Highlights from our State Legislative Forum

23 Apr

We invited candidates for State Legislature from Districts 5, 7, 9, 11 and 13 to attend our April Coffee Chat.  This blog features the two candidates that shared their time and thoughts with us.  We had a wide-reaching conversation with Terrell McKinney of District 11 (pictured on the left) and John Cavanaugh of District 9 (pictured on the right) and will share a few of their positions.

What are legislative issues relating to transportation that affect your District?

John – District 9:  My district is in the center of town and a lot of people pass through that don’t live and work in the neighborhood.  One example is Farnam Street between Happy Hollow and Saddle Creek Road – I see people driving the wrong way on it every day.  UNMC’s expansion will affect this district.  We need to figure out other ways to get people into this area without solely relying on cars.  We can’t widen the streets in Midtown without taking out great things.  I’m glad that ORBT is part of our transportation system.  The Legislature can affect zoning requirements and allow for bus and bike lanes – they can adjust the levy for Metro Transit. 

Terrell – District 11:  There is a highway going through my District which shuts us off from the rest of the city and stifles business growth.  A lot of District 11 residents use the bus and have to travel to other parts of the city for employment – but it would be better if they could work where they live.  The legislature could figure out a way to open up North Omaha through whatever means possible.  I live on 30th and hear semi’s going past my apartment every day – I would work on a way to limit semi traffic that goes through the neighborhood..  I would also look for ways to increase business growth and attract more transportation within the district. 

Last year Senator Wayne got a Regional Transportation Authority bill passed but it was limited to cities of metropolitan class (which is just Omaha).  Would you support the RTA and would you support expanding it beyond just Omaha?

Terrell:  Yes – to have better communities you need to be connected.  We must expand so Lincoln and Grand Island are also connected and could have an RTA if they choose.  Travel shouldn’t be so much of a burden – people have family all over the state and the only way to get to them is by car.

John:  Yes, it doesn’t make sense that they left out Lincoln.  Any community that wants to have a Regional Transit Authority should be able to.

Nebraska is looking to spend a billion dollars on widening Interstate 80.  Do you think we should do this in a post Covid-19 world?

John:  Post Covid-19 the world will eventually look similar to what it was before.  Some people will be able to work from home a few more days than before.  But there is a problem with I-80 and Dodge Street expansion plans – eventually you are going to run out of space.  On Dodge they want to eliminate the shoulder – they just created this road less than 20 years ago.  Widening just induces demand and is going to cause more congestion at other choke points in the future.  Omaha used to be a 15-minute town and people want to expand the roads to make it feel like 1990- but those times are gone and we need to look at things differently – if you want to take cars off the road you have to be able to find other solutions.

Terrell:  More people will start working from home.  We should look at alternatives to transportation to limit car flow through our city.  I don’t agree with widening 80 without looking for alternatives to transportation.

What do you think about the proposed Lincoln to Omaha Bus?

Terrell:  I’m for it, when I worked at Nebraska Appleseed I had to drive to Lincoln 3 or more days a week.  I’d love to not have to drive it.  Lincoln is close and lots of people commute between Lincoln and Omaha. 

John:  As someone who is aspiring to go to Lincoln often I’d rather take a bus so I can work or read the paper.  I don’t know the logistics or the cost, but if the pilot is successful I would definitely support it. 

Would you be supportive of the state taking the lead on encouraging remote work due to Covid-19?  If more workers could work from home 1 or 2 days a week that would reduce the burden on our roads and help many people who drive to Lincoln daily to work for State Agencies.

John:  We should innovate any way we can.  One advantage of Covid-19 is forcing us to not hesitate where we were hesitant before.  As a small state, we should be an example on how other states can do things.

Terrell:  I agree with John.  We have the ability to be creative and open our minds to expand and do things differently.  At times we stay stuck in one place in Nebraska.  Not everyone needs to travel to work every day and we need to be dynamic.  We should look into this and push for it.

