It is summer in Omaha, which means it’s also commuter challenge season. This year we have the opportunity to participate in two challenges: First is Activate Omaha’s well-established and highly popular Bicycle Commuter Challenge, which runs for five months and is singularly focused on biking. New to the fray is Metro and MAPA’s Metro Commuter Challenge, which asks participants to carpool or take the bus from July 9–August 3.

I have mixed feelings about participating in these challenges.

On the one hand, it draws great attention to a few excellent and sustainable means by which to commute. In Omaha, approximately 96% of commuters move about alone in their traditionally-fueled vehicle. That’s preposterously high and clearly shows why the quality of our air is declining*. These programs also get people thinking about their commute and how they might pursue a more sustainable, healthier and less expensive alternative to their normal, lonely drive.

On the other hand, as someone who often commutes by bus and bike, I almost feel like I’m being punished by having to log every trip. Maybe we should consider asking the other 96% to log how many miles they travel, how much they’re spending on gas, and what their emissions are. As someone who used to almost exclusively commute alone in my car, I can reasonably assume that most people don’t track the financial or environmental impact of their commute. Doing so might open a few eyes.

The timing of the Metro Commuter Challenge is interesting in light of the Brookings Institute report that was released yesterday, which found that 76.2% of jobs in Omaha are accessible by public transportation, but only 28.5% of metro-area workers can get there in 90 minutes or less. Yes, you read that right: 90 minutes. How long is your commute? And we wonder why more people aren’t using public transportation in Omaha.

Metro's system provides access to 76% of Omaha businesses

To Metro‘s credit, they’re doing a great job with the ridiculously low budget they have. And the access figures referenced above are right on par with what Brookings found when studying the service provided by 371 transit authorities nationally. That doesn’t make it right, it just makes it normal.

The Nebraska Medical Center and the University of Nebraska Medical Center (yes, two separate entities…the hospital and the university) are particularly interested in seeing Omaha’s alternative transportation landscape improve. They’re expecting a major pinch on their parking infrastructure in the next five years, and we’re excited to be helping them think about how they can minimize that pressure without immediately defaulting to building new surface lots or structured parking. Both are helping fund and participating in the Midtown Transit Alternatives Analysis, further evidence of their commitment to improved transit in the area.

When all is said and done, I’m happy to participate in both of these challenges, and I truly hope that it’s one small way that we can continue to improve the alternative transportation landscape in Omaha. But if that #11 bus doesn’t show up once more, I’m not sure what I’ll do.

Onward and upward.

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*Special note: The June 8, 2012 Omaha World Herald article regarding Omaha’s air quality included this list of “Things you can do to lessen ozone:”

gas up your car and mow your lawn after 7 p.m.; stop filling your vehicle when the nozzle first clicks off; and avoid using gasoline-powered small engines. In other words, sweep your driveway and rake your leaves rather than use 
a leaf blower.

Seriously!?! No mention of getting out of your car and walking, biking, bussing, carpooling, working from home or otherwise limiting single-occupancy vehicle trips. While I’m pleased the Herald covered the story, it’s ridiculous that the reporter didn’t offer better options for Omahans to make a difference.