Omaha: An Emerging Bike-Friendly City

Omaha: An Emerging Bike-Friendly City

...and surviving it.

    

Being an environmentally conscious (and financially-conscious, truth be told) person I've been making an effort to bike more. Save the planet, save some money; sounds like a good thing all around. Omaha has developed, in the last several years, a network of off-street paths and trails specifically for cyclists, runners, etc. The network covers a substantial portion of the city. Several organizations have also arisen to promote and continue to develop Omaha as a bike-friendly community. A great bicycle map of the Omaha Metropolitan area was published in 2008 by ActiveOmaha.org to provide cyclists with a reference for these paths, as well as planned path extensions, streets that might serve as arterials (wide streets with low traffic) etc. They also provide a handy guide for cyclist etiquette and safety in travel which, for a community that has not grown up with a cyclist culture, is not common knowledge.

    However, no matter how many people attempt to promote strong cycling community, and no matter how many bike lanes the city installs on its streets, many people in the community are not yet buying into the idea. In fact, there are many streets in Omaha that, although there is a clearly defined bike lane, I still ride on the sidewalk in places. I know, I know, it's more dangerous to ride on the sidewalk because turning traffic may not see you, etc. Well, I would rather ride defensively on the sidewalk and watch driveways and turning cars than risk being sideswiped by another Midwestern driver pissed off at having to share the road.

    The Midwest loves their cars. They love their urban sprawl, their wide-open spaces, and their freedom to get in their car and drive wherever they want. Although the environmental movement has taken hold and there's an emergent culture of conservation many cities have yet to embrace the urban cyclist. In a Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute Report in 2009, 51,000 cyclists were injured in 2009 and 630 were killed. Of these casualties (deaths and injuries) 69% took place in an urban area, 64% at intersections. These numbers constitute 2% of all traffic-related injuries or deaths.

    Those statistics are easy to point at and say that biking is dangerous, but it's not..not necessarilly. It's the responsibility of drivers to be aware and to share the road, and for cyclists to be responsible in their riding. I often see young college-aged men peeling down a sidewalk without a helmet, or pedal-pubbing from drinking establishment to drinking establishment (I might be guilty of that one myself) although 37% of all cycling fatalities are the result of drinking.

     As a relatively new cyclist in an emerging bike-friendly town, I think cyclists need to be extra vigilant on the roads, use the paths as much as possible, and support those organizations and groups that are actively promoting a bicycle culture. ActiveOmaha has developed a program called Bikeable Communities; an alliance of planners, public officials, shops, governmental departments, and health advocates that want to integrate trails and streets into a balanced transporatation system and improve the bike-friendly nature of the city overall. It's with agencies like these that cities, even those strong commuter cultures, can be gradually transformed to embrace a more balanced, environmentally friendly and active lifestyle.