Omaha at Human Scale: A walk to school

17 Dec

Amanda Long is a member of Mode Shift Omaha.

Walking is a major form of transportation in my household.  As with anything there are frustrations and problems to be solved – but walking is our favorite way to get around.

Entrance to Tunnel Under Dodge Street

One of our regular destinations is school.  I am in my 11th year of having a child walk to the local elementary school.  My youngest child has walked there her entire life – first to drop off and pick up her big brother – and then to transport herself.  It’s a habit – and an absolute preference. When the weather is too bad to walk, both of our moods darken and we begrudgingly hop into the car.  Drop off in the car is much more stressful for both of us. We have to deal with traffic and trying to get out of a car with a backpack, lunch box and sometimes a school project.  When I have to drive to pick up my child from school I actually have to leave earlier as it takes longer to find a place to park the car and walk up to the school building than it does to walk from home.

I’ve read that walking to school has been shown to improve both academic performance and psychological well-being, as well as public health.  Our experience agrees with that. A walk at the beginning of the day makes us both more awake, alert and ready to focus. In addition, the walk to and from school gives us time to talk at the beginning and end of the school day. It’s often where the best talks happen.  On the hardest days the walk has therapeutic benefits – anxieties can be verbalized while we simultaneously get the physical benefits of walking to help us cope the rest of the day.

Bike Rack Haiku

When we walk, we see and experience things you can’t from the car – our favorite is the big hound dog that looks over the second-floor balcony and announces its presence in its unique hound dog voice. We hear the leaves crunch under our feet, see the first crocuses that appear in spring, smell freshly-mowed grass and experience the quiet of a good snowfall.  We get to enjoy the decorations that people put on their houses and get to observe someone’s sense of humor in their ever-changing configurations of pink flamingos. We can browse a Little Free Library, peruse the community garden’s neighbor garden and see if they have that herb we need for dinner. We can window shop in the stores in our neighborhood & check out the restaurant menus.  We read haikus on bike racks and see public art.

Community Garden

With the experiences we have with walking I believe it when I read that people live in more walkable neighborhoods trust their neighbors more and children have more opportunities to be independent.  As we walk the neighborhood, we get to know the people. We say hello, meet the dogs & greet the children playing in front yards.  Because of our walks, we know multiple families on every block that we frequent. This knowledge and familiarity build the bonds of trust that a neighborhood needs to thrive.  I may not walk alone in your neighborhood in the dark of night – but I do walk in mine as I know who’s who and who lives where – and who could help if needed.

In every neighborhood that I’ve regularly walked in, I’ve had a strong feeling of connectedness to the people, schools, and businesses in that neighborhood.  I find myself face to face with many people along the way- which reminds me of what we have in common. There’s rarely a day that goes by that I don’t get a smile or wave from someone across the street or through their car window.  When something out of the ordinary is happening in the neighborhood, I feel comfortable stopping to talk to someone with a familiar face and compare stories. Maybe the first step to increasing social capital and a feeling of connectedness to others is as simple as taking regular walks through our neighborhood.

Omaha at Human Scale: Transit dependence requires dependable transit

11 Dec
Interior of a Metro Bus

Madeline Brush is a member of the Mode Shift Board of Directors.

I am legally blind, meaning I cannot drive a car. I depend on Metro Transit to get around Omaha.  I usually take the #15, to go to Midtown Crossing. When I get to 32nd and Farnam, I get a coffee, or grab some Chinese food. It is unfortunate that the route frequency is only every 30 minutes — if it’s on schedule. Since I have limited vision, it is difficult for me to read the street signs. Public transportation is great and affordable, but I wish all the bus drivers would announce the numbered streets. Some of them do, especially if I tell them where I need to get off the bus. Sometimes they forget when it is a longer bus ride.


The second bus that I take often is the #2 on Dodge street.  My mom and siblings live near the route, so it is easy for me to catch the bus downtown and get off  at UNO. From there I can walk to see my family. I know to request a stop when I see the
the green pedestrian bridge near UNO.  I go to Dundee often. I can get off at 50th and Dodge and walk to my favorite businesses. 

I am excited for ORBT, Metro’s Bus Rapid Transit or the  BRT. I will be able to pay with my smartphone, and the new buses will have an automatic audible announcement  the upcoming stops.

Route 2 to Westroads

I have heard from a few bus riders that their bus is not dependable. I tell them to call or email Metro — they want to hear from the public if the service isn’t working. Metro is making improvements to the system with new bus shelters and buses and more technology to connect passengers. As someone who depends on the bus, I am grateful Omaha is investing in public transportation.

Omaha at Human Scale: The Wayfarer’s City

27 Nov

Dr. Erin Feichtinger is a social worker and recently elected representative to the Board of Governors for Metro Community College.

It is Thursday at 12:30, so I am quickly finishing my lunch and making sure I have my headphones. I leave out the back of our converted warehouse. The yard is either filled with vegetables or dirt depending on the season and lately it’s been consistently packed with cars and trucks and shouting from the apartment building they’re renovating next door. I have a feeling the price point of these one-bedrooms will make them out of reach for most in the neighborhood. We recently had some light arson from a disgruntled client which is too bad for the shaded picnic table.  Further evidence of the lack of accessible mental health resources in our community. I put on Bill Callahan and turn the corner to head up to 25th and Leavenworth. I don’t know what the daycare to my left is called, something with “Precious” in the name, and there’s always one employee yelling from above the dirt patch the kids use to get outside time.

