“Forty-two years ago America put a man on the moon, making transportation history. But at that time, Neil Armstrong could not walk safely to work.” Jim Oberstar, former Minnesota congressman and keynote speaker at the 2011 Heartland Active Transportation Summit, set the stage for the importance of safe modes of alternative transportation in front of over 200 registrants at the Scott Conference Center.

The Summit, featuring Oberstar and other planning, cycling and engineering experts, helped show how transportation planning is changing throughout the country. Active transportation modes, such as walking, biking and public transit, are key players in the change. In order to engage and educate the Omaha public about the importance of these healthy changes, the Metropolitan Area Planning Agency (MAPA) organized the two-day Summit for September 30-October 1st. Friday’s sessions focused on planning improvements and best practices aimed at planning professionals, while Saturday engaged citizens and other community members interested in promoting active transportation. “We’ll spend two productive days looking at the elements and principles of active transportation planning and project delivery,” said the MAPA website. “We will explore what other cities and regions have done and are doing, and forging new partnerships between the public, private and non-profit sectors.”

Friday was fast-paced and informative. Paul Mullen, the Executive Director of MAPA, along with Mayor Suttle and Chief of Staff Steve Oltmans, gave the welcome address. In the midst of keyboards, pens and cameras clicking, the first lecture was given by Theo Petritsch of the P.E. Sprinkle Consulting Group. He discussed the importance of safety and liability in active transportation investment.

One of the most engaging discussions was an overview of best practices. Representatives from Minneapolis, Minnesota, Kansas City, Missouri and Madison, Wisconsin, shared their planning activities and gave Omaha planners and city officials guidance on how to improve our transportation plan. Minneapolis managed to be named the number one most bicycle friendly city in the nation despite debilitating winters. Kansas City offers healthy public transit. Madison, with its shared bike lanes and bicycling community events, had 7,692 bike commuters in 2010. The discussion was lively and energetic, including good-natured Husker game-day jabs from the Mayor of Madison, Dave Cieslwicz. After showcasing Madison’s impressive efforts to promote bicycling, including 55 miles of bike routes for over 5,000 cyclists, he encouraged Omaha commuters to look at bicycling as a primary method of getting around. “Cycling is not just for the spandex-clad racer,” he said. “But for the mother that needs to get groceries for her family. There need to be accessible modes of commuting.”

Oberstar, former congressman and chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, gave the most inspiring speech of the session. With nearly 35 years experience he is an advocate for active transportation. His talk emphasized the importance of “multimodalism” in planning, as well as why it should remain in discussions on a new reauthorization of a Federal transportation bill.

The applause kept coming as the League of American Bicyclists presented an award to the City of Omaha. “In honor of your work in making Omaha a more bike friendly city,” said presenter Krista Rettig, Brand Manager of Trek Bicycle, “The League is proud to award you with a bronze level community award.” Omaha was one of 11 cities to be given this award this month.

Though Omaha may have some hurdles to cross in making alternative modes of transportation safe and available, the national audience is seeing the strides Omaha is making towards these changes. “I believe all of the ideas will be taken seriously and implemented from the summit,” said city Sustainabilty Planner Ryan McClure. “The engineering, planning and advocacy communities all had a great showing today and will work together to weave the fabric for a sustainable Omaha.”

And the work is just beginning. Rows of shared bicycles lining Aksarben Village have seen 350 members logging over 1,000 trips. Twelve miles of on-street bike lanes have been implemented in Omaha, with more on the way. Carlos Morales, the bicycle and pedestrian coordinator, and described by Rettig as “a gift to the Omaha community,” has worked to secure funding for even more bike lanes, trails and other ways to make cycling safer. Omaha may not be at the top yet, but we are on the way to create a sustainable transportation system for future generations. “The Summit featured a lot of research and best practices around the country,” said Dr. Angela Eikenberry. “When you look at the data on safety, health, and economic development, it’s clear that Omaha needs to offer better active transportation options–transit, biking, walking—through design and planning that engages citizens in the process.”

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