Quality sidewalks are about more than just an easy trip across the city. Quality sidewalks are required for access to everything our city has to offer our citizens. Jobs, healthcare, family and friends, and education are just a few of the opportunities denied to the community every day by a poor transportation infrastructure. A lack of good quality sidewalks is rooted in larger policy decisions and efforts to redirect resources are necessary to change the all too common narrative of those like Sarah. Sarah’s story tells us about the pain and suffering of those who lack access to quality transportation networks.
Sarah, a retired educator with a specialty in early childhood and special education curricula has taught and presented across the country. She married her best friend that she grew up with in New York, and they raised their sons in Lincoln and then moved to Omaha in 1982. She is an African American woman who spends her life caring and advocating for marginalized children and families. Throughout her life she has faced systemic confrontational racist and sexist marginalization. She works hard even today with a myriad of health problems volunteering for her church and community. Omaha should be thanking her for her contributions, instead she continues to endure trials and tribulations when her health has made it difficult for her to get around. Instead of spending her golden years as she wishes, she spends them negotiating her health and disability on public transportation, a fate I wish no one.
A few years ago, in a wheelchair and on peritoneal dialysis, Sarah needed to use MOBY, Omaha’s ADA disability accessible companion bus service, to reach her assigned dialysis center. There was an additional challenge – MOBY usually transports “door to door” but the route only ran to 120th and Dodge. Sarah’s appointment was another 9 blocks west of the drop off. “The problem was I could get onto some sidewalks, but I couldn’t get off at the next corner because there was no cut out. Traversing the sidewalks themselves, many were broken, chipped, and uneven. I got caught in ruts a couple of times. One time, my wheelchair tipped over and I fell out. After that incident I started riding on the frontage road, which I did not like doing because I was going in the same direction as traffic. People honked and some cars came much too close. There was nothing else that I could do because dialysis was not negotiable – for my life. For my MOBY trip home, I had to reverse my ride, but this time I was facing the traffic. The weather did not matter, rain, snow, heat, or cold, etc., I had to go. It was frustrating, frightening, and embarrassing. It made me angry, but dialysis is something I needed to do – to live. I did that about every two weeks for a year. I made calls, and I wrote letters. I did not have a personal vehicle; friends and family wanted to help, but their vehicles would not accommodate a motorized wheelchair.”
In addition to this experience, she described two incidents when a turning bus caused her wheelchair to fall over with her in it! One incident was on a MOBY bus and the other on a city bus. In both situations, her wheelchair was not latched properly by the drivers. Both incidents were reported to MOBY and Metro Transit. “I was seen by my doctors and was checked by a squad in the latter incidence. I was not injured, just bruised and shaken and felt no need to pursue it any farther.” But she noted that neither time did they apologize as they appeared more concerned with not admitting fault than treating her like an individual deserving of respect. To add insult to injury, Sarah and many other MOBY users cannot get to church on Sunday because they do not live within ¾ of a mile of a bus line that runs on Sundays. This poor paratransit and lack of comprehensive public transit deny dignity by limiting access to medical services, negatively influencing access to quality jobs, and limiting opportunities to participate in the community because of race, gender, and disability.
“I am not bashing MOBY or it’s drivers. It is an affordable and safe transportation service for some of us who need this type of service. It has improved a lot since I began riding in 2011. The drivers are very polite and caring. The systemic issues that occur are due to federal funding policies, incomplete communication with the public who use or would use this resource, and incomplete training for drivers and schedulers, which results in incorrect or inconsistent responses to questions asked by riders. Most of all – it does not serve all of the people who need this service because it only serves those living east of 120th Street” says Sarah.
It blocks people in the city from using medical services out west. Those communities were allowed to build without sidewalks which then allowed the bus company not to serve those parts of the community because there are no sidewalks. Sidewalks or the lack of them have been historically used by developers and city governments to keep poor and minority people out of wealthy white neighborhoods and the practice continues today. That amounts to state funded segregation.
Additionally, an undue burden is placed on disabled persons who pay double what a mainstream transit rider would pay. Even though this is significantly cheaper than a mobility taxi it remains unjust. People with disabilities are more likely to be unemployed and underemployed and face significant barriers to housing and transportation. Thus limitations on where they can get public transportation services and the cost of them are of even greater concern.
Racism and Omaha’s well documented practices of redlining, white flight, and urban sprawl heavily influence Sarah’s experience. This situation was designed and facilitated by government policy and big business, while financed by the taxpayers. There is no reason to believe it will change until these entities are held accountable. Residents living in west Omaha live on average 10 years longer, the quality of their life is exponentially better, additionally they are less likely to experience disability than poor and minority communities. Policies made over the course of many years push the likes of Sarah into untenable situations and she is not alone.
OMetro’s mainstream bus service underserves Omaha’s minority communities. In discussion with UNO students living in South Omaha, I learned it takes about 2 hours to get to UNO by bus. It is a 15-minute drive. South Omaha is the number one feeder school for UNO and the neighborhood is 81% Latinx. Additionally, it takes two hours to travel from North Omaha, where the African American community resides, to get to jobs at places like PayPal and Google in southwest Omaha. These conditions are unacceptable and likely the placement of those businesses was subsidized by the city and taxpayers in a long forgotten deal.
Incredible amounts of money have been spent to decrease drive times for people in West Omaha. Decreasing the number of cars coming into the city is a good idea for those of us who live here; however service to city dwellers is unique. For example, when OMetro debuted ORBT they said they would continue to run the number 2 bus. This bus is now set to be cut. The type of service provided to commuters and city dwellers is different. City dwellers need options that include a bus that stops every block or two. Many people ride the bus because they cannot drive, forcing them to walk an additional 8 blocks to ORBT stations will diminish their ability to move freely in the city and despite the presence of bike racks on ORBT, biking is not a reasonable option for most because they cannot afford it, they have responsibilities that preclude it, mobility limitations, or a lack of safe bike infrastructure. If ORBT is expanded further, can we expect more of the same?
Sadly, Sarah also reported being told by the previous administration’s leadership, if you don’t like it, go somewhere else. I, myself, have witnessed the leader of MOBY tell an entire room full of people that the testimony given minutes prior by a MOBY rider, “never happened” before any possible investigation of the complaint could occur. That rider is also an African American.
Rather than serve Sarah, our community has placed obstacles in front of her from access to medical care to the transportation organizations that she helps pay for but do not meet her needs. The bell of injustice clangs with policies designed to look benign.The sound of discord reminds us that our work remains so that Sarah never finds herself, alone and tossed from her wheelchair on the Dodge frontage street, again.