Omaha, Nebraska

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Our home to share our thoughts and host an (e)discussion about the opportunities sustainability presents and how our world will be changing as a result. From savvy strategies for clients to our fleet of Schwinn 10-speeds and everything in between; we invite you to the conversation and hope that we can explore together.

Omaha’s downtown parking system is poised to undergo some significant changes, as reported today by the Omaha World Herald. In short, the City’s parking consultant, Walker Parking Consultants, found the following:

  • that city-owned garages aren’t used enough, are too expensive, and are losing money
  • drivers circle endlessly after 5pm and on the weekends to search for free on-street parking
  • city management of downtown parking is fragmented (Public Works manages the curbside meters while the golf division of the Parks and Recreation Department manages the garages. Yes, you read that right, the golf division.)

Naturally, Walker’s recommendations respond to their findings. Their primary recommendations:

  • lower rates at city-owned garages
  • eliminate time limits on how long cars can be parked at meters
  • decrease hourly meter rates in low-demand areas and increase rates in high-demand locations
  • expand meter enforcement hours
  • attach credit card devices to parking meters
  • consider a “graduated system” of parking ticket fines

While I’m totally in favor of decreasing the amount of time that people dawdle around in their car looking for a spot (full disclosure: I do it too), I’m hopeful that these soon-to-come and much needed changes to the system are but one piece in a much more complicated puzzle. I haven’t seen the study, but my assumption is that it assumes the number of cars that head downtown on your average Friday night will likely stay the same or increase in the years to come. That’s probably true, unfortunately, but planners need to be thinking about different ways of getting Omahans to their downtown destination. The good news: they are.

The City is about to wrap up its Transportation Master Plan, which, among many other things, considers transportation demand management strategies that get people out of their cars and onto bikes, busses and their feet. This idea that Omahans are addicted to their cars and unwilling to use public transportation or some other mode of transport is hogwash, and given the anticipated climb in gas prices this summer (five bucks per gallon, anyone?), we should expect people to be searching for alternatives to driving alone in their good ol’ reliable Wagon Queen Family Truckster.

Finally, I want to be clear about one thing: there is NOT a lack of parking downtown. The study found that only 54 percent of available parking in the Old Market is used on a busy evening. For those of you complaining about parking downtown, try finding an affordable and available spot in Chicago, Boston, or any other major metropolitan city. We all collectively need to change our expectations a bit. It’s not reasonable to expect to arrive at your destination five minutes before the curtain goes up and expect a free spot right in front of the door.


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We are really, really lucky. Day in and day out, we get to do what we love for people that we really respect. It’s a gift that we absolutely recognize and don’t take fror granted. Which is why just over a year ago we created LOVErdis. It’s our mechanism for giving back. And today, on Valentine’s Day, we want nothing more than to sprinkle a little love throughout the community.

There are basically two components to LOVErdis: First, straight up cash. We’ve created a charitable giving account with the Omaha Community Foundation wherein we manage all of our “LOVErdis making”. While we’re not the biggest corporate donors in the country, every little bit helps. And those organizations we’ve supported thus far are always extremely grateful to receive our donation. Since creating LOVErdis, we have supported the following organizations:

Our 2012 plan for giving is pretty well sketched out. We choose twleve every year. Each Verdis team member gets the opportunity to independently select one organization, and then we all must agree on the remaining seven. Gifts are made monthly.

The second element of LOVErdis is about sweat equity. We want to escape from Verdis HQ and spend some time in the community doing good. We all do this individually, but our plan is to do it as a team. Internal discussions about what to do are just getting started so we would love input from anyone. Where should we go? What should we do? Adopt a garden? Paint-a-thon? Jump Rope for Heart? All ideas are welcome! Help us determine where to spread our seeds of LOVErdis.

Happy Valentine’s Day!


The per-gallon gas tax has not kept up with inflation, and as vehicles once again become more fuel-efficient (or run on electricity) and people drive less, the highway fund struggles to keep up. Officials in Oregon have been looking for a way to replace the per-gallon gas tax for about a decade. In particular, they have been considering a mileage-based tax under which roadway users would pay for how much they use the roads, rather than how much gasoline they buy.

This story from the blog features an interview with the manager of Oregon’s Road User Fee pilot program. The program has been exploring several mechanisms and structures for collecting a mileage-based fee from roadway users. After a few failed pilots, they think they have the program figured out and that it can pass through the Oregon legislature this year for implementation by 2014. Some features of the proposed system are:

  • platform independent and able to evolve with technology
  • a fee of 1.56¢ per mile (based on $0.30/gal tax and 21 mpg vehicle)
  • flexible payment options
  • GPS not required
  • option for paying a flat annual fee for a mileage limit
  • online reporting options

In spite of the several pilots and long evolution of the proposed system, much skepticism remains about the ability of the program to function, let alone gain approval by the Oregon legislature. Either way, this is a great example of states acting as “laboratories of democracy” attempting to find solutions to nation-wide problems, whether they succeed or not.

