EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated to include that Omaha City Council President Pete Festersen announced plans on Aug. 22 to amend the city’s budget to make the lane permanent.
The first results from an 18-month pilot study for Omaha’s first protected bike lane are in: about 20,000 rides took place along the nearly 2-mile long route between midtown and downtown. The influx contributed to a 30% growth in biking citywide from 2019 to 2022 spurred by the pandemic “bike boom.”
Advocates for the Market-to-Midtown Bikeway, which launched in June 2021 and runs along Harney Street from 10th Street to Dewey Park, say the results indicate Omahans want more ways to get around the city. And while the project’s future is officially undecided as it’s not included in city budgets, Omaha City Council President told the Omaha World Herald on Tuesday he planned to introduce an amendment to make the project permanent. Mayor Jean Stothert said she’d likely veto the amendment if it matches one Festersen previously proposed. She said this is still a pilot, and the results aren’t clear.
However for advocates, all signs point to the contrary.
“We need our streets to be safe for all users, not just dedicated to the people driving cars,” said Julie Harris, executive director for Bike Walk Nebraska which partnered on the project with Metro Smart Cities. “… People want to live in a city that has bike and pedestrian infrastructure that makes it a vibrant place to live.”
Pilot study findings also show bike, scooter and other riders used the lane equally across days of the week and that while ridership dipped in the winter months it was still utilized. Harris said this indicates the lane is an asset for commuters. Usage was also 24% higher on the west end of the route, further from downtown attractions.
In all, ridership along Harney Street was up 132% in the project’s early months compared to pre-bike lane years, according to Bike Walk Nebraska.
“For me, the Market-To-Midtown Bikeway has been a dream come true,” said Scott, a cyclist quoted in the report who’s been a bike commuter for almost 20 years. “Much of the time, I am comfortable riding with vehicular traffic, but when my destination aligns with the bikeway, I choose it.”
Data was collected through a variety of sources:
- physical counters along the Bikeway,
- ride tracking app Strava,
- rentals from Heartland Bike Share, Omaha’s bike sharing system,
- and the City of Omaha Parking and Mobility Division to account for scooter usage.
Physical counters were removed during the winter months to avoid damage from snow and ice removal; therefore, data was collected primarily from the other sources during those months. Many counters also had disruptions that affected the data. To account for these disruptions, the average data calculated was scaled up 10 percent, according to the report.
Despite good results, the lane’s future is far from certain. In addition to Festersen’s planned budget amendment, the report’s findings, as well findings from a final report in the fall, will head to the Omaha City Council which could decide whether the project met performance measures. Those include minimal conflict with traffic, businesses and pedestrians as well as effective snow clearance and positive feedback from the community. From there, they can decide whether the project should be a permanent downtown commodity. The report notes that at this time the project’s future is still uncertain but more answers may be available by the time the project releases its full report in the fall.
Other obstacles include the proposed streetcar. Harris said if the streetcar is approved and the route it takes intersects with Harney’s bike lane, it could affect the ability for the Bikeway to operate where it is now. The streetcar’s future has been gaining traction and was included in a draft of the City of Omaha’s Capital Improvement Budget. The Market-to-Midtown Bikeway was not.
Lamp Rynerson, the engineering firm working on this project, also highlighted improvements that should be made if the project were to become permanent. Those include:
- pothole and asphalt repairs to the existing street,
- larger turning radiuses at intersections,
- additional yellow bollards, short posts that separate car traffic from other transit lanes.
The engineering firm also noted that about 70% of the posts and other objects meant to keep cars out of the bike lane came unglued and that about a third of that may be attributed to vehicles hitting them. Because the winter of 2021-2022 was mild, it’s uncertain how the lane and its plastic protections would fair against plows. They’re also still figuring out how snow melt and ice formation will affect the Bikeway.
The bike lane also had other criticism — from overhanging tree limbs to downtown construction that rerouted riders to sewer grates with openings running parallel to the road that could easily catch a tire. But many agree, it’s better than nothing.
“I love, love, LOVE the Harney bike lane,” wrote Michael, another Omahan quoted in the report. “It’s so nice having a protected bike lane, as crappy as it is.”
Harris said if the project were made permanent, it would see a redesign that would address some of these issues.
“The design that’s on the streets now is a temporary design,” Harris said. “[Objects meant to deter traffic] are glued down, not bolted down. Lots of things like that will make it look different now than it would if it was a permanently installed protected bike lane.”
Some other positive findings from the study include higher demand for bike rentals. Heartland Bike Share saw a 69% increase in use and added three stations to their Omaha network.
Along with the bikes, the Bikeway has also shown to be a safe place for scooter riders to be as well. Volunteers in June 2022 manually counted scooter usage along the Bikeway and found that every scooter rider was in the protected lane and not on the sidewalk, which was an improvement from previous years.
Overall, the pilot program has seen riders reroute from surrounding streets to Harney for use of the protected bike lane, according to data from Strava.
For many, the bike lane’s permanency would indicate a huge step forward for cycling in Omaha. The project started taking shape more than a decade ago with artist renderings of thick concrete planters to protect riders from traffic. Sarah Johnson, former Membership Coordinator for transit advocacy group Mode Shift Omaha, watched the project languish along with Omaha’s bike opportunities, she told The Reader’s podcast earlier this year. In 2022, the city ranked 78 in its bikability out of the nation’s 200 biggest cities, according to LawnStarter. Cities like Chicago, Des Moines, Minneapolis and Lincoln all rank higher than Omaha. Kansas City ranks much lower at 148. Nebraska is also ranked as the second-to-worst state for biking in America, a slight improvement from previous years.
When it finally came to fruition, Johnson was encouraged even though the infrastructure left a lot to be desired. But it’s not quite cause for celebration: it’s still absent from the city’s Capital Improvement Budget and its future isn’t guaranteed.
For Harris, this Bikeway shows there’s demand for more bike infrastructure, but it can’t be a one-and-done solution.
“Even as successful as this pilot has been, it will be limiting until we have a network of protected bike lanes in the area,” Harris said. “You have to be able to go places other than just east and west on Harney Street. Our hope is that this not only shows proof of concept and that it gets permanently installed, but that it’s the beginning of the installation of more of these types of lanes.”
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