Burnt picnic table

Traffic is backed up on Leavenworth. I’ve only recently seen the fruits of whatever road improvements they were trying to make. The construction cones are still in the street, forcing everyone left – bright orange tyrants beaten by accidents and bumps and weather who are guarding nothing of consequence. The  work seems finished. People inch their cars east toward downtown, hopefully being vigilant around the intersection because there are always a lot of people congregating and making questionable pedestrian decisions. This is what happens when you have more liquor stores than community resources, and our favorite maybe-slumlord renovated hundreds of low-income studio units in a city where there is nowhere else to put people who need help. Old ladies smoke outside the 11-Worth Café, waiting for kids or grandkids or rides. One Honda CR-V shouts “GMAZ KDZ.”

I head west, fiddling with the volume of my music. I should listen to the sounds of the street, but I listen to people all day. My coat has deep front pockets which I like and is a preference developed over a decade in Chicago of walking and biking and riding the train and bus. I don’t know how people manage without them but I guess you just put stuff in the front seat of the car and then grab what you need when you park and run into wherever. The car-to-wherever lifestyle is probably why people don’t dress appropriately for the weather here.

Leavenworth St., I’ve learned over a year of making this trip on foot, is full of the strangest combination of businesses. It’s like the street where anything goes and so if you have an idea for a business and don’t much care about accessibility or parking then you can open it up right here. Daycare, a general manufacturing building where people actually make furniture, a rotating cast of ethnic grocery stores, the Fruteria that is gone a week after you think to yourself, “next week I’m going to check it out,” the grocery store that you wouldn’t notice coming down Leavenworth or heading west on St. Mary’s but that has the best prices for avocados and a 2 Enchilada lunch special. One time outside the Kohll’s Pharmacy that has never stopped advertising CPAP machines, I saw an old man sleeping and worried he was dead because it was so hot and there isn’t any shade to speak of on Leavenworth. I wouldn’t have noticed him from a car. I don’t think people notice him anyway and I chew on that as I pass the food truck parked every day in the gravel lot across from the uniform store. The store must only cater to enforcer-types or else tough-looking burly dudes is a universal advertising theme for uniform stores and in any case both are curious.

Crossing the entrances and exits of the interstate you have to be really deliberate here about making your presence known. I do a lot of shouting and waving here since Leavenworth is a one-way heading east at this stretch and so if you’re coming off the exit ramp you are only looking west. Passing through the intersection that I’ll probably die in one of these days, I check in with the gentleman flying a sign there. He’s always got something to say about the traffic and when it’s hot I try to remember to bring a bottle of water. I think a lot of people try to avoid eye contact with him and have said as much. Only sometimes it bothers him, if he’s having a bad day like when he got his stuff stolen at the shelter.

I have questions throughout this walk that hit me at random intervals. There is a fancy men’s clothing store with a black edifice on 27th that you wouldn’t ever think to see and I think it’s by appointment only so maybe that’s the point. What is the purpose of the Primary Purpose Hall? How much are the apartments just west of the interstate, because there are a lot of well-groomed dogs and a fancy restaurant across the street? There was a coin laundry that I saw them repainting dark gray one month and now it looks like it is intended to attract hipsters. Who goes to Bud Olson’s bar? Who did the mural on the VFW? Why did Mother India close? Did the patrons of the Down Under where my beautiful friend hosts open mic night ever go there before walking down to the bar past the Family Dollar and Kwik Shop? I should go to open mic. I should be a better and more attentive friend when this campaign is over.

Primary Purpose Hall – purpose, unknown.

I do a lot of walking every day. I’ll leave work at 3 and go knock on strangers’ doors in neighborhood all over northeast Omaha trying to get their votes. But this is the only walk where I have the time to think about everything in my life and the lives of everything around me, that doesn’t have the stress and anxiety of an interaction where the premise is that I am possibly disturbing the sanctity of someone’s home. I can think about the people in the property management building and if they’re wondering how to make money off the people we serve or if they’re concerned as to how to help them. The two antique stores only two blocks from each other and whether their owners get along. What a beautiful thing it is for the Kent Bellows studio to exist and to have a mentoring program and to have trees outside along the walk. A nice park. The guys working in the nondescript Cyrgus building who sit in the open garage door in between shifts opening big blue barrels labeled “Swine Fetus for Research”, wearing leather aprons of the sort you see in period pieces when the nobility turning up their noses in the village. It smells like formaldehyde every time I walk past here and if you look you can see a big bloody table in the back and guys transferring balls of blood and sinew at the end of meat hooks so that doctors and students across the street at UNMC can work on the cleaner versions later. The construction workers who look startled and then annoyed that I’m walking through their space. I don’t want to be here either, guys, but it’s either this or walking through the gigantic game of chicken going on every minute on Leavenworth since you closed the sidewalk with no warning and there aren’t safe crosswalks anywhere in this city except maybe in Dundee and select parts of Benson.

My destination is on the left – a low building that takes up the block and is full of people who work every day to notice the ignored in our community much like my starting point back on 24th. When I get there, I will pass the designated smoking area where clients gather to find a moment of peace in the often chaotic realities of a life on the brink struggling with mental illness and poverty in a city that prioritizes neither. I will get in a Subaru in a few minutes, load up the trunk with water bottles and socks and granola bars and hygiene items if we have them and blankets and gloves and handwarmers if it’s cold, and I’ll sit in the backseat and listen as people who have been doing this far longer than me explain their frustrations and their triumphs and we look for people who might need help, trying to notice the places where people who are unnoticed might be.

In walking you notice more, wonder more, understand the necessity of pockets. And all the people you see are more than just a passing feature and they are all their own daily wonderment and bewilderment and they all matter. So I think sometimes that walking this route is a rebellion against instant gratification and against our propensity to ignore what we pass at 40 mph and against the tyranny of orange cones and glass-strewn sidewalks and short-sighted urban planning and maybe it is a reminder of every little daily act of humanity that we can notice or forget.