What do our readers think about a mileage-based tax? Is it more fair than a fuel tax? Will it provide the funding needed to maintain our roads? Is it politically feasible?

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Gallup CEO Jim Clifton keynoted the Omaha Chamber of Commerce annual meeting this week. It was the first time I’ve had the opportunity to hear him speak, and two things became very clear early in his address: 1) he’s an extremely witty guy that would be an absolute treat to sit and have a beer with, and 2) he is unbelievably sharp. Neither are a surprise, of course. He is the CEO of Gallup, after all, and has brought the organization to new heights since taking the helm in 1988.

His comments on Wednesday were based on his most recent book, The Coming Jobs War, an exploration of how every countries’ ability to create jobs and grow their economy directly affects the success of their nation in many other metrics. While I’ve not read the book (yet), Clifton provided a great overview of the issue and touched on what business and government leaders should be doing to win the jobs war. I’m an economics geek, so I found it fascinating. Let’s explore a bit further, shall we.



Priority #1: A Good Job
First, it’s important to understand just how important jobs are not only for Americans but for all the world’s inhabitants. Several decades ago, Gallup polling found that most Americans’ top priorities were peace and family, which makes perfect sense given that we were fresh out of WWII. But a major shift has occurred in our top priority: it’s now having a good job. This changes everything, Clifton explained, because nearly every big decision people make is impacted by their desire to have a good job. How many kids to have, where to live, when to get married, etc. And it also impacts how business leaders manage their employees because people are now defined by their job.

The shift in priorities is not unique to the U.S. Gallup found that of the world’s 5 billion adults, 3 billion said their primary desire in life is a good job, yet there are only 1.2 billion jobs in the world. Again, at the global level, this is huge. It alters geopolitical strategies. It increases tension in nearly every country, especially those that are a bit unstable. Clifton explained that the last several decades have seen about two revolutions per year. We’re blowing that average out of the water these days (Arab Spring, anyone?).

The United States as the (current) world economic leader
The next important element to keep in mind is the United States’ position in the world economy hierarchy. We are head and shoulders above everyone. It’s not even close. Our GDP is around 15 trillion. China’s is 5 trillion. Our military spending alone is about the same as Russia’s entire GDP. This affords us the ability to basically run the show. Economic dominance, Clifton said, equates to world dominance. And he’s right. Every country wants to do business with us. If they upset us, we drop a few economic sanctions (or just the threat of economic sanctions) on them, and we get what want. Lickity split. In other words, it’s really, really important that we maintain our position as the world’s economic leader.

But that’s not so easy, and many economists are predicting that in thirty years, China will overtake us. That spells trouble. The remainder of Clifton’s comments focused on what business and government leaders should be doing to ensure that the U.S. maintains its position as the world’s economic leader (as measured by GDP). The long and short of it is: 1) we need to support entrepreneurs, not innovators; 2) good policies help businesses create customers, not jobs; and 3) we must help one another in our paths to success. I agree with him on all accounts.

So by now, if you’re still with me, you might be wondering how all this relates to sustainability. An excellent question.



I’m not trying to fool anyone into thinking that I’m as intelligent or knowledgeable as Jim Clifton. I’m not. But I do have three beefs with our current economic model.

The idea of constant growth is flawed
It seems that everyone is always out for more growth. Businesses. Cities. Economies. Children. It’s a flawed concept. Sometimes growth just for growth’s sake is highly counter-productive. Should businesses always expect 5% growth every year? Is it always ideal for a city’s population to grow? The United Nations projects that the U.S. population growth rate will continue declining and will be just a hair above 0% by the end of the 21st century. If population growth slows to such a snail’s pace, can every city really expect to continue growing? Assuming that everything must constantly be growing ignores one of the most fundamental rules of the world: in order for growth to occur, we must have the resources necessary to support it. Resources are limited, folks, and at some point our growth might outpace how quickly natural resources are replenishing (if it hasn’t already).

The U.S. GDP relies too heavily on consumers and consumerism
Our nation’s economy is one that relies heavily on consumers to keep it afloat, and we do that by buying lots and lots of stuff. If we stop buying, the economy slows down dramatically. But that pace of consumption means that we’re always buying unnecessary stuff. In April 2011, the Commerce Department reported that American consumers spent an annualized $1.2 trillion on non-essential stuff. The unfortunate part is that, as I noted in a December post, buying all that stuff doesn’t make people happy. Experiences make them happy. And even worse, the environmental impacts of all that stuff are severe. The real question is whether or not we can keep our economy moving forward while buying less junk? I don’t have the answer but we need to figure it out.

