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When The Sidewalk Ends in Omaha

13 Sep

Omaha has a problem with maintaining accessible pedestrian options, especially around construction projects. This situation is neither inevitable nor without remedy. Many cities require transportation management plans when construction will block pedestrian infrastructure.

Sign our petition encouraging the city to adopt policies consistent with other comparable cities that recognize the need for accessible pedestrian infrastructure.

Safer Sidewalks for Everyone

11 Sep

The Walkability team has been studying and raising awareness about Omaha’s lack of policy related to sidewalk closings in construction zones.  Recently a new sidewalk closure occurred that has elements of danger to it – and highlights the need for a comprehensive policy like other cities of our size.

A townhome development is under construction at the Northeast Corner of 49th and Farnam Streets.  The orange construction fence extends all the way to the edges of both streets. There are no warnings that the sidewalk closure is coming and there is no accommodation for sidewalk users once they arrive at the construction zone.  I approached the intersection from the east – starting at 48th Street and Farnam. When standing at that corner, you are down the hill from the construction zone and you can’t see it. There is no sign at 48th street warning people that the sidewalk is closed ahead. The site starts coming into view once you get halfway to 49th Street. 

Once you see and/or arrive at the construction zone you have a few options.

Option 1:  When you get to or near the sidewalk closure you can walk south across Farnam.  However, you don’t have full visibility – there’s a construction fence partially blocking the view and you are near the top of a hill, so you can’t see the cars traveling eastbound until they crest the hill.  Pedestrians and drivers have between 5 and 8 seconds to react to this situation. (Many pedestrians can cross the street that quickly – but as a frequent pedestrian in this neighborhood I can attest that many of the adults that walk this neighborhood daily are not able to walk as fast as is required in this situation. In addition, this is a route to school for many elementary school children. We need to accommodate for all our citizens.)

Looking west from construction fence on Farnam

Option 2:  Walk down the westbound lane of traffic until you get past the construction zone.  When you look behind you to see if cars are coming you do have a good view all the way down to Saddle Creek.  If you get there at a time when no cars are in sight you probably can safely walk to the edge of the construction zone.   But remember, Farnam isn’t treated like a regular street – during rush hour it switches from a 2-way street to a 1-way street.  In an analysis by a neighborhood resident, it was shown that traffic speeds are higher when Farnam is 1-way (cars were even clocked at up to 49mph).  Between 7 and 9 a.m., if you choose to walk in the street to get around the construction zone, you easily could come face to face with a car when it crests the hill.  At this point, the pedestrian’s only option is to get as close to the fence as possible and the driver can only slam on the brakes and hope they can stop/avoid the pedestrian. (Again, each has 5 to 8 seconds to react, less if the driver is going above the 30mph speed limit).

Option 3:  The sidewalk user needs to back track and assess their safest choice.  They can go around the block (adding approximately 4 -5 minutes to their walk), or they can go to the closest crosswalk, which is between 46th and 47th Street (1.5 blocks behind them – again adding 4-5 minutes to their walk). 

Option 3 is the safest but backtracking shouldn’t be needed.   Minimally, the city should set up warnings and detours like other cities do:  one should be set up by the crosswalk between 46th and 47th Street and one at 48th Street.

We urge people to call the Mayor’s Hotline when they run into situations like this.  I truly am grateful for the Mayor’s Hotline as there is a serious effort to address problems and respond to citizen issues – many of my calls have led to quick and satisfactory resolution.  Therefore, I placed a call and shared the situation. I suggested that they send someone out to assess the safety of the situation. I added that minimally there should be a sign placed at 48th Street (a block before the construction site) alerting sidewalk users that the sidewalk is closed ahead and provide a detour.   That way the sidewalk user can reroute before they get all the way up to the construction site. 

I returned to the intersection about a week later and I could see that someone from the city did address the issue.  Unfortunately, the solution was to place Sidewalk Closed signs leaning against the construction fence. In my mind, this “solution” merely states the obvious.  There’s still no accommodation. There is no warning or notes for sidewalk users to detour before they get to this dangerous spot. There is also no thought about complying with the Americans With Disabilities Act

Situations like this show that we need to continue to raise this issue with the City.  We need a response to a sidewalk closure to come to a quick and satisfactory outcome like it does when we report issues that the city fully understands and embraces.