Turning a Problem into a Policy

14 Apr

Seeing a community need, Mode Shift Omaha Walkability Team members documented the unsafe conditions Omahans face when using the city sidewalks. Construction projects often create conditions that endanger pedestrians, such as blocking paths with equipment and debris. The team launched a community education campaign that included a short film, an email campaign, a petition, and community meetings. 

City council member Pete Festersen took the issue to the Public Works Committee, and the MSO Walkability Team presented policy recommendations to the Mayor’s Active Living Advisory Committee (ALAC) in January 2020. At that time, Omaha Public Works agreed to take the policy under consideration. They returned with a policy the very next month to share with ALAC. The policy is now being implemented and can be reviewed on the Omaha Public Works website. 

This photo is of a pedestrian detour at 18th and Douglas.  With a sidewalk policy in place, this type of signage and detour will be seen more often in Omaha.  Photo Credit: Clyde Anderson

Mode Shift Omaha’s Walkability Team would like to thank Mayor Jean Stothert, Pete Festersen, ALAC, Omaha Public Works, and the Omaha City Planning Department for taking the issue of sidewalk closures during construction seriously. Each year in the United States approximately 6,000 pedestrians die in vehicle collisions. Additionally, thousands of pedestrians are hit and survive, but with tremendous economic and emotional costs. It is encouraging to know that when action is required, our community can be counted on to engage with each other to get the job done.

Today, Omaha is just a little bit more pedestrian friendly due to the hard work of a lot of people who came together to share what they could to make our city greater than ever.

Five Questions for our March Coffee Chat

19 Mar

Weird times, right? But weirdness has never stopped Mode Shift in our mission. We will continue to conduct our regular monthly gatherings, but for the immediate future, we will be meeting virtually. For this month’s coffee chat, we are gathering via Google Hangouts. Let’s give it a try while we socially distance. You can join us using this link. Friday, March 20th at 8 a.m. You will have to provide your own coffee. This month we are talking about accessibility, specifically for those in our community who use mobility devices. Nancy Berg, a local accessibility activis, put together a panel. We’ve asked them five questions.

Nancy Berg is an Omaha native that was paralyzed when she was 16.  During her free time, she is a content creator for an Instagram account called @accessible402.  Her account features accessible and adaptive activities for wheelchair users in Omaha, Lincoln and surrounding areas.  

Logan Finn has Spina Bifida and has used a wheelchair for the last 30 years.  Five years ago he became a double amputee and moved to Omaha.  He relies on public transportation like MOBY to transport him from place to place.

Jerad Covey has Spinal Muscular Atrophy and uses a powerchair. He is a transportation/disability advocate that would like to see the creation of an on-demand, door-to-door transportation option for powerchair and scooter users in the greater Omaha metro area.

What are the transportation challenges facing people who use mobility devices?

Jerad:  I live outside of the limited MOBY paratransit service area, so my biggest challenge is finding reliable powerchair accommodating vans to transport me from place to place.  With my disability, it is outrageously expensive for me to purchase the necessary vehicle modifications in order to drive independently.  Any meaningful state funding assistance is withheld by cost containment criteria.

Nancy:  For those that drive their own vehicle, the biggest challenge can be finding an affordable vehicle that is easy to transfer in and out of.  Also finding a company that offers affordable vehicle adaptations so the vehicle can be driven can be hard.  My vehicle has been modified with hand controls, so that I am able to control the break and gas with my hands.  

Logan:  Besides the daily obstacle of finding reliable transportation, my biggest challenge is maneuvering my wheelchair.  Once I am dropped off at my destination, there can be issues like uneven sidewalks, missing curb cuts, gravel when crossing the street that can make wheeling a challenge.

What are the greatest accessibility issues in Omaha?

