Last updated on 08/29/2017

The state of biking in Omaha

Is biking a legitimate public transit option for Omaha?
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Published by Victor Cassone

Promoting biking as public transit option can have a lot of benefits for a city like Omaha. It’s a low cost commuting option that’s available to all income levels. It removes cars from the roadways and allows commuters to quickly connect with established bus routes.

Because of all of these benefits, biking has become growing trend for most cities across the United States. Many cities are investing money in biking incentives and infrastructure. Biking growth has affected coastal cities and midwest cities alike. Since 2000, biking commuters have grown by 130% in Minneapolis and 169% in Saint Louis. This overall upward trend is expected to continue as city governments continue to invest and city residents continue to become more comfortable with biking.

Omaha, in general, isn’t very bike friendly. According to The League of American Bicyclist, Omaha received a Bronze in their Bicycle Friendly Community Awards. This is the lowest tier of the awards. According to the data Omaha submitted to these awards, only 0.2% of the residents of Omaha commute by bike. This ranks Omaha in the mid fifties of America's largest cities.

Omaha’s biggest problem relates to its lack of biking infrastructure and bike friendly lanes. Only 5% of the city’s arterial and major collector streets have bike lanes. This is significantly lower than other more bike friendly cities.

Utilizing biking as a legitimate mode of transportation could have a lot of benefits for Omaha. As stated above, biking is a low cost means of getting around. There is a low barrier of entry to start biking. The cost of a bike is significantly cheaper than the price of a car. There is no gas, parking, or insurance to pay.

City residents could see gains from the health benefits associated with commuting by bike. A massive study from the British Medical Journal showed that people who bike to work tend to live longer and are at lower of heart disease and cancer. The health benefits will also help lower medical costs for the bikers and put less strain on Omaha’s healthcare services.

In the denser parts of Omaha, biking might also be a quicker way to get around. Many trips are faster by bike than by car, especially those under 3 miles. A biker could also link up with existing bus routes. Omaha’s Metro buses allow bikes to be stored on racks outside the bus. The new Bus Rapid Transit line (ORBT) being introduced in 2018 will allow bikes inside the bus which will increase the bus’s overall bike carrying capacity.

The bike and ride system is a great way to increase access to public transit infrastructure. Bikers can ride their bikes to the bus stations and then ride a bus to help decrease travel time. The biker can either leave the bike at the station or bring it on the bus with them. This helps open up bus stations to a wider range of people who aren’t in walking distance. To get the most out of the bike and ride system, the city will need to make sure there is sufficient bike parking and easy trail/street routes leading to each stop.

Omaha’s most bike friendly road paths concentrate near downtown. Omaha’s highest density of bike friendly routes are east of 64th St. and north of Center Rd. Bike friendly doesn't necessarily mean designated bike lanes. It also involves through streets with less traffic. There are few bike specific lanes within this high density area.

The prefered and safest bike lanes for bikers in a city are buffered or protected bike lanes. These lanes are guarded by either buffer space or a physical barriers. However, these types of lanes require designated space on the road. To implement these lanes, the city will need to either increase the width of current roads or cut down on the number of car specific lanes on the road. Both of these options are expensive and/or hard to sell to the public.

An alternative to these designated bike lanes are shared bike lanes (sharrows). Sharrows are one of the cheapest bike lane to implement but also one of the least effective bike lanes a city could implement. Sharrows are essentially regular car lanes that have painted markings on the street to signify that the lane is also a bike route. The goal is to have both motorist and bikers both share these lanes. Based on research from Transportation Research Board, sharrows were found to be ineffective and didn’t increase biking safety. The study found that putting sharrows on roads that aren’t already bike friendly doesn’t make the lanes safer.

Omaha has implemented many sharrows in the past. There is currently around 25 miles of shared bike lanes in Omaha. The city has been trying to move away from using street markings for shared bike lanes. They are favoring a significantly more visible option of bike lane signs. The signs will be put in the ground near the street and will be used to mark bike friendly streets and routes a biker can take.

Outside of the on-road routes, the Omaha metro area provides many off-road biking options. The city has well over 100 miles of off-street trails and there is over 200 miles in the region. However, these trails can not provide access to all the places where people want to go. To reach their full potential, these trails will need to be linked up with a comprehensive on-road bike route system.

Omaha is also doubling down on their bike sharing system. Bike sharing are docks of bicycles that can be rented on a hourly basis. The city is looking to use federal funds to double the number of bike share stations. The city is planning on installing a bike share station at each of the stops for the Bus Rapid Transit line that will be coming online next year. They also want to increase the number of stations available downtown.

There are a lot of advantages to these bike sharing systems. They help tourist have more reach within the city when they visits Omaha. They provide a transportation option for low income areas. They can increase access to established bus routes that normally wouldn’t be available. Lastly, there is relatively low maintenance cost associated with the bikes and the stations. Throughout the United States, bike sharing has been a net positive to the cities that have implemented them.

A big challenge of creating a comprehensive bike system for all of Omaha is the population density divide between west and east Omaha. Commuting by bike in west Omaha is very rare. Neighborhoods and businesses are too spread out for it to be viable. There aren’t many bike routes in western Omaha outside of trails and non street pathways. Even if there was plenty of on-road bike lanes, it’s hard to imagine many people using on-road routes because the distances would be too vast. Investments in biking infrastructure makes a lot more sense for the more compact eastern Omaha.

There are a few general pitfalls that usually prevent biking from being adopted. First is the social cost that comes with biking. Because biking requires physical exertion, most people will need a shower or a change of clothes if they bike to work. It facilities to shower or change aren’t available then people might be discouraged from commuting by bicycle.

Biking can also be risky. Bikers have no protection outside their helmet’s when they get into an accident. Any small mistake by the biker or the driver could be fatal. According to The League of American Bicyclist, in 2014 Omaha had 1305 crashes per 10k biking commuters. This number is slightly inflated since Omaha doesn’t have 10k total biking commuters. Regardless, this number will need to come down for people to be more comfortable biking.

There is a learning curve for a city that is trying to become more biker friendly. Both motorist and biker will need to learn how to share the road.

This could be a problem for Omaha moving forward. People in western Omaha are more likely to use a car as their main source transportation. Problems could arise as they drive into the urban areas of the city. People in western Omaha will take longer becoming comfortable driving with bikers on the road. Especially when biker and motorist are sharing the same lanes.

Moving forward, the city has been planning a few bike projects. They are looking to connect 24th from Leavenworth St down to L St. There is also a project in the works to connect 30th and Cummings St up Ames Ave. Based on the 2017 city budget, the city wants to convert Leavenworth Street from 31st to 37th from four car lanes to three cars lanes with bike lanes going each way.

Progress is being made but it will take a good amount of work to make biking a popular commuting option for Omaha. Based on the successes of other cities, the positives of biking appear to outweigh negatives. Lack of infrastructure and motorist education will be a huge factor in preventing Omaha from being a truly bike friendly city.