Archives for category: Transportation choice
Erastus Benson

Erastus Benson

by Ken Mayer

Some years ago, a friend of mine asked me, over lunch, if I thought the city would ever have a light rail system. Before I could answer, we heard a shout from across the dining room to the effect of “You bet we will!” It was the voice of Omaha’s irrepressible former Mayor Hal Daub.

In 2003, the light rail proposal was defeated by a single vote before the city council.

In many ways, the history of Omaha has been a history of transportation. Edward Creighton and promoter George Francis Train were largely responsible for the city landing the eastern terminus of the transcontinental railroad. By 1872, the Union Pacific had opened the first railroad bridge across the Missouri River to Omaha.

Meanwhile, in 1867, Ezra Millard, Andrew Hanscom and Augustus Kountze formed the Omaha Horse Railway Company to provide service in the city. By the late 1870s, the line had five miles of track and 495,000 passengers annually. The city even boasted a cable car between 1884 and 1895. An electric streetcar system was built by Erastus Benson between Omaha and Benson specifically to promote that suburb’s development.

I had a bit of a flashback to Benson’s development tactic the other day as I listened to Omaha City Planning Director Rick Cunningham speak at a meeting of Downtown Omaha Inc.

Cunningham, as a kid, frequented downtown, as I did. Most Saturdays, my friend and I would board the #8 bus for a day of shopping and dining in the Central Business District. We frequented such elegant bistros as the Woolworth’s lunch counter or the Virginia Café. We spent hours in Brandeis or Keiser’s book store and, weather permitting, walked across the Douglas Street Bridge to World Radio for whatever electronic gizmos we needed.

But I digress. Cunningham reported that there are currently about a thousand new housing units planned or under construction in downtown. This adds to about a thousand now online and a step toward the target of some 5,700 called for in the master plan.

Of course, a city planning director has a whole city to think about, and one of Cunningham’s notion’s that struck me as particularly interesting was the virtual expansion of the Central Business District to the west.

This could be accomplished by what the planners now refer to as “Transit Oriented Development.” It seems quite similar to what Erastus Benson was up to over 100 years ago. Benson knew he couldn’t develop his 900 acres of farmland, nine miles out of what was then Omaha, if people had no way to get there.

Today, the situation is reversed. Over the last few years, the places we live and work and play have been developed. They just need to be connected.

Cunningham spoke about a study under way to look at the feasibility of connecting the dots,so to speak. The nodes could comprise downtown, Midtown Crossing, the Med Center, UNO, Aksarben Village and the Crossroads.

This seems to me to be a great way to connect and expand the old urbanism of downtown to the new urbanism of neighborhoods to the west.

Note as well that the word “transportation” is being used. As much as I love riding a train, thinking only in terms of the romance of light rail may be shortsighted. One of the most often cited and classic business mistakes was committed when the railroads saw themselves strictly as rail carriers, not as transportation companies.

A system of transportation connecting the nodes would have to accommodate all transportation modes. That means pedestrians, bicycles, buses, trains and yes, even cars would all have to coexist safely in the corridors.

And while we are at it, why not throw communication into the mix? I’d be much more likely to board a bus if I knew my tablet could access a Wi-Fi network during the entire trip. Even if I’m on my bike, getting weather updates, movie times or where the best snacks are would make the trip much more fun.

We have opportunities as a city to leap forward in many respects by utilizing proven technology and big picture thinking. It’s nice to see that some of the bureaucrats get it.

Ken Mayer’s monthly column, The Public Space, appears on the Omaha by Design web site.


Editor’s Note: David Levy, a partner at Baird Holm, serves as chair of the Omaha by Design Advisory Committee. Curt Simon, executive director at Metro, challenged committee members to try riding the bus. If you’d like to submit a post for the density project, contact Omaha by Design.

by David Levy

Curt Simon offered a free bus pass to anybody willing to use it. I took him up on it, but it took me nearly a month to use it because of difficulty due to needing a car during the day and linked trips. But recently, I had a day with only one meeting out of the office, and I could ride with a colleague to that. So I decided to take up Curt’s challenge.

planning my trip

I used Metro’s website to plan my trip. It was very easy. You type in the addresses at each end, the time and day of your trip, and voila. It uses Google Maps, so the interface is very familiar.

my trip to work

Like a rookie, I left home at 7:05 for a 7:20 bus. The walk to my stop only took three minutes. It was a beautiful morning and an enjoyable walk.

I arrived at the bus stop at 7:08. Contrary to the stereotype of buses never showing up, here comes my No. 2 (granted, it was the one prior to the one I was planning on taking, but it was right on time).

I realized, however, that I was on the wrong side of 54th Street, so I hurried across. There was one other person at the bus stop when I arrived.

There were about 12 people on the bus at that point. The driver immediately recognized that I had no idea what I was doing with the pass, and he was very helpful. The bus was warm, clean and comfortable.

From 54th and Dodge, we headed east. A few stops later, we paused near the Medical Center for a couple of minutes, presumably to let the schedule catch up to us.