GDP doesn’t equate to happiness or well-being
Gross Domestic Product represents the total dollar value of all the goods and services produced over a certain time period. While it’s the best measurement we have for the size of an economy, it doesn’t measure how well off a country is or their citizens’ well-being. Yes, it’s important to have at least enough income to life comfortably but having (and spending) more cash doesn’t translate to being happier. Turns out The Notorious B.I.G. was right when he crooned Mo Money Mo Problems. In fact, in the research paper, Would You Be Happier If You Were Richer?, the  authors reported that “although average life satisfaction in countries tends to rise with GDP per capita at low levels of income, there is little or no further increase in life satisfaction once GDP per capita exceeds $12,000″. Ours is $47,000. While we were at the 2011 Aspen Environment Form, we heard British economist Charles Seaford talk about the need to bag GDP and consider a different metric that measures the extent to which people flourish. Love it. And even better, it looks like he’s already working on it.



Jim Clifton is spot on correct. If our economy isn’t the biggest, baddest thing in the world, we are at risk. We need to pay attention to what he’s saying and ensure that we don’t fall behind. We must also consider other factors rather than just GDP when determining if our nation is successful. I’m sure the world isn’t going to discontinue paying attention to GDP anytime soon, but maybe we ought to actually be working towards making people happy rather than filling their wallets so that they can buy more unfulfilling stuff.


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How do you get people to change their behavior so they act in a more environmentally-friendly way? This is a question that we frequently get asked by our clients who are attempting to shift their organizational culture and motivate employees to reduce the amount of energy and resources they use. As with anything behavior related, there is no simple explanation or answer. Behavior is complex and so is changing it. However, one thing is clear based on research in this field—in order to change and sustain behavior, it’s important to move beyond traditional approaches that strictly focus on boosting awareness and fostering a positive attitude about the behavior.


It is a common misperception that simply informing people about why a specific pro-environmental behavior is important and fostering a positive attitude about the action will directly lead to engaging in and sustaining the behavior. Research has repeatedly shown that general awareness/knowledge and positive attitudes do not highly correlate with environmental behavior change. For example, employees frequently report that they feel it is important to conserve paper (i.e., have a positive attitude). They also claim that they are aware of the positive benefits of double-sided printing and that it’s an option at their workplace (i.e., are generally aware and knowledgeable). Yet, they still do not duplex print at work. But why is this?

As with any behavioral explanation, it depends on the situation and could entail a myriad of reasons. Assuming double-sided printing is available on all machines, it may be that people don’t know how to actually select duplex, and they want to avoid looking foolish or incompetent if they try and fail. People may also think that no one else in their department is duplexing so why should they do it, or they may perceive that their efforts really don’t make a difference given the total amount of paper used by the organization.

Regardless of the reason or combination of reasons, the aforementioned example demonstrates how many people often fail to adopt a pro-environmental behavior even if they see it is as important and are keenly aware of the benefits. This is not to say that generally educating people and trying to instill positive attitudes about environmentally-friendly behaviors are unimportant—these elements are definitely valuable. However, in conjunction with disseminating benefits information and promoting awareness about the behavior, it is critical to also include details and tactics that address human nature, social influence, and any perceived barriers connected to the targeted action.


There are multiple strategies that can be employed and details to consider when trying to promote and sustain behavior change. Having said this, I’d love to talk about them all (yes, I am a behavior nerd). However, for the sake of this blog post, I will only highlight a few (five to be exact) that research has shown to be particularly effective and that take into consideration human nature and perception, as well as social influence.

1. Provide Clear Procedural Instructions: Lack of “how-to” knowledge tends to be one of the most significant barriers for people who are generally willing to engage in a specific pro-environmental activity. Regardless of how motivated people are to perform a given behavior, they typically will refrain from trying it out if the process to complete the action is not clear. In light of this, it’s important to always provide clear procedural steps about how to complete the behavior even if the action appears to be relatively simple.  For example, with the double-sided printing situation discussed earlier, it would be beneficial to post step-by-step instructions on how to select duplex copying near all of the applicable copiers.

2. Model the Behavior: In addition to providing static “how-to” instructions, it can also be beneficial to have someone demonstrate the actual behavior. People are typically more willing to try something when they observe someone else do it first and can subsequently test out the behavior at their own pace and in a “safe” environment where they won’t feel publicly embarrassed if they fumble in their attempts. Video recording someone going through the steps of completing the behavior and making the file accessible online for people to independently view at their leisure is often an effective approach. Referencing the duplex example again, an IT person could video record someone going through the on-screen motions of selecting double-sided printing on their computer. Following promotional efforts that note the availability of the video online, an employee could then access and view the video via his or her own work computer, rewinding as necessary to catch each step.

