I have lived in Omaha for more than seven years.
In those seven years, I have never done something that is oh-so-common in New York and Washington, D.C., and even Minneapolis.
I have never once boarded a city bus.
That changed before dawn on a recent Monday, when I drove my car to the Tara Plaza parking lot in Papillion. I climbed on the 93 Express with a dozen commuters and Evan Schweitz, a 27-year-old working hard to change Omaha's attitude about catching the bus.
As the bus chugged away from Tara Plaza, I confessed my mass-transit virginity to Evan, a Metro transit employee. He nodded his head grimly.
“Hear it all the time,” he said. “People say, 'The bus isn't for me.' ”
We think the bus is only for low-income people, for people who don't own cars. But the 93 Express is filled with white-collar and blue-collar alike, looking at their iPhones and drinking coffee as the bus rolls north up 84th Street. We think the bus is dirty. But the 93 Express isn't dirty. It's quite clean. It's actually much cleaner than my car.
And mostly, we think the bus is slow. Why ride a bus to work downtown when you can get there way quicker in your car?
And yet, Evan has promised me that the 93 Express will be pulling up at the corner of 14th and Douglas Streets — mere steps from my workplace — a mere 31 minutes after we depart Papillion. That, quite simply, my preconceptions of the slow bus are in fact bunk.
“I try to get people to try it one time,” Evan says as we pull up to our second stop and pick up more commuters at 84th and Harrison. “Once they do, a lot of people say, 'Maybe the bus is for me.' ”
The 93 Express is, in fact, a test case of sorts to see if Metro can convince residents of Papillion, La Vista and Ralston that the bus is for them.
A quarter-century ago, riders packed buses on the old version of this Sarpy County-to-downtown route. They hopped off at Mutual of Omaha or ConAgra or Union Pacific in the morning and hopped back on and rode home at 5 p.m.
But the years passed, and the riders aged and then began to retire. Younger employees of Mutual and ConAgra and Union Pacific didn't take their places on this bus. They preferred to drive.
And the number of bus riders dropped, and dropped some more, until last year this Sarpy County commuter route averaged only eight riders per bus.
Things got so bad that Papillion, La Vista and Ralston threatened to pull the $21,000 annually that they collectively contribute to keep the commuter bus running.
The three suburbs and Metro came to an agreement of sorts. To me, it sounds like more of an ultimatum delivered to the transit authority: Double ridership in a year. Or else.
Which is where Evan comes in. When he was a student at UNL, Evan spent a study-abroad semester in Fortaleza, Brazil. Fortaleza is a city of 4 million people, packed into an area roughly the size of Omaha's city limits. The main mode of transportation: buses.
Evan grew fascinated by these buses, how efficiently they moved people who lived in this crowded metropolis from home to work and back to home. He grew fond of these buses, because he understood they made life better.
After he graduated from UNL with a degree in community and regional planning, Evan interned for Metro and then snagged his first full-time gig.
Transit coordinator for Omaha's bus system.
|Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha. Read more of their work here.|
“Was this what you wanted to do or just, you know, kind of a job?” I ask.
Evan looks at me like I'm insane.
“It's kind of like a dream job,” he says.
This year, part of Evan's job has been to redraw the 93 Express bus route in a way that doubles the number of riders.
He explains how, as we turn east and speed toward downtown. For starters, the old bus route took too long. He shaved nearly 15 minutes off the route by cutting down the number of stops.
And, maybe as important, Evan also changed the psychology of the ride. The old bus zigzagged through midtown Omaha to drop off passengers, infuriating other passengers who thought, “We're going the wrong way!" — even though a quick turn north or west added maybe only a minute to the route.
The new route goes smoothly north and then east, north and then east, sending a clear message: We're headed straight downtown.
The 93 Express is carrying 22 passengers now — only seven short of seated capacity — as it pulls up to Midtown Crossing and begins to drop off people at work. But it's not until we hang a final right onto Douglas Street that I realize something both amazing and dreadful.
I'm almost at work.
We pull up and stop on Douglas Street at 7:16 a.m. I have taken a bus from Papillion to my workplace in 26 minutes sharp.
We're not on time.
“We're actually five minutes early!” Evan announces.
The 93 Express costs $3 a day. Its riders won't spend a dime on gas or parking. They will spend 31 minutes doing something fun, like reading The Omaha World-Herald, instead of something not fun, like driving. And sometimes, they will only spend 26 minutes doing those things, because the 93 Express will be five minutes early.
The residents of Papillion, La Vista and Ralston seem to like it. After the first week, Evan reported that the 93 Express was averaging 50 passengers a day, a clear increase over the old route.
I don't live in Papillion, La Vista or Ralston. But I have to tell you: My first Omaha bus ride has me thinking about a second, and a third, this time from home to work and then back home.
Maybe Evan is right. Maybe the bus is for me.