Advocates, organizers hopeful new Omaha streetcar will encourage more biking, walking in downtown

WOWT 6 News Live at 10
Published: Jan. 27, 2022 at 10:06 PM CST
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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) - With the news of a streetcar coming to downtown and midtown Omaha, many are excited about other opportunities it may bring with it.

Advocates for active transportation in the metro say it will likely create more pedestrian and bike-friendly streets.

“It just took a minute to kind of process, ‘we’re really going to do this’ you know, so it was exciting, I was definitely surprised,” says Julia Harris, the Executive Director of BikeWalk Nebraska.

“That really caught my attention, my immediate thought was how many bikeshare stations do I have on this proposed route?” says Benny Foltz, the Executive Director of Heartland Bike Share.

“We support anything that replaces a car trip, of course,” Foltz adds. “With so many stations already along that proposed route, we’ll be able to help facilitate what’s called the first-last mile so, you know, when users are getting off the streetcar at those designated spots, they’ll be able to take our bikes to wherever they’re going in downtown or midtown.”

Currently, he says there are about 15 b-cycle stations along the proposed streetcar route.

“[We’ll] certainly keep the current bikeshare stations where they are and potentially add even more, we already have plans to add 12 more bikeshare stations this year at 12 of the ORBT stops and then we have plans to increase our footprint on north and south 24th street, as well as one more on the FIRST AVE trail in Council Bluffs,” he says.

Foltz says he knows more access to transportation that connects to things like bike sharing will encourage more usage, and data from new bikeshare stations at ORBT stops on 10th and Douglas and 19th and Douglas show that riders are using the bikes before and after their bus trips. He says there’s no doubt that the streetcar will have the same effect.

Harris agrees, and thinks the streetcar will help improve safety for active transport, too.

“Every person that’s riding a streetcar is not in a vehicle looking for a parking space downtown, and people in cars looking for parking spaces aren’t always looking for people who are biking and walking, so we know its’ going to make it safer,” she says. “So that’s our main thing, is that the less people we have in cars, the safer it is for people who are walking and biking.”

BikeWalk Nebraska played a major role in the Market-to-Midtown protected bike lane, which is a pilot project along Harney street to identify if the city should incorporate more bike lanes, and how they should work and look. So far, feedback has been positive.

“The city is going to start working on their bike-ped master plan, and we’re going to be helping with that. This is the perfect time, if we know that the streetcar is on the agenda, and we’re looking at bicycle and pedestrian planning, it’s a perfect time to work on all of it together,” she says.

Stephen Osberg, the Director of Transportation and Urban Development for the Greater Omaha Chamber says encouraging other modes of transportation is part of the point of the streetcar.

Osberg has been doing outreach with groups like ConnectGo, gaining insight and information from more than 8,000 community members on topics relating to the streetcar and other modes of transportation.

“One thing we heard about in our outreach with ConnectGo was that people overwhelming want walkable neighborhoods that they can live in, they can walk to work, they can walk other places they want to go, and a key part of that ends up being things you’d think of like sidewalks, but also the public transit system,” Osberg says. “That kind of extends in a way how far you can walk, and a streetcar does that in particular you can just walk on, ride it a few blocks, get off without paying a fare, it becomes this connector to a larger walkable district for the city.”

Osberg says the streetcar has been in talks for more than a decade, but became more of a reality in recent years.

“Yesterday’s announcement with the streetcar is a huge milestone for the region, I think once we talk about putting rail in the ground, that’s a transformative type of project what that can do is really induce a different level of development.”

Osberg and others point to the success cities like Kansas City have had with their streetcar, and how well it works with all other forms of transportation, including driving, walking and biking.

He says building a more expansive biking system is a real possibility for the city’s future.

“I think that once we work on redesigning the corridor for the streetcar, we’re still going to need to think about bicycle connectivity east to west on the corridor, I’m hopeful we’ll take a deeper dive into the configurations for all the streets and expand the bikeway network so it hits more spots instead of just one street.”

Harney’s protected bike lane’s fate still remains uncertain, as the pilot project ends in September of this year. But dedicated bike paths through the city likely aren’t going away just because of the addition of a streetcar.

“I think one thing people don’t think about all the time with streetcars is there are tracks in the ground and if people try to ride bikes on streets with tracks in the ground, their wheels can get stuck so it becomes even more important to provide a protected, separated, dedicated spot for bicyclists when you have a streetcar or light rail line as well,” Osberg says.

Harris, Osberg and Foltz say it’s ice to see community leaders and citizens picture Omaha as a multi-modal city, instead of one that is centered solely around transportation via cars.

“[The streetcar] has always been sort of this pie in the sky, maybe it will happen and maybe it won’t happen, so it’s just exciting to see us moving forward,” Harris adds.

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