Tag Archives: commute

Let’s Talk About Omaha’s Projected Commute Times

29 Jun

In Sunday’s edition of the Omaha World Herald, a story ran summarizing current and projected commute times in Omaha. In short, Omaha’s standing as a 20-minute city (for automobile commutes, that is) appears to be in jeopardy.

The article rightly points out that Omaha is beginning to better understand its transportation needs, but we took issue with a few things in the article. The most important of which is the assertion that the central goal for transportation engineers and roadway designers should be to move cars as quickly as possible in all cases.

​Automobile level of service (LOS) should not be the ultimate determinant in street design. The similarity of the A – F ratings to grades in school is unfortunate. When it comes to street design, sometimes a C is actually better than an A. In many cases, you want a lower vehicle speed; so a little congestion can be a good thing. Maple Street through Benson is a perfect example. LOS A ​would be horrendous (even though the street serves as a state highway). The slower stop-and-go traffic fosters an environment friendlier to and safer for people walking between the various shops, restaurants, and bars. It has allowed the place to come alive.

In addition, commute time projections are based on models that aren’t perfect. The MAPA model referenced in the article does a less than average job of incorporating transit and non-motorized ​transportation (or so we hear). Many models fail to adequately account for the shift between transportation modes that comes with changes in congestion or increased availability of higher quality transit or bicycle facilities. They also often fail to consider people who walk or bike for trips other than their work commutes and assume a never-ending growth in driving. Because of this, there is a national movement afoot to challenge traffic projections.

The article also points to mixed support for transit funding, but survey data obtained through the Heartland 2050 Vision show that there is slightly greater local support for investment in public transportation than the national AP poll cited. Transit is an important investment we’ve been skimping on for years. Metro is grossly underfunded. It receives just $36 per capita compared with a median of $56 per capita for similar sized cities across the country. Increased funding will improve service. Better service grows ridership, which means folks leave their cars at home; thus resulting in less congestion. Better transit also changes the character of our commutes. Twenty minutes reading a book on transit sure beats twenty minutes of driving in heavy traffic.

Still, as our city gets to a more sustainable shape with denser urban development and walkable/bikeable/transit-friendly neighborhoods, the automobile travel times for getting all the way across town will likely increase a bit. But here’s the thing: that’s actually OK. It’s that sort of discomfort that motivates us to actually live in areas that are closer to where we work, where we shop, and where we hang out. It’s also that pressure that inspires businesses to open up closer to where we already live. Ultimately, it’s a quality of life issue, and as our windshield time increases, we begin looking for ways to improve our lives by decreasing or eliminating that typically undesirable part of our lives.

Omaha is indeed seeing its transportation needs in a new light. The vision set out through the Heartland 2050 process could help us create a better community for all of us, if cities take the report’s recommendations to heart. And improvements in transit service and a forthcoming Complete Streets policy mean that getting around without a car will be easier and safer.

However, the article’s central premise that a small increase in the average commute time for drivers is a major cause of concern is misguided. There are more important functions for a city than moving cars quickly. Mainly, we need to create places that are worthwhile to be, not just places to drive through. We need to stop assuming that the amount each of us drives will always increase when we try to envision the future, and we need to understand that there is a limit to what we can do to support automobile travel. It’s time to shift our transportation funding priorities to other modes to provide us with transportation options that are personally and environmentally healthier, and it’s time to shift our mindset away from prioritizing driving speed over all else.


Snow Day: A Tale of Two Commuters

7 Feb

On the morning of February 4, 2015, several inches of snow fell on top of the 6 inches that blanketed Omaha two days earlier. Let’s hear from two citizens coping with the weather.

Snow day

Part 1: The Automobilist

Like every Wednesday, I start early for a 7:00 AM meeting with friends at a local restaurant. I peek out the window: more snow, as expected. But I’m ready for it.

I don my snow clearing clothes and begin my standard operation. Assisted by my trusty snow blower, I clear the fresh snow and I manage to cut a path through the windrow of large frozen chunks that, as usual, the city snow plow left along the end of my driveway.

I leave my car idling while I change into my driving clothes – no need for boots and parka in a warm car – and soon I am on the road. My destination is nearby, but the vicissitudes of Omaha streets force me to drive out of my way to major streets and intersections. Despite the midnight passage of the snow plow, the streets are white and slippery, but thanks to my all-wheel-drive, ABS brakes, and new wipers, I feel safe in my warm cocoon. But I am not alone. A van from a construction company materializes in the morning gloom, spinning its rear tires as it attempts a steep climb. I wait until it sees me and drive around it. Next, a car breaks out of its driveway and skids uncertainly ahead of me. That’s the problem: I do everything to be safe, but I can’t count on others to do the same. I leave the neighborhood, join the slow moving caravan on the major streets, with ponderous traffic light stops.

Cars at Intersection

I close in on my destination and find that the best parking places are taken or piled with plowed snow. I park at a distance, make sure my snow scraper is ready for action when I return – the melting snow will have caked the windshield in ice – and I brave the cold, slippery walk to the restaurant.

I burst into the restaurant with scalding ice crystals melting on my brow. I check my watch: 5 minutes late. I need some coffee. And a big breakfast. I’ll work off the calories later, when I drive to the gym and walk 40 minutes on the treadmill.

Part 2: The Pedestrian

Like every Wednesday, I start early for a 7:00 AM meeting with friends at a local restaurant. I peek out the window: more snow, as expected. But I’m ready for it.

I don my parka, boots, hat and backpack, and I step out the back door. My boots contact the snow with a satisfying crunch. My destination is nearby, a 40 minute walk through neighborhood streets and trails. Crystals settle on my hat and parka. My footsteps are muffled as I walk the empty streets, suffused in a glowing, pearly light. I walk by a construction company’s van, wipers sheathed with ice, attempting to climb a steep grade. It drives off in search of a less inclined alternate route. A car breaks through the icy windrow blocking its driveway, and skids uncertainly out of the neighborhood like a dazed mammoth. Otherwise, I have the streets to myself.

Empty street

I walk straight into the restaurant and shake the snow off my parka and hat. I check my watch: ahead of schedule. I’ll enjoy a well deserved coffee and breakfast.

Part 3: The Comparison

The Automobilist The Pedestrian

  • Parka, boots, hat & gloves (snow clearing clothes)
  • Snow blower (including fuel, storage, and maintenance)
  • All-wheel-drive vehicle (including fuel, storage, and maintenance)
  • Ice scraper
  • Gym membership

  • Parka, boots, hats & gloves (walking clothes)
  • Backpack

  • Snow clearing: 15 minutes
  • Car warming: 5 minutes
  • Drive: 13 minutes
  • Park: 2 minutes
  • Drive to gym: 15 minutes
  • Walk on gym treadmill: 40 minutes

  • Walk: 40 minutes
Total: 1 hour and 30 minutes Total: 40 minutes
Stress & Health

  • Stress: High
  • Health: Average
Stress & Health

  • Stress: Low
  • Health: Excellent

Author’s Note: The pedestrian narrative is from my actual experience. The automobilist narrative is derived by superimposing past experiences on February 4, 2015 — Chris Behr.