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!
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?
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.
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.
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.