Five Questions for Bridgit Kuenning-Pollpeter

14 Aug

Join us Friday, August 16th 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 Blink at the Archetype Coffee on South 13th Street.

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.

Definitions: Induced Demand

12 Aug

This is the first in an occasional series of posts that examine some of the terminology and concepts we use in transportation advocacy. Some of the terms are industry jargon and some of the concepts challenge conventional wisdom. Our goal is to help educate the public so we can have informed engagement with our civic agencies. Today we are tackling the concept of induced demand.

“The traffic is so bad, we need another lane.” 

This is a common refrain by drivers and supported by the way traffic engineers have built our cities. We frequently see two or three lane streets widened to four or five lane roads. We have seen this most recently in the work in widening several roads in west Omaha. It is a logical assumption that more lanes would mean less congestion until we look at the induced demand of those new lanes.

Why we drive

In a congested system, people often choose not to drive during the busiest times of day if they can avoid it. They might wait until a less busy time, use alternative routes, or simply not make certain trips. Aside from the trips that must be made, people’s willingness to drive is determined by their tolerance for traffic. 

Effects of a wider road

Initially, a wider road will decrease travel times and reduce traffic. Since there is less congestion, more people are willing to drive at peak times. This will continue until we reach the old equilibrium point … the traffic will be the same as it was before the widening. 

People also drive much faster on wider roads, ignoring the speed limits. This is especially true at non-peak hours when the road has far too much open space, allowing people to jockey lane-to-lane.

“But more people are traveling, isn’t it still an improvement?”

No. City streets are part of a much larger system. For example, a newly widened road might encourage people to live in a home further away from their job. These new drivers to an area help build the congestion. People are more willing to make unnecessary trips, or drive when biking or public transit would have also been good options.

Effects of all those lanes

The city is responsible for maintaining all of the roads. This past winter’s potholes showed just how far behind the city is in maintaining the roads we already have. Adding lanes only increases the city’s future maintenance liability. It also encourages sprawl development pattern over in-fill development, and makes our roads less safe, especially for people who are not in cars either by choice or circumstance.

A False Sense of Certainty

2 Aug

At a recent mayor’s town hall regarding the city’s fiscally ambitious plan for improving city streets (not transportation, but streets) the Mayor indicated that the city will stop maintaining pedestrian crossings (1:35, hat tip to the great Clyde Anderson for asking the question), except near schools. The reasoning, backed up by the City Engineer, is that crosswalks give pedestrians  a “false sense of safety.” (Let’s not spend too much time  thinking about why they would want to maintain this false sense of safety for children walking to school, it may expose some logical inconsistencies.)

The orthodoxy of the “false sense of safety” was born of a 1972 study of pedestrian crossings in San Diego. There are some serious flaws with this study and  how it is used today to justify paltry investments in pedestrian safety, in Omaha and other cities.

First: The 1972 study examined only unsignalized intersections, where there was neither a stop sign or traffic signal. To extend those conclusions to signalized intersections is not supported by the data.

Second: The researcher worked only with traffic statistics. The “false sense of safety” is speculation on the author’s part and not a scientific finding.

Third: The intersection with the crosswalk had much more traffic. In the San Diego study, the marked intersections accounted for 177 crashes and 18 fatalities, while the unmarked crossing had only 31 crashes and three fatalities. The fatality rates are about the same, and when the study controlled for the differences in volume, the marked crossing did  have twice the risk, but with more than five times as many incidents. The correct conclusion isn’t that marked crossings provide a sense of safety, but that they encourage people to walk. The “false sense of safety” that accounts for the 2x increase in crashes could be that pesky “having the legal right of way” thing.

Fourth: The recommendation from the study is to limit the number of marked crossings and institute pedestrian education. The pedestrians were not crashing into cars and interrupting their right of way, but the other way around. Were there incidents of vehicles crashing into one another while one clearly had the right of way, we would not blame the driver of the vehicle who had the right of way.

Blaming the pedestrian and using that conclusion to limit pedestrian infrastructure can only have one outcome: fewer people will walk. Now, an engineer might see that as a positive (fewer people walking, fewer people who can be involved in a traffic crash), but a city trying to implement a Complete Streets ordinance and Vision Zero program has to make strides to ensure people’s safety regardless of their mode of transportation.

The fact is, with an aging population,  the people most vulnerable will increasingly be the ones reliant on safe pedestrian infrastructure in order to live independent and fulfilling lives. The logical flip side to the “false sense of safety” is the assertion that “fear will keep you safe.” In Omaha, this logic is only applied to pedestrians, despite the evidence that risk perceptions calm vehicular traffic and make streets safer for everyone.

If we don’t address pedestrian safety from the perspective of keeping pedestrians safe, rather than discouraging people from walking, we will still have vulnerable populations that take great risks because they have no alternatives. The city has a Complete Streets ordinance and we should follow it. The ordinance directs the city to make streets safe for all users, not discourage the use by people walking so we can move distracted drivers more quickly through the city.

a special thanks to Clyde Anderson who did much of the initial research for this post and who asked the question at the town hall.