5 Questions for Metro Transit

16 Sep

You’ve seen the canopies appearing up and down Dodge Street. You’ve experienced the end of many (but not all) of the construction zones. This means we are getting close to the launch of Omaha’s first bus rapid transit line. Therefore, we invited Metro Transit leaders to our Coffee Chat on Friday, September 18 at 8:00 a.m. to talk to us about the ORBT launch. You can register to join us here.

In preparation for our chat, we asked 5 Questions:

1. So . . . anything new?

A few things! We’re getting prepared to launch ORBT this fall, with most of the remaining station canopies getting installed later this month. We have a couple locations yet to finalize, and we’ll be coming out with our plan for launch soon! We also welcomed our new CEO, Lauren Cencic, this week.

2. But seriously, ORBT, what do we need to know? What can you brag about and what do you know needs to be improved?

We’re getting close! Our launch date is still to be determined as we finalize construction. ORBT will obviously be a new way to ride transit in Omaha, so we’re planning ways for the public to get to know the system as we approach opening day (more details coming soon). Overall, we’re very excited about how the system will function. All of the elements that make this a transit enhancement – the buses, the stations, the tech – are very impressive. With this being our first foray into rapid transit, I’m sure there will be tweaks and improvements to be made, but this is a fantastic first step.

3. The first ORBT pilot replaces a previously established route. Is that the strategy moving forward or is there a plan to reimagine how and where Metro operates using the bus rapid transit expansion?

ORBT will indeed be replacing Route 2, and its function as the spine of our bus network and connection to nodes of activity are among the reasons it was identified as an ideal first bus rapid transit line. This replacement will allow us to provide more frequent service on Dodge Street all days of the week. With any future lines, we would need to evaluate travel patterns, spacing between nodes of activity, and other factors before determining whether replacing or supplementing existing service would be the best solution.

When making service changes like this, we carefully evaluate the changes through various lenses, including its impact on existing and potential riders as well as the Federal Transit Administration’s Title VI regulation. In this particular scenario, our analysis showed that 99% of our riders will have their stop change by 4 blocks or less, and 94% by 3 blocks or less. Additionally, the change will result in a net benefit to minority and low-incoming populations along the route. We will also be taking steps to provide more access to riders amidst this change, including extending Route 4 from Westroads to Regency to expand service into the Regency Shopping Center and adding ORBT Stops at 77th & Dodge to provide a connection to the Keystone Trail.

4. The landscape of Omaha is marred by a long and complicated history of racist approaches to transportation infrastructure. What is Metro doing to address and remedy this reality?

Transit access is always connected to infrastructure. Development patterns that change from east to west and north to south can create a challenge in consistency. To make things more challenging, there have been historical actions when highways have bisected neighborhoods, development has interrupted throughways, and land use has not traditionally focused on people – especially for marginalized populations.

Metro plays an important role in addressing this challenge by connecting people to opportunities, like jobs, housing, education, recreational and social activities and other essential services.  Providing access to these opportunities is one of our essential functions and a key lever in addressing disparities. Most of our high-frequency bus routes are in areas of high ridership, job and housing density, and accessible infrastructure, and many of these routes align with those areas of disenfranchisement. As a transit provider, we are guided by Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination in our service planning – any modification we make to our system goes through a stringent Title VI review.

One important component in addressing challenges and promoting equity within our system is meaningful engagement with diverse constituents around topics of investment in our transportation infrastructure. As we talk about the future of our transit system, we will look to ensure more voices are at the table and work with our entire community to figure out how we can grow as a reliable and valuable community asset and partner.

5. The hardest job of any transit agency is to accessibly connect where people live with where they work. How does Metro Transit envision an Omaha five or ten years from now with improvements in that area? What other entities and agencies need to cooperate?

Access to jobs is certainly a major focus point for us, and we are also concerned with connecting people to the other places and people that are important to them. When we talk about providing access to jobs, we dive into the data, but we also talk about individual experiences. When a rider’s origin and workplace might be separated by some distance, traveling to work can be challenging whether on a bus, in a car, biking, or with any other mode. However, we are already starting to see some shift in development and job growth near our bus network, and we hope to see that trend continue. We’d love to see more housing and jobs brought into the core, where good, accessible infrastructure and transit service already exists. For us, it’s a matter of building connections with employers and future employers early, and discussing transportation needs from the outset. We’re seeing a lot of traction with other entities and partner organizations, namely the City of Omaha (especially around Transit Oriented Development, Complete Streets, and Vision Zero), the Chamber’s ConnectGo project, and Omaha by Design’s Smart Cities initiative. We’ve been engaged with these projects and will continue to do our part as a vital partner in Omaha’s future.

COVID-19 has obviously shifted expectations of the workplace and what travel (especially commuter travel) looks like. It’s tough to predict where we’ll be in the future, but we are committed to our mission of connecting our riders to the people and places that are important to them. Furthermore, while it’s important to discuss where we connect people, we also must consider how we connect them, specifically with reliable and frequent transit service. While we don’t yet have an exact roadmap of where we’ll be in the next 5 to 10 years yet, we are anxious to build out partnerships and engage with our community to develop a system that is based on what they want and need.

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