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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.

Weekend Events

17 Dec

TONIGHT Walk With Us – Blackstone: The MSO Walkability Team invites you to join us for continuous crossing event Friday, December 17th from 4-7pm (originally 5-7pm but we have an earlier group interested!) at the 38th & Farnam intersection. If you haven’t read our statement calling on the City to get serious about Vision Zero, do so HERE and then join us this evening to draw attention to the area. We’ll have safety vests and signs. Bring a friend and walk with us, even if it’s just one lap around the intersection!


TOMORROW Ride With Us – Council Bluffs FIRST AVE Trail! The Bike Team invites you to join us for a chilly Saturday afternoon ride in Council Bluffs for phase one of the amazing new FIRST AVE Trail. Meet us on the CB side of the Bob Bridge at 1pm. You’ll find a Heartland BCycle station there if you want to ride but don’t have your own bike. It will be short and sweet since the temps are low but we’ll pedal and talk about our first impressions with a MSO Member & Planner in Council Bluffs.  

Vision Zero & Blackstone

14 Dec

Six months ago there was a devastating hit and run in Blackstone, but gratefully the woman involved in that crash survived, requiring months of rehab due to the 22 broken bones she suffered. December 4th, a young woman wasn’t as lucky; she was killed by a drunk driver at 38th & Farnam while attempting to cross the street. Now Mode Shift Omaha is planning a Walk With Us (event details will be posted at ModeShiftOmaha.org by December 20th) to highlight the dangerous speeding issues in the area and push for immediate safety improvements. We can not wait until the end of 2023 when the Blackstone proposed streetscape project is scheduled to finish. 

“I’m just frustrated that nothing has been done because it’s been myself, I know a man who got hit a year before me, and now Kaitlyn. Three young people’s lives completely changed and nothing is done about it.” Lindsey Cavlovic, the survivor of the June Blackstone crash, told WOWT recently.

We share Lindsey’s frustration, especially in light of the City of Omaha’s commitment to Vision Zero and the lack of specific actions to improve road safety. Vision Zero is the goal of zero deaths or serious injuries on our streets taken by cities around the world, and Omaha hired Jeff Sobczyk as our first Vision Zero Coordinator in December 2020, solidifying our commitment to this important program. Mode Shift Omaha is excited to work with the City on Vision Zero initiatives, and we hosted the Mr. Sobczyk at our May membership meeting. However, we have heard very little from him since then. This is the 36th death on our streets this year due to unchecked road violence, so we reached out to him. We also reached out to Councilor Begley, the Blackstone BID, and the PW Department inquiring about immediate changes. 

Labeled "A New Vision for Safety" this blue background graphic compares traditional and Vision Zero approaches to road safety. Under the "Traditional Approach" column it states: 
"Traffic deaths are inevitable
Perfect human behavior
Prevent collisions
Individual responsibility
Saving lives is expensive"
Under the "Vision Zero" column it reads,
"Traffic deaths are preventable
Integrate human failing in approach
Prevent fatal and severe crashes
Systems approach
Saving lives is not expensive"

Gratefully, Mr. Sobczyk was available for a phone call and he explained that he’s more of a “suggestion maker” than a “decision maker” and that there is no funding for his suggestions currently. When asked about installing mid-intersection signage he said the Traffic Engineers have told him that such improvements would “create a false sense of security for pedestrians” which is upsetting. When we spoke with the Blackstone BID, we learned that they were told the same thing by the Public Works Department. This Streetsblog article shows that it’s information from a seriously flawed 1970s study.

Sobczyk did say that they would be considering a lighting study, since it’s a very dark corridor at night, as well as some possible visual improvements at 38th & Farnam. The timing of the pedestrian signals was also discussed and we were assured that the lights were “functioning properly” at the time of the crash. When we asked about the timeline for these improvements he said 2-6 weeks so we’ll be tracking the progress.  

KETV dug into Vision Zero too and discovered the same thing. “Right now, he said there’s no funding specifically for Vision Zero. He hopes his action plan will change that and lead to a team effort like the task force that no longer exists.”

In recent years, Farnam Street has transformed into a truly urban street and continues to do so as a result of new development and redevelopment. The City of Omaha must recognize that Farnam Street’s purpose has evolved past pure auto-mobility. Blackstone in particular has a heavy presence of commercial establishments along Farnam including entertainment, dining, and nightlife, and with these land uses comes the reasonable expectation that many people will need to cross the street. However, this assumption has not been built into the design of the street.

We cannot accept any more traffic-related deaths or serious injuries on the streets of Omaha. In this regard, we call upon Mayor Stothert, Vision Zero Coordinator Jeff Sobczyk, all members of the City Council, and the Public Works Department to recognize that the epidemic of traffic violence in Omaha is entirely preventable, on Farnam and citywide, and act with urgency to add funding and implement changes in street design to promote the safety of all who travel around the city. 

An example of a rectangular rapid flashing beacon or RRFB which is a bright yellow crossing arrow with lights.

A number of relatively inexpensive and quick solutions exist to increase the visibility of pedestrians, including painted “zebra” style crosswalks, rectangular rapid flashing beacons (RRFBs), and high intensity activated crosswalk signals (a.k.a. HAWK signals).

We urge the city to install these or similar treatments at points where pedestrians can reasonably be expected to cross Farnam Street (unsignalized intersections and common mid-block crossings). These treatments are well documented for improving safety and are supported by street design guides published by the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO). At existing signalized intersections, we urge the city to reduce the time it takes for a walk signal to appear after a person presses the crosswalk button or remove the “beg buttons” entirely and change the light timing to prioritize safe pedestrian crossing. Lastly, we ask that the City work to quickly redesign and implement traffic-calming changes and lower speed limits on Farnam and other city streets that data indicates have high rates of traffic fatalities.

We can not wait any longer. This dangerous and busy corridor has done enough unchecked damage to the community. The city must act swiftly to put safety first.