3. Communicate the Norm: Even though individuals are generally unaware of it, they are strongly influenced by what the majority of people around them are doing or what is perceived to be common behavior. Considering this, if a survey or structured observation indicates that a targeted behavior is generally supported or exhibited by a majority of people in an organization, it is highly beneficial to incorporate this fact into all educational efforts. Communicating this “norm” will strongly influence people who are not engaging in the behavior; the more these individuals perceive themselves as not being a part of the majority, the greater the probability that they will adopt the behavior. Granted, there is a caveat with this behavioral tip. If less than half of the group supports or demonstrates the target behavior, do not advertise this since it will often have a counterproductive effect. This strategy is more about capturing the remaining few that are still not engaging in a targeted behavior versus trying to promote a behavior that is only exhibited by a small minority.

We recently worked with The Nebraska Medical Center (TNMC) to incorporate this strategy into the organization’s Lights Off campaign, which was focused on motivating people to shut off the lights when leaving unoccupied rooms and workspaces. Based on an initial survey of the organization, we found that an overwhelming majority of employee respondents agreed that it was important to save energy at work by shutting off the lights. This “normative fact” was then incorporated into TNMC’s promotional efforts. Mixed with other strategies, such as placing reminder stickers above light switch plates, this approach of communicating the norm helped significantly increase the percentage of employees who regularly shut off the lights.

4. Leverage the Consistency Principle: Generally speaking, people like to act in a consistent manner. Keeping this in mind, it can be very beneficial to ask people to sign some type of informal pledge form indicating that they will engage in the targeted behavior. By signing a pledge and demonstrating an initial level of commitment, there is a good chance people will actually follow through with the behavior due to a general tendency to be consistent with what they have previously promised to do. To further increase accountability and the likelihood of follow through, it’s also advantageous to publicize the names of pledgees in some fashion (assuming you receive their permission). Periodically thanking them for agreeing to engage in the behavior can also help serve as reminder of their commitment, increasing the likelihood that they will follow through and continue engaging in the behavior.

We leverage this consistency principle by creating an online pledge tool for our clients. This tool allows people to select and commit to a few simple pro-environmental behaviors. The name of each pledgee is then placed on a digital wall of honor and grouped with other departmental colleagues who completed the pledge. Automated emails are also periodically sent out to pledgees thanking them for their participation and tactfully reminding them of their commitment to engage in their selected behaviors. An example of this online pledge tool and the wall of honor can be viewed on the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s green team website, entitled UNMC LiveGreen.

5. Provide Feedback: People inherently like to know how well they are doing at something and feel successful. Consequently, providing consistent feedback about progress and advertising the collective impact of people’s efforts can be incredibly beneficial in motivating and sustaining behavior change. In fact, providing individual and/or group feedback is often more effective at sustaining pro-environmental behavior change than providing incentives—a topic I plan to discuss in more depth in my next blog post (in a nutshell, incentives can be great at inciting behavior change, but they often stink at maintaining it).

To view an example of a feedback mechanism that we use with our clients, check out the Omaha Public Schools’ (OPS) tracker tool on the OPS Green Schools Initiative website.  This feedback tool helps OPS visually demonstrate the district’s progress toward its sustainability goals, such as increasing the district-wide ENERGY STAR rating and reducing the total amount of waste produced. Feedback is also provided at the individual school level via quarterly snapshot sheets that are provided to each school, highlighting the progress they’ve each made toward OPS’ overall sustainability goals. As a result of integrating school-specific and district-wide feedback mechanisms with other behavioral strategies, OPS has been able to significantly reduce the amount of energy and resources that the district consumes.


As noted previously, changing behavior is hard. Sometimes really hard. However, this can be viewed as a positive (I realize you may think I’m crazy at this point). If we can get people to change, they will often maintain that change simply due to behavioral inertia—their innate tendency to keep on acting in the same way. In essence, once they make the change, their natural inclination to remain consistent can set in. To promote this initial change and set the stage for maintaining the behavior (i.e., behavioral inertia), it is important to keep in mind that basic information and awareness campaigns are often insufficient at provoking and sustaining behavior change. People typically will not change simply because they are aware of the benefits of the behavior and generally have a positive attitude about it.  In light of this, promotional and educational efforts should incorporate research-supported strategies that take into account social influence and human nature and perception. However, even with some of the more effective strategies that I’ve mentioned, incorporating just one additional strategy is often not enough. Integrating several of these strategies tends to produce the best results and increase the likelihood that people will not only make the change, but also sustain it—the true goal of any campaign focused on promoting environmentally-friendly behaviors.