The Right to Move in Omaha: Sarah’s Story

12 Dec


Quality sidewalks are about more than just an easy trip across the city.  Quality sidewalks are required for access to everything our city has to offer our citizens.  Jobs, healthcare, family and friends, and education are just a few of the opportunities denied to the community every day by a poor transportation infrastructure.  A lack of good quality sidewalks is rooted in larger policy decisions and efforts to redirect resources are necessary to change the all too common narrative of those like Sarah. Sarah’s story tells us about the pain and suffering of those who lack access to quality transportation networks.

Sarah’s Story

Sarah, a retired educator with a specialty in early childhood and special education curricula has taught and presented across the country. She married her best friend that she grew up with in New York, and they raised their sons in Lincoln and then moved to Omaha in 1982. She is an African American woman who spends her life caring and advocating for marginalized children and families. Throughout her life she has faced systemic confrontational racist and sexist marginalization. She works hard even today with a myriad of health problems volunteering for her church and community. Omaha should be thanking her for her contributions, instead she continues to endure trials and tribulations when her health has made it difficult for her to get around. Instead of spending her golden years as she wishes, she spends them negotiating her health and disability on public transportation, a fate I wish no one. 

A few years ago, in a wheelchair and on peritoneal dialysis, Sarah needed to use MOBY, Omaha’s ADA disability accessible companion bus service, to reach her assigned dialysis center. There was an additional challenge – MOBY usually transports “door to door” but the route only ran to 120th and Dodge. Sarah’s appointment was another 9 blocks west of the drop off. “The problem was I could get onto some sidewalks, but I couldn’t get off at the next corner because there was no cut out. Traversing the sidewalks themselves, many were broken, chipped, and uneven. I got caught in ruts a couple of times. One time, my wheelchair tipped over and I fell out. After that incident I started riding on the frontage road, which I did not like doing because I was going in the same direction as traffic. People honked and some cars came much too close. There was nothing else that I could do because dialysis was not negotiable – for my life. For my MOBY trip home, I had to reverse my ride, but this time I was facing the traffic. The weather did not matter, rain, snow, heat, or cold, etc., I had to go. It was frustrating, frightening, and embarrassing. It made me angry, but dialysis is something I needed to do – to live. I did that about every two weeks for a year. I made calls, and I wrote letters. I did not have a personal vehicle; friends and family wanted to help, but their vehicles would not accommodate a motorized wheelchair.” 

A picture of the frontage road Sarah needed to travel on in her wheelchair

In addition to this experience, she described two incidents when a turning bus caused her wheelchair to fall over with her in it! One incident was on a MOBY bus and the other on a city bus. In both situations, her wheelchair was not latched properly by the drivers. Both incidents were reported to MOBY and Metro Transit. “I was seen by my doctors and was checked by a squad in the latter incidence. I was not injured, just bruised and shaken and felt no need to pursue it any farther.”  But she noted that neither time did they apologize as they appeared more concerned with not admitting fault than treating her like an individual deserving of respect. To add insult to injury, Sarah and many other MOBY users cannot get to church on Sunday because they do not live within ¾ of a mile of a bus line that runs on Sundays. This poor paratransit and lack of comprehensive public transit deny dignity by limiting access to medical services, negatively influencing access to quality jobs, and limiting opportunities to participate in the community because of race, gender, and disability. 

“I am not bashing MOBY or it’s drivers. It is an affordable and safe transportation service for some of us who need this type of service. It has improved a lot since I began riding in 2011. The drivers are very polite and caring. The systemic issues that occur are due to federal funding policies, incomplete communication with the public who use or would use this resource, and incomplete training for drivers and schedulers, which results in incorrect or inconsistent responses to questions asked by riders. Most of all – it does not serve all of the people who need this service because it only serves those living east of 120th Street” says Sarah. 

It blocks people in the city from using medical services out west. Those communities were allowed to build without sidewalks which then allowed the bus company not to serve those parts of the community because there are no sidewalks. Sidewalks or the lack of them have been historically used by developers  and city governments to keep poor and minority people out of wealthy white neighborhoods and the practice continues today. That amounts to state funded segregation. 

Additionally, an undue burden is placed on disabled persons who pay double what a mainstream transit rider would pay. Even though this is significantly cheaper than a mobility taxi it remains unjust.  People with disabilities are more likely to be unemployed and underemployed and face significant barriers to housing and transportation. Thus limitations on where they can get public transportation services and the cost of them are of even greater concern.

Racism and Omaha’s well documented practices of redlining, white flight, and urban sprawl heavily influence Sarah’s experience. This situation was designed and facilitated by government policy and big business, while financed by the taxpayers. There is no reason to believe it will change until these entities are held accountable. Residents living in west Omaha live on average 10 years longer, the quality of their life is exponentially better, additionally they are less likely to experience disability than poor and minority communities. Policies made over the course of many years push the likes of Sarah into untenable situations and she is not alone. 

