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.

Omaha at Human Scale: The Bike Commuter

16 Nov

Scott Ussery is a Mode Shift Omaha member and regular bike commuter who rides from his home in Papillion to his job as a statistician for an insurance company in Omaha.

Scott holding his bike

I use the Strava app to track my mileage, and as of November 5, I’ve ridden 4,200 miles in 2018, a lot of which was my work commute.

On the days I ride, I zigzag through neighborhoods past schools, through the LaVista Sports Complex and then east on Harrison by Seymour Smith Park to the Keystone Trail. At Karen Park I cut over to the South Omaha Trail and ride it all the way to the Field Club Trail. I’ll brave Leavenworth, eastbound, until I can bear north on Turner Blvd. When I get to Harney I can choose to grab a coffee from a favorite local coffee house, or head straight into work at Physicians Mutual Insurance Company. The whole commute is 12-13 miles, one-way, and takes a little over an hour.

The ride home is a little longer. I’ll continue south on the Keystone, past Harrison, to the West Papio trail. Sometimes, I’ll meet up with friends along the route and we’ll finish the commute together. Those are some of the best rides.

I sometimes do a multi-modal commute, cycling up to the Park-n-Ride at Tara Plaza just east of 84th. This is the southern extent of Route 93, the express route serving Papillion and Ralston. I’ll put my bike on the bus’ front rack and ride the bus downtown. In the evening, I’ll ride home on my bike.

Sun halo on the creek levee

When you’re riding your bike, especially early in the morning, you get a totally different perspective than you get from driving in a car. I enjoy the solitude, the opportunity to listen to your environment, see the world from a different vantage point. You get to see how the rising sun creates a halo around your shadow on the creek levee. You hear cardinals and jays call out to one another. Wild turkeys and Canadian geese wander around the trail keeping you vigilant.  

Turkeys on the trail

I like rolling past people’s vintage cars in the neighborhoods, and taking notice of the swelling creeks after a rain. The murals and graffiti under the bridges along the trails are something you can’t see from the roads. And at night you get the moon! A full moon is impossibly bright when you’re riding down the Keystone Trail and the darkness of a new moon is complete.

Moon over the Keystone Trail

Not to say there aren’t challenges to commuting by bike. People driving cars cannot for the life of them accurately judge the speed of someone on a bike. I’ve learned to use routes that have little or light car traffic. I still encounter cars pulling out in front of me or cutting me off to make a turn. It’s a real frustration.

But the frustration isn’t greater than the joys I get from the people I’ve met and got to know on the trails, coffee shops and other watering holes around town. I’ve met lots of riders through past Winter Bike Challenges, Live Well Omaha Commuter Challenges, National Bike Challenges, Corporate Cycling Challenge and various organized coffee rides, charity rides and theme rides. Many of us are “connected” on Strava where we give kudos to one another’s riding efforts, comment about rides, trails or photos and/or plan upcoming rides together. There is an entire two-wheeling community out there and it’s been a pleasure to be a part of it.