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Slowing down Blackstone

13 Apr

Four years ago I moved to Omaha from Portland mostly sight unseen.

I decided the Blackstone district looked like the best place to land.

You see, I gave up my car when I moved to Portland and didn’t want to go back. 

Blackstone seemed to be extremely walkable, had several bus lines near it, and wasn’t too far from where I would be working. 

It wasn’t long before I got my reality check: that walkable street came with a narrow sidewalk and three lanes of traffic hightailing it at 45+ despite the 30mph (double check this number) speed limit.

Yes, technically I could walk along it and even get to work fairly easily, but not comfortably- especially compared to the streets I was used to walking in Portland.

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Lessons from St. Paul

24 Jan

-submitted by Jackson Long

I’ve lived in Omaha for most of my life, but last fall I decided it was time for a change, packed my bags, and moved up to Saint Paul, Minnesota for college. I’m now a student at Macalester, a small liberal arts college in an urban area not too far from the Mississippi River. In all of my excursions through the city, it hasn’t felt very different from home, which is why I think that Omaha could stand to learn a few things from the Saintly City.

My first leisurely walk as a Macalester student brought me to a street called Ayd Mill Road, a divided highway that at first reminded me of Omaha’s Saddle Creek Boulevard or Northwest Radial Highway. I reflexively steered clear of the area, deeming it unfit for travel. The next morning my bus took this same road, and while I was studying the route in a futile attempt to get a sense of direction in my new home, I caught myself thinking, “Well, I don’t own a car, so I won’t be using this road anyway.”

The old Ayd Mill Rd (Photo: Bill Lindeke)
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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.