OMetro’s mainstream bus service underserves Omaha’s minority communities. In discussion with UNO students living in South Omaha, I learned it takes about 2 hours to get to UNO by bus. It is a 15-minute drive. South Omaha is the number one feeder school for UNO and the neighborhood is 81% Latinx. Additionally, it takes two hours to travel from North Omaha, where the African American community resides, to get to jobs at places like PayPal and Google in southwest Omaha. These conditions are unacceptable and likely the placement of those businesses was subsidized by the city and taxpayers in a long forgotten deal. 

Incredible amounts of money have been spent to decrease drive times for people in West Omaha. Decreasing the number of cars coming into the city is a good idea for those of us who live here; however service to city dwellers is unique. For example, when OMetro debuted ORBT they said they would continue to run the number 2 bus. This bus is now set to be cut. The type of service provided to commuters and city dwellers is different. City dwellers need options that include a bus that stops every block or two. Many people ride the bus because they cannot drive, forcing them to walk an additional 8 blocks  to ORBT stations will diminish their ability to move freely in the city and despite the presence of bike racks on ORBT, biking is not a reasonable option for most because they cannot afford it, they have responsibilities that preclude it, mobility limitations, or a lack of safe bike infrastructure. If ORBT is expanded further, can we expect more of the same?

Sadly, Sarah also reported being told by the previous administration’s leadership, if you don’t like it, go somewhere else. I, myself, have witnessed the leader of MOBY tell an entire room full of people that the testimony given minutes prior by a MOBY rider, “never happened” before any possible investigation of the complaint could occur. That rider is also an African American.

Rather than serve Sarah, our community has placed obstacles in front of her from access to medical care to the transportation organizations that she helps pay for but do not meet her needs. The bell of injustice clangs with policies designed to look benign.The sound of discord reminds us that our work remains so that Sarah never finds herself, alone and tossed from her wheelchair on the Dodge frontage street, again.

The Right to Move in Omaha

6 Dec

The Walkability Team spent summer and early fall doing a Sidewalk Audit of Dodge Street.  This is the first in a series of blog posts about the team’s findings.

To kick off the series, the team would like to share an essay written last winter by then high school junior at Omaha North, Jackson Long. Jackson interviewed three Mode Shift Omaha Board members – Derek Babb of the Biking Team, Dr. Crystal Edwards of the Walkability Team and Madeline Brush of the Transit Team, who also shared her experience as a visually impaired individual.  Jackson used those interviews, paired with his research to write the following essay that he submitted to the UNO Goldstein Center for Human Rights high school essay contest.  The themes and ideas presented within ring true with the findings of the Walkability Team and we too, want everyone to have the right to move.

Please enjoy Jackson’s essay:

Right to Move

         The fact of the matter is quite simple: there is systemic discrimination in urban planning.  It is not a rarity, nor is it invisible.  Rather, it sits quietly atop the streets of the American city, hiding in plain sight.  Within the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – “a yardstick by which we measure right and wrong” – all humans are declared to be born with “the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each State.”  There is a right more integral, though, and that is the right to move in general, to have the same access to the wonders of their resident city as their peers.  The truth is, even in a prosperous city in a prosperous nation, countless people live in the absence of this right, and it doesn’t take much examination to determine why.

         As a byproduct of its sprawling design, the average American city makes car ownership mandatory.  With the ever-expanding distance between the urban core and the suburbs, the city becomes dominated by cars.  As roads widen, sidewalks disappear, and liberty for people without cars disappears with them.  This is no small population, either; as of 2015, nearly one third of Americans did not own a driver’s license.

         With a high initial price combined with the costs of fuel and repairs, car ownership is a heavy burden for those who do not boast a high income.  Almost two thirds of transit riders have a household income below $50,000, and more than twenty percent make less than $15,000.  According to the U.S. Census Bureau, people who walk and bike to work are significantly more likely to have low incomes.  The idea that pedestrian and cycling infrastructure is only a luxury for wealthy families is a dangerous myth; this infrastructure is crucial for the well-being of the most vulnerable members of our society.  If we really want to break the cycle of poverty, we can no longer afford to mandate the existing costs of transportation.