If you think this is an important issue – please do two things.  First, call the Mayor’s hotline and ask them to provide warnings when there are sidewalk closures ahead (this issue exists all over the city, this is just one example).  Second, view the Mode Shift Walkability Team’s video and Safer Sidewalks Petition and add your name and your experiences with unsafe conditions.  We want to use that data to show the City Council that this is a public safety issue that people are concerned about.   The more we have to share, the more likely that we can help our city leaders understand that sidewalks are important modes of transportation and that we need to enact better sidewalk policies and procedures, like many cities in our region already have.

Five Questions for Bridgit Kuenning-Pollpeter

14 Aug

Join us Friday, October 18 at 8 a.m. for our monthly Coffee Chat. This month we are chatting with Bridgit Kuenning-Pollpeter, president of the Nebraska chapter of the National Federation of the Blind at the Hardy Coffee at the Highlander

I’m Bridgit Kuenning-Pollpeter. I was born in Omaha but moved a lot as a child. But I’ve been situated back in Omaha for about 30 years now. I live here with my husband and our 2 sons. My husband is also blind.

When I was 22, I started to become blind from a viral infection. At this point, I obviously stopped driving, and was exposed to public transportation and all its facets. I joined the National Federation of the Blind, which is a consumer organization working to change perceptions about blindness, creating fair and equal treatment for blind people. The NFB is involved in national, state and local levels of legislation to community engagement activities and everything in between. I’m the president of the Omaha chapter and serve on our Nebraska affiliate board.

I graduated in December with my MFA in writing from UNO. I currently do freelance marketing. Next year, I plan to return to UNO for my MA in English. I’m also a stay-at-home parent.

We asked Bridgit five questions:

1. What is your preferred mode of transportation?

Because of the lack and frequency of buses in Omaha, especially in my neighborhood, I usually opt for Lyft these days. And since having children, I prefer rideshare because of the convenience factor.

2. What, in your opinion, is the greatest transportation challenge for visually impaired individuals in Omaha?

What is deemed a challenge for one blind person may not be considered a challenge for another. This question’s answer will vary blind person to blind person. However, the lack of consistency and frequency in buses is a big problem. Many people I know, myself included, experience late buses, and far too often, buses that don’t show up. People who move from other states where public transit is populated by a variety of people find Omaha’s transit system frustrating and challenging. It’s also difficult to schedule a day based on Omaha’s system. Routes and times are not frequent enough for it to always make sense to take the bus. Another challenge is the city’s inability to clear paths in the winter. Many people I speak with find themselves walking far into the street when it snows because of poorly cleared sidewalks. And in some areas, there are no sidewalks, not always making it safe to walk to a bus stop. All these problems are topics blind people bring up, but clearly, each is not specific to blindness.

Metro’s website is pretty accessible, but some routes are provided in PDFs, which aren’t always easy to read, not to mention are an outdated way of providing info on a website. It would be great if Metro used actual blind people to beta test its website. It also needs an app for all users; just saying.

3. What has been the greatest transportation success in Omaha for the blind/visually impaired?

The 2 biggest successes for Metro, and again, not necessarily specific to blind people, but certainly make our lives easier, are the My Ride feature of the website, although an actual app would be nice. And the automated systems that give stop announcements on buses.

4. How does transportation influence the mission and activities of the National Federation of the Blind?

Transportation plays a huge role in NFB activities. For years, our Omaha chapter had volunteer drivers to transport members to and from our monthly meetings. Several years ago now, the volunteers were no longer able to provide this service. It drastically impacted our membership. Many members did not have access to public transportation, or in the case of rideshare, could not afford it. And there’s also the issue of available times. It’s not always convenient, and not a lot of people want to sit on a bus for an hour. . NFB Omaha has always tried to choose meeting locations that are central to a bus stop, but few of our members use the bus in general. Getting to and from state and local activities is impacted for the same reasons. For most blind people, transportation, or lack-thereof, is one of our biggest obstacles.

5. If you could magically change one thing about the transportation systems in Omaha, without limit to budget or feasibility, what would it be?

If I could wave my magic wand and make any change to Omaha’s transit would be to have more buses go all the way back and forth across the city north and south. Getting north and south in Omaha is a challenge for all people. Also, all buses would be more frequent, like every 30 to 15 minutes all day, every day, including Sunday’s. And Omaha would drop Moby and work with Lyft and Uber on a paratransit system, which has had success in other cities.