invest in transportation in the ways that will provide the most benefit to Omahans.”

Should the Planning and Public Works Departments have separate directors, or should they be combined into a single entity?

Naomi Hattaway: “I do not have a current official position on a common director between the Planning and Public Works Departments, but I would like to see the City of Omaha explore the appointment of a director of sustainability to ensure climate goals are aligned with racial equity as we get ever closer to the implementation of the 2050 LRTP.”

Sara Kohen: “I’m open to suggestions for making our city government more efficient or responsive, though I’m concerned that a combined department might be too large and include too many different functions to be able to achieve these goals. I would like to see more collaboration and cooperation between Planning and Public Works concerning, for example, implementing Omaha’s Complete Streets Design Guide and other policies aimed at helping our transportation system meet the needs of people living in Omaha.”

Last year, Omaha approved $200M in bonds to close the funding gap for street maintenance for five years. Is this a good long-term solution for funding our street maintenance needs? If so, why, and if not, why not?

Naomi Hattaway: “This large of an increase in bonds funding is not a good long-term solution.”

Sara Kohen: “The $200 million bond issue only paid for a handful of projects and is not a long-term solution to our badly neglected streets. We should seek to build capacity in Public Works, both in terms of skilled personnel and investing in equipment. Doing so will put us in a better position to maintain roads properly for the next 20 to 30 years, not just pursuing quick fixes that don’t address long-term issues. Maintaining the status quo—and not attempting to address these underlying issues—will mean that the city will end up in a position where we keep having to have these bonds to maintain our streets, and that’s not something that anyone wants.”

Which issue is of greater importance to our city moving forward: transportation accessibility or average commute time?

Naomi Hattaway: “I believe that transportation accessibility is of the utmost importance. Average commute times are currently tenable for the majority of Omahans. Concerning accessibility, I am excited about Mode Shift’s work to adjust language and normalizing accessibility as a priority. Instead of walkable, we might use “navigable” or “as accessible as possible”. Word choice may not seem to obviously relate to active transportation assets, but when we are more inclusive of our community and neighbors, the economic benefits of an innovative multi-modal transportation plan can be fully realized. One practical way to better manage our assets is by acknowledging that “take back our streets” must be inclusive of community members that utilize curbside drop-off and pick-up for medical appointments, or for our neighbors that rely on delivery (medicine, meals-on-wheels), or shortened walking distance when running errands or providing caretaking services. Any type of inaccessibility equals forced isolation, and I think Omaha can increase their prioritization of reducing barriers as we manage transportation assets and improve accessibility. ”

Sara Kohen: “We need to look at all of our transportation goals—accessibility, commute time, safety, quality of life, environmental impact, and careful stewardship of city resources—and figure out how we can do the most good.”

Much of our current transportation infrastructure excludes people who cannot drive for reasons of age, ability, or financial means. What will you do to make sure that Omaha accommodates the transportation needs (equitable access to employment, commerce and services) of all citizens?

Naomi Hattaway: “As an elected City Councilor, I commit to bringing the voices of the most impacted to the table of discussion, along with the members of groups such as Mode Shift. Transportation access being prioritized is step number one, and a very close second is ensuring that chairs (proverbial or actual) are pulled up to the table when decisions and pivots are being made.”

Sara Kohen: “I plan to listen to feedback from other Omahans, look at the data, and work with partners in city government, as well as in the private and nonprofit sectors, to move toward an Omaha in which more people are able to access all that our amazing city has to offer.”

How often do you or your family use active modes of transportation such as a Metro bus, bicycling, or walking?

Naomi Hattaway: “Our family is a casual bicycling family, however due to a motorized scooter accident (December 2019, CA), my mobility has been severely impacted, so our bicycles are parked in the garage for now! As our neighborhood is not very walkable in terms of services and businesses, our walking habits are for exercise and leisure only.”

Sara Kohen: “My family and I often bike and walk and look for opportunities to do so when possible. Even the youngest Kohen (age 3 ½) likes to ride in the bike trailer!”

Do you support expanding the city’s recently-passed Transit Oriented Development (TOD) policy to additional corridors/neighborhoods, including allowing home owners to construct Accessory Dwelling Units on their property?

Naomi Hattaway: “Yes.”

Sara Kohen: “Omaha’s TOD policy is a positive development, and I am interested in exploring how it could be expanded in other places.”

Do you support Metro Transit converting to a Regional Transit Authority under Nebraska Law with an elected board of directors?

Naomi Hattaway: “I believe Omaha could benefit from elected leadership for the Metro Transit, however we first need to remove the barriers to individuals who desire to serve in an elected capacity. Meaning, we should first work to have clearer paths for a diverse set of folks to campaign, fundraise and win elections. Once we achieve greater representation with those who are running for office in Omaha, then I would support looking into a regional transit authority that is held by elected officials (similar to our peer cities, such as KC, Des Moines, Charlotte, etc.). Additionally, I believe that some of the status quo we maintain, is a system that refuses to name the impact of local systemic racism and our leadership model / electoral process would be a great place to begin.”

Sara Kohen: “Depending on how it would be implemented, the Metropolitan Area Transit (MAT) board voting to convert to a Regional Transit Authority, as allowed under the 2019 law, could help address some of the transportation-related challenges the city has been facing and stimulate our local economy by getting workers to unfilled jobs in different parts of the metro area.”

Omaha recently hired a Vision Zero coordinator. What are your expectations of the role they will play in trying to eliminate traffic deaths in Omaha?

Naomi Hattaway: “My expectation of Mr. Sobczyk is that he will work to listen and understand the work that has been done thus far, from groups such as Mode Shift and other groups and entities working to improve transportation in Omaha. I also have an expectation that he will both seek to listen AND also educate as a norm, both elected officials and the general public. I also would like to see him present a scorecard or metrics from his first year, so we can help achieve the goals set forth by him, in his new role.”

Sara Kohen: “The coordinator should develop a plan and timeline for eliminating traffic deaths, coordinate efforts among city departments, and help educate the public about steps they can take.”

Ten years ago, Omaha was promised a protected bike lane on Harney Street and it was never built. What will you do to ensure that project is completed in 2021?

Naomi Hattaway: “I would need more time to learn from folks knowledgeable about the project, and it’s current status, before being able to speak on whether it can be completed in 2021, and why it was paused / not completed in the first place.”

Sara Kohen: “I plan to work with the Councilmember representing that area to consider and address any challenges to implementation.”

Finally, if you could magically make one change to the transportation environment in Omaha, without consideration of cost or political consequence, what would it be?

Naomi Hattaway: “I would love to see more transparency and true community engagement when it comes to planning, forecasting and building our City! Specifically regarding transportation, my magic wand would wave in the direction of education and accessibility. Until neighbors in all parts of Omaha realize just how important safe roads, the way we use our land and why accessibility matters, we have work to do. I have been working with Shelby Seier of All Kinds Accessibility on an audit of District 6 (including transportation accessibility, whether we prioritize disability rights, what ways we can better serve our elders and aging population, etc.). It’s encouraging to see that it might not be about magic that’s needed after all, but simply a willingness to listen and learn, with some bravery and gumption from our elected officials sprinkled over the top.”

Sara Kohen: “I would like to see the development and implementation of thoughtful ideas to improve our transportation environment that are based on stakeholder feedback and data. The Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce is doing some really interesting work in this area with the Connect Go transportation strategic plan. They have identified goals for improving our transportation options here in Omaha and are gathering data and seeking public input. I look forward to seeing their recommendations.”