         Unfortunately, this issue is not limited to class discrimination.  People with disabilities often suffer the most in a car-dependent city.  As Jeff Speck eloquently explains in his book Walkable City Rules, “most visually impaired people can move independently only while walking, and they are effectively disabled by communities that mandate cars for getting around.”  While there are still options for the visually impaired, their implementation is often sloppy.  If you’ve ever noticed the brightly colored, dotted patterns on the sidewalk near an intersection, whether you know it or not, you’re familiar with one of these options.  Those patterns are a part of a system called tactile paving, which aims to warn those with visual impairments when they are about to encounter a hazard.  In this case, the hazard is an intersection.  Not only are these scarcely distributed, they commonly fail to serve another crucial purpose: to point people in the right direction.  The dots, called blisters, on these portions of the sidewalk, should be arranged in rows that point directly to the destination on the other side of the street.  This way, someone using a white cane knows the direction they need to walk to make a safe crossing.  However, in many places, these blisters are arbitrarily rotated, potentially causing an unsuspecting pedestrian to find themselves in the center of a busy intersection.  Inconsistencies like these make the whole system useless.  If you can’t trust some of them, you can’t trust any of them.

         Here’s something we often take for granted: curb cuts.  They’re a welcome addition to the sidewalk when carrying heavy objects or pushing a stroller, but for those in wheelchairs, they’re a necessity.  This phenomenon is known as the curb cut effect, the idea that technology designed for the margins of society can help everybody.

         Ed Roberts was an athletic kid who loved to play baseball, but this hobby was brought to a halt at age fourteen when he contracted polio, requiring an iron lung to stay alive.  He was paralyzed below the neck, only able to move two fingers on his left hand.  In 1962, he was turned down from U.C. Berkeley, not for academic reasons, but because they weren’t sure where they could fit an iron lung.  Eventually, they decided to repurpose a patient room at the campus hospital, and Roberts was finally accepted.  His story began making headlines, inspiring more paralyzed students to apply to Berkeley.  Before long, his campus hospital became the headquarters for a group of organizers called the Rolling Quads, whose purpose was to advocate for the idea that people with disabilities had civil rights.  Luckily, by the time Roberts was in graduate school, disabled students could zip around in power chairs, a technology that was recently invented to assist wounded veterans.  These gave students the freedom to leave their wheelchair attendant behind, but they still had to deal with curbs.

         At first, the Rolling Quads would protest by taking a bag or two of concrete, mixing it up, and pouring it out on the corners that would most ease the route around Berkeley.  Later, however, they demanded that the city build curb cuts on every corner in Berkeley, a motion that passed with a surprising lack of resistance.  This movement eventually led to the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), mandating access for people with disabilities in all places open to the public, which is why we now see wheelchair lifts on buses, ramps along staircases, elevators with reachable buttons, and low service counters.

         Despite the incredible progress made by Roberts and the Rolling Quads, implementation today is still lacking.  I live in one of the most walkable neighborhoods in my city, and curb cuts are still disappearing without a trace on the streets surrounding my house.  The city should be accessible to everybody, regardless of ability, and regardless of class.  Unfortunately, this isn’t a reality, and it’s no surprise that we are not hearing the voices of the disadvantaged at city meetings.

         The solutions to these injustices are not difficult.  To remove the need for a car, all we must do is invest in infrastructure for walking, biking, and public transit.  This entails little more than adding bike lanes where cyclists feel safe, improving sidewalks, and ensuring cheap (or better yet, free) and accessible public transit options.  As simple as these solutions are, they still make many lawmakers uneasy.  Why is that?

         Mobility advocates are used to hearing that walkability is an unrealistic economic goal that will end up costing the city too much money for very little in return.  Unfortunately, people hear these falsities and run with them, but if they would stop to look at the statistics, they would quickly find the opposite.  America’s most walkable metros generate 49% more GDP per capita than its least walkable metros.  A study in Baltimore has discovered that compared to highway investments, every dollar spent on pedestrian infrastructure created 57% more jobs and every dollar spent on bike infrastructure created 100% more jobs.  Not to mention, these improvements cost a fraction of what our roads cost.  The explanations for these statistics are numerous.  Increasing the mobility and range of people with lower incomes helps support businesses all over the city, and any person, regardless of income, is more likely to enter a store when walking or biking past it than when driving past it.  The economic excuse is precisely that, an excuse.

         There is a far more severe objection to walkability, and that’s the question of gentrification.  It is true that walkability drives up the property values in neighborhoods, so many worry that this supposedly helpful infrastructure will push people out of their homes.  This is a result of conflating development with displacement.  Gentrification is inevitable.  Neighborhoods change, and it should not be our goal to leave every neighborhood in the state that we found it in, especially in poorer neighborhoods, where gentrification leads to decreases in violent crime.  Displacement, on the other hand, is not inevitable.  Cities like Boston and Philadelphia have introduced programs that allow longtime homeowners to cap or freeze their property taxes.  As a simpler solution, displacement can be limited by building attainable housing projects in developing neighborhoods.  Development, when done responsibly, doesn’t lead to displacement.