After our pause, we made our way back to Dodge and resumed the trip eastbound. Looking around, I noticed about 20 people on the bus. It looked like some high school kids, many people going to work and a few with suitcases, perhaps heading to the airport. I heard at least one foreign language as well.

Near Midtown Crossing, I noticed the bus stops in the right lane of Dodge and wondered about turnouts in some key locations such as that. The bus shelter there was very nice, however.

After about 10 stops and 16 minutes, we arrived at 19th and Douglas. I disembarked and headed for my office. But first, I stopped at a restaurant, which I would not have done had I been in my car. Although not good for my waistline, this demonstrates that riding transit can be good for Omaha’s economy in many ways.

my trip home

It felt like my days working in San Francisco – checking the bus schedule as I finished up work, anticipating catching that bus home. I left my office about 4:20 (hey, it was Friday after all!) and headed for 18th and Dodge. I waited about 10 minutes (my fault, not Metro’s) for another clean, comfortable bus. This bus also had about 12 people on it. The route was about the same, although we seemed to stop a bit more frequently than we had in the morning. Another 16 minutes, and I was at my stop. Another nice three-minute walk, and I was home.

In reflecting on my ride, one thing that struck me was that I noticed things I have never noticed before, despite passing by hundreds of times. This included houses in my own neighborhood, the Modern Arts Midtown and the vast openness that is Douglas east of the S curve.

Overall, I give high marks to Metro. The service was prompt and quick, the buses were clean and comfortable. The trip was easy and enjoyable. I hope to ride the bus more, but I use my car quite a bit during the work day. If I can find days where I do not need it, however, I will seriously consider taking the bus.

The University of Nebraska Medical Center is included in the Central Omaha Transit Alternatives Analysis.

What would you do to improve moving in and around Omaha’s urban core?

Metro and the City of Omaha want to know. The partnership has launched the Central Omaha Transit Alternatives Analysis to develop and evaluate potential transit alternatives in the corridor between downtown Omaha, midtown Omaha, the University of Nebraska Medical Center, the University of Nebraska at Omaha, and the Crossroads and Aksarben Village areas. The study, projected to take the next 18 months, will:

  • Analyze the mobility needs in the area
  • Identify and compare the costs, benefits and impacts of various transit alternatives

At its conclusion, locally preferred transit alternatives will be recommended for future evaluation.

So if you live, work or spend time in any of these areas, here’s a suggestion – give Metro and the city your feedback. If you’ve never ridden a city bus in your life, tell them why. Better yet, hop aboard one and then document your experience. Take a few moments to learn the difference between enhanced bus service and bus rapid transit and the modern street car.

Yes, it’s another study, but it’s also another chance to express your point of view and lobby for the options you’d be willing to support. You might learn something in the process – something that changes the way you commute, get downtown for dinner or take in a movie at Aksarben Village. It might even make you rethink where you live in the city.

Your first opportunity is an open house set for tonight, May 30, from 5:00 to 7:00pm at the Thompson Alumni Center at UNO. You can also leave your ideas – and vote on others – at, follow them on Facebook, join their email list, email the partnership at, or call them at 888.692.2678.

Mode Shift Omaha threw a party on May 1 this year, and everyone was invited.

The grassroots group, which supports choice in transportation for everyone, hosted an event at 25th and Harney that also doubled as the final open house for the City of Omaha’s Transportation Master Plan. The goal – to solicit feedback on the plan prior to its consideration by the Omaha Planning Board and Omaha City Council, and to get attendees to begin to imagine what that area could be like.

Omaha by Design signed on to help with the latter. We conducted a mini Place Game exercise and asked those in attendance to do two things:

  • Evaluate Harney Street between 24th and 26th according to four criteria, which rank responses on a scale of 1 to 5 (1 being “strongly disagree” and 5 being “strongly agree”);
  • Suggest potential improvements that could be made in both the short- and long-term.

Seventy-one attendees completed the exercise, and here’s what they thought:

  • They ranked the area’s access and linkage (identifiable from a distance, walkable, bikeable, accessible by mass transit, clean information/signage) as its highest asset with an average score of 2.9.
  • They ranked the area’s comfort and image (attractive, feels safe, clean/well maintained, comfortable places to sit) and sociability (people in groups, evidence of volunteerism, sense of pride and ownership, children and seniors present) in the middle with average scores of 2.2.
  • They ranked the area’s uses and activities (good mix of activities, frequent community events, area is busy, encourages physical activity, area is vital economically) in last place with an average score of 2.1.

Suggestions for improvements ranged from adding trash and recycle bins to turning empty lots into pocket parks to creating walking and biking paths that connect Midtown Crossing with the Old Market. Many of the ideas focused on transportation choice.

Transportation choices give people the freedom to walk and take a bus, trail or bicycle for all or part of their daily travel. Density helps create choice by providing the ridership needed to make bus and rail transit a viable and competitive transportation option.

Thoughts? Post ’em here.