Learning the Wrong Lessons

10 Jan

Derek Babb, Board Member and Bike Team Lead

Last week, I rode the Harney Street Cycle Track to see how well it was plowed after our recent snow storm. The previous day, I had seen Dear Evan Hansen at the Orpheum and there were several people parked in the bike lane, waiting to pick someone up. I loudly commented that you shouldn’t park there and my wife said, “He’s obviously waiting for someone.” I responded that there is no reason to be parked in the bike lane, even if it’s cold, even if you’ll only be a minute. 

All that background to say, we have so little here in Omaha that I feel like we constantly need to fight to maintain what we have, we constantly need to prove that we “deserve” the few painted bicycle gutters and the one “pilot” project protected bike lane we have.

Back to the snow. 

I went to as many public meetings as I could in the lead-up to the protected bike lane. I was there nearly 10 years ago when this lane was first proposed. I was there when we re-started the conversation. At every one of these public meetings, someone would ask, “What about when it snows?” The frustrating thing about that question is that it’s so lazy. Omaha is snowy for a few weeks out of the year. We have a baseball stadium that is only used for two weeks a year but I guess that is not the same.

We know that snow is a possible problem. We know that it is a top critique from people who would rather not have any bicycle infrastructure. We know that piles of snow in the bike lane will deter people from biking, further justification to people who claim “nobody ever uses the bike lanes.”

Last Monday, 48 hours after our snowstorm, I rode the Market to Midtown Bikeway to see how the snow had been cleared. The results were…spotty. 

Some patches were fully cleared, some businesses had cleared their driveways and pushed the snow into mounds in the bike lane, some places seemed to be untouched. There were also several other tire tracks in the snow, so it wasn’t just me (out to prove a point) riding in the bike lane. When I complained on Twitter, I received this response from Bike Walk Nebraska:

The thing that I keep thinking is, we are learning the wrong lessons. We know that people are going to use snow clearing issues as a blunt instrument to prevent future bike infrastructure. The goal needs to be a fully cleared bike lane as quickly (or ideally quicker) than the car lanes are cleared. We can’t afford to do a bad job and learn from that. We need to do an immaculate job and learn where we can be more efficient in the future.

Nobody is rooting for the success of this lane more than me. Mode Shift Omaha and other advocates have been trying to make this lane a reality for over a decade. We should have a network of connected, protected, safe bike lanes at this point. We have lost so much as a city through our inaction.

The good news is that Omaha is so far behind that there is no longer a need for pilot projects. We know what works, we have the benefit of being able to steal the good ideas from other cities and, rather than doing a study, simply implement those ideas here.

How do you clear snow? – Ask Minneapolis.

What about the cold? – See above. 

Will people ride where it’s hilly? – Ask Kansas City.

People don’t ride that much. – What happened in Des Moines when they added protected bike lanes? How about Lincoln?

Advocating in Omaha is exhausting. We have to fight to maintain what we have and it feels like actual permanent improvements are impossible. It’s been a long few years and I am tired. When do you stop shouting for basic infrastructure and move to a place that gets it?

In the meantime, I am upset with fellow advocates because the city isn’t even at the table. The city is doing nothing. The CIP is full of parking and road widening and Council Bluffs is embarrassing Omaha with their forward thinking and action on bike infrastructure. There are many lessons to be learned here, but I fear we are missing the most important ones.

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