Logan:  MOBY has a fixed schedule that you have to abide by in order to get a ride, and all rides must be within 3/4 of a mile of the fixed Metro Bus route.  There are places that I am unable to go because the end location is out of range.  For example, I would love to start my own adaptive clothing line.  There are classes that I could take at Metropolitan Community College in Elkhorn, but there is not an affordable way for me to be transported there each week.

Jerad:  Powerchairs typically weigh 300 lbs therefore a modified vehicle with a ramp is required. I am unaware of any service in Omaha that provides accessible transportation for people like me beyond 6 pm. Even during daytime business hours, users complain of unreliable and unresponsive transportation to and from medical related appointments, not to mention errands and entertainment. 

Nancy: My biggest issue in regards to accessibility is that there is not enough accessible parking.  There are many trendy neighborhoods in Omaha that have fun restaurants, bars and shopping, but the lack of parking makes it hard to go to these places independently. 

Common parking issues:

  • Not enough accessible parking spots
  • Accessible parking spots with no access aisles making it impossible to get in/out of the vehicle with a wheelchair
  • People misusing accessible parking spaces by parking in them without a valid tag
  • People parking their vehicle on the access aisle or access ramp making it difficult to get to their vehicle
  • Van accessible spots have cars instead of vans parked in them.  There are some vans that rely in these spots because they have a side loading ramp.
  • Snow is also a huge problem.  I have seen snow plowed into accessible spots.  Access aisles are commonly not shoveled making it difficult to get to the vehicle.  Also, snow and slush often block curb cuts to the sidewalk.

What is a misconception you’d like to correct about people who use mobility devices like a wheelchair or scooter?

Jerad:  A misconception is that people with mobility issues wouldn’t use and enjoy safe, reliable, on-demand transportation. Because service has been so disappointing in the past, most users quit trying to rely on a broken system and therefore the statistics don’t accurately represent the need in our community.

Nancy:  A misconception is that people with disabilities can easily get into businesses without an issue.  It is 2020, so all places should be accessible… right?  I feel that accessibility and accommodations for people with mobility devices is often an afterthought or done at the bare minimum to make the business ADA compliant.  People with disabilities love to get out of their homes and interact with others.  Part of the reason I created my Instagram account @accessible402 was to show people that there are adaptive and accessible activities in our community, and it gives other wheelchair users the confidence and courage to go out and try these activities for themselves.

Logan:  Many people think that it is easy for wheelchair users to get around because they are on wheels.  Often I have issues getting to places safely.  As I mentioned before, uneven and cracked sidewalks, missing curb cuts, etc make transporting myself difficult at times.

When we talk about accessibility, what kind of language should we use, and what should we avoid? 

Jerad:  I don’t let language become a barrier. My concerns are with the level of training and professionalism by the service providers and their compassion for community members who seek to travel with individual mobility requirements.

Logan:  It is my personal opinion that language doesn’t matter as much.  It is the tone or the way the words are said that hurt the most.  There are some disabled people who are very picky and get very upset if you do not use the correct words, but they will not tell you what those words are and will just tell you the language to not use.

Nancy:  People can be very sensitive to language associated with disability.  There are many guides on the Internet if you are looking for respectful disability language. 

If you could magically change one thing in Omaha regarding transportation what would it be?

Jerad:  I would like to see medical facilities, businesses that value diversity, and individuals interested in progressing public transportation infrastructure – work together to create a public/private partnership that serves the mobility challenged in our community.

Logan:  I wish that Moby and the Metro Transit were not run the same way.  I would love for Moby to go to more locations within Omaha and the surrounding areas, and I would love to be able to use Moby at night.  I often take Moby to get to a place like a concert before service is done for that day.  Then, I will use Uber to get back home.  Since I depend on public transportation daily, Moby is affordable for me to use.

Nancy:  I would love public transportation to be easily accessible.  When I was in Las Vegas a few summers ago, it was so easy to find a taxi that I could wheel into and not have to get out of my chair.  This type of transportation was available at all hours, and it was so convenient.  I would love to have this type of spontaneous transportation in Omaha.