         It’s easy to feel helpless in situations like these, but there is so much more that we could be doing.  The simplest way to spread the word is to point out these injustices where they exist.  Show your friends the places where tactile paving fails.  Point out where curb cuts don’t exist.  Additionally, be a voice for the voiceless.  The people who are suffering the most are not the ones showing up to city meetings and town halls.  The ideals of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” strike marvelous images of freedom and prosperity into our minds.  These ideals are only attainable if we all possess a basic right: the right to move.

5 Questions for Naomi Hattaway

13 Oct

In preparation for City Elections in 2021, we will be speaking with Naomi Hattaway during our Coffee Chat on Friday, October 16 at 8:00 a.m.

Naomi is passionate about community building, diversity and accessibility in online and physical spaces, and affordable housing so folks can thrive, not just survive, in the places they call home. The founder of I Am A Triangle, an international social network,  and 8th & Home Relocation, a nation-wide network matching families on the move with Realtors, Naomi now consults nonprofits and organizations on inclusive program design, mutual aid and housing solutions. In addition to raising three amazing humans, and providing a home to five four-legged rescues, Naomi is also running for City Council in Omaha, with a bid to represent District 6, the central section of West Omaha. You can find her on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook via @naomihattaway.

Please read Naomi’s thoughtful answers to the questions we posed and then register for a Zoom link to be part of the conversation.

1. What is your vision of the built environment in Omaha over the next generation?  

This is a question that requires more space than I have here, but I have a vision for more diverse thought and lived experience being showcased in our community engagement efforts and planning processes. We have amazing and excellent talent across our City, yet we tend to ask the same questions, in the same manner, with the same results. Too often we only act on feedback from a particular subset of residents, and that’s a disservice to a city’s built environment. Additionally, the “language” spoken by our elected officials, planners, and decision makers of Omaha is quite different from the language of everyday residents of our city. This dissonance doesn’t allow for forward innovation and problem solving. My vision is that we see more equitable policymaking, to dovetail with improved community building (in part, city planning with the true needs of people at the helm of design). My vision is that we have less transactional management and more intentional dialogue. Less “this is how we’ve always done it” and more opportunities to listen to and learn each other’s language so we can make progress together. 

2. How can the City of Omaha better manage the transportation assets in the city, especially active transportation assets?

We could start by adjusting some of our language. Instead of walkable, we might use “navigable” or “as accessible as possible”. Word choice may not seem to obviously relate to active transportation assets, but when we are more inclusive of our community and neighbors, the economic benefits of an innovative multi-modal transportation plan can be fully realized. One practical way to better manage our assets is by acknowledging that “take back our streets” must be inclusive of community members that utilize curbside drop-off and pick-up for medical appointments, or for our neighbors that rely on delivery (medicine, meals-on-wheels), or shortened walking distance when running errands or providing caretaking services. Any type of inaccessibility equals forced isolation, and I think Omaha can increase their prioritization of reducing barriers as we manage transportation assets.

3. Planning and Public Works are currently run by separate directors. Should they have a common director and if so, should that person be a planner or an engineer?

I do not have a current official position on a common director between the Planning and Public Works Departments, but I would like to see the City of Omaha explore the appointment of a director of sustainability to ensure climate goals are aligned with racial equity as we get ever closer to the implementation of the 2050 LRTP.

4. The current Board of Metro Area Transit is appointed by the mayor and approved by the city council — do you support maintaining the status quo, or should Metro Area Transit elect to become a regional transit authority with an elected board?

I believe Omaha could benefit from elected leadership for the Metro Transit, however we first need to remove the barriers to individuals who desire to serve in an elected capacity. Meaning, we should first work to have clearer paths for a diverse set of folks to campaign, fundraise and win elections.  Once we achieve greater representation with those who are running for office in Omaha, then I would support looking into a regional transit authority that is held by elected officials (similar to our peer cities, such as KC, Des Moines, Charlotte, etc.). Additionally, I believe that some of the status quo we maintain, is a system that refuses to name the impact of local systemic racism and our leadership model / electoral process would be a great place to begin.

5. If you could magically change one thing in Omaha with regard to transportation what would it be?

I would love to see more transparency and true community engagement when it comes to planning, forecasting and building our City! Specifically regarding transportation, my magic wand would wave in the direction of education and accessibility. Until neighbors in all parts of Omaha realize just how important safe roads, the way we use our land and why accessibility matters, we have work to do. I have been working with Shelby Seier of All Kinds Accessibility on an audit of District 6 (including transportation accessibility, whether we prioritize disability rights, what ways we can better serve our elders and aging population, etc.). It’s encouraging to see that it might not be about magic that’s needed after all, but simply a willingness to listen and learn, with some bravery and gumption from our elected officials sprinkled over the top.