Why We Need Options

How we get around the city affects us in many ways—our pocketbook, our health, the environment, and our community. The current system, with few options beyond driving, just isn’t working for many of us and we can’t afford to continue with the way things are.

Transportation Options = Cost Savings

Nationally, transportation accounts for 19% of spending by the average household in the U.S., as much as for food and health care combined.[1] It doesn’t have to be that way. Bicycling, walking, taking public transit, or some combination of these can cost a lot less than only driving. AAA estimated in 2011 that it cost on average $8,588 to drive your car each year.[2] In 2009, the estimated average cost of riding a bicycle was $390 per year.[3]

Costs car vs. bike

Studies also show that people who live in walkable neighborhoods drive 30% less and households in these neighborhoods spend an average of $750 less per year on gasoline (and are healthier—see below).[4]

According to the American Public Transportation Association, riding public transportation saves individuals in the U.S., on average, $9,381 annually and $782 per month based on the August 10, 2010 average national gas price ($2.78 per gallon- reported by AAA) and the national unreserved monthly parking rate.[5] In Omaha, a Metro Bus pass costs $600 per year. One study found that households in communities with balanced transportation use save an average of about $3,000 annually on transportation costs.[6]

Ways to save

If a city doesn’t provide good options for transportation, we are all forced to pay more to own and operate a car, even if we don’t want to.

Transportation choice is also good for economic development. A recent University of Massachusetts study that evaluated job opportunities created by 58 infrastructure projects in 11 U.S. states, found bicycling projects create a total of 11.4 local jobs for each $1 million spent. Pedestrian-only projects create a little less employment, with an average of 10 jobs for the same amount of money. Multi-use trails create 9.6 jobs per $1 million. Road-only projects generate just 7.8 jobs per $1 million.[7]

The costs of maintaining the current transportation system, geared almost entirely to cars rather than bicyclers, pedestrians or public transit, are high and will only get higher if things stay the same. Planning transportation around infill—filling in unoccupied space and using space within the city more efficiently and effectively—costs a lot less to build and maintain than around sprawl—the development of land in suburban and rural areas outside of their respective urban centers with typically poor design and use of this space. Sprawl is the way land has typically been developed in the Omaha area in recent decades and a large part of the reason why our current transportation system is so problematic. Since 1940, Omaha’s population has doubled in size but there has been a 350% increase in land area used. No wonder the city can’t keep up with the potholes—the current cycle for resurfacing roads in Omaha is 56 years (as opposed to the recommended 10 year cycle).

According to City of Omaha estimates, comparing costs of infill versus sprawl (continuing to do what we’ve been doing), shows substantial savings to the public if an infill approach is used:



Cost per square mile per year


$3.1 million

Lane per mile cost


$32.8 million

Annual cost for street building/maintenance & transit


$3.1 million

Total public cost per year per household



The cost of road maintenance is averaged at 5.6 cents per mile per motor vehicle. Add the so-called external costs of parking (10 cents), crashes (8 cents), congestion (4 cents), and land costs and that’s another 28 cents per mile! Meanwhile, for slower, lighter, smaller bicycles, the externalities add up to one meager cent per mile.[8]

Transportation Options are Better for Our Health and the Environment

Giving people options for getting around is also an investment in community health and the environment. Trails for runners, bike lanes for commuters and sidewalks for a stroll to the store all provide opportunities to incorporate exercise into everyday life, combating obesity while cutting air pollution. It makes good business sense to consider issues like obesity, diabetes, safety and air quality when we make transportation decisions.

Reduced opportunities for physical activity, which contribute to rising obesity, overweight and type 2 diabetes, cost our nation an estimated $177 billion per year.[9] In 2009, over 62.3 percent of adults in Douglas County reported being overweight and/or obese, increasing the risk of heart disease, arthritis, stroke and diabetes.[10] The estimated cost of diabetes in Congressional District 2 in Nebraska in 2006 was $253 million.[11]

In addition, air pollutants, including carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter, are found along high traffic roads.[12] Polluted air that contributes to respiratory and cardiovascular disease and accelerates climate change has health costs associated estimated at $40–$60 billion per year in the U.S.[13] According to an Environment Omaha report, more people die each year from air pollution than from firearms, illicit sexual behavior, and illegal drug use combined.  Half of all U.S. air pollution is generated by cars; 77% of households west of 72nd St. emit more than 6.5 metric tons of CO2 each year compared to 32% of households east of 72nd St.

New research on cities in the upper Midwest showed that if inhabitants switched to bikes for half of their short trips, they would create a net societal health benefit of $3.5 billion per year from the increase in air quality and $3.8 billion in savings from smaller health care costs associated with better fitness and fewer mortalities from a decreased rate of car accidents.

And a recent study done by researchers found that design and conditions of cities are associated with the happiness of residents. In particular, cities that provide easy access to convenient public transportation promote happiness.

Transportation Options are Good for the Community

Transportation alternatives increase economic and social opportunities for people who are economically, physically and socially disadvantaged or the elderly, and helps achieve equity objectives, such as helping physically and economically disadvantaged people access public services, education and employment opportunities. Transit helps reduce the relative degree that non-drivers are disadvantaged compared with motorists.[14] Everyone should have a choice in how they get around, no matter who they are.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, nationally, 24% of Blacks, 17% of Asians and Latinos, and 12% of Whites do not own cars.  27% of households earning <$20,000 not only do not own cars, but have no access to cars. In 2000, 5% or 30,000 people in the Omaha area had no auto access.  Meanwhile, for Omahan’s that need public transit, Omaha’s per capita funding of Metro ($29.52) ranks it 238th out of the 280 largest U.S. metro areas for public transit funding.  By comparison, Omaha spends $179 per capita on roads. Omaha has 1 mile of mass transit per capita compared to national average of 1.87; 4.3 for Denver, 4.2 for Minneapolis.

As with smart investing, a mixed portfolio of choices in how we get around just makes good sense.

[1] Omaha TMP presentation Powerpoint: http://www.ci.omaha.ne.us/tmplan/downloads

[2]Excluding loan payments, that’s how much a person can expect to pay driving a medium sedan 15,000 miles a year. http://www.aaaexchange.com/main/Default.asp?CategoryID=16&SubCategoryID=76&ContentID=353

[4]City TMP presentation Powerpoint: http://www.ci.omaha.ne.us/tmplan/downloads

[11] Ibid

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