City workers removed Omaha’s first and only bike corral Wednesday even after cyclists raced in to stop them by locking bikes to the remaining racks of the Benson business district fixture.
As workers considered cutting the activists’ bike locks, the Omaha Public Works Department on Wednesday morning ordered a temporary halt to the work, on Maple Street at 60th Avenue. The Mayor’s Office and City Councilman Pete Festersen got involved after business owner and cycling advocate Sarah Johnson raised a ruckus on social media.
But later Wednesday afternoon, city workers returned to remove the last three of six U-shaped bike racks that made up the corral, which took up one parking stall on Maple Street in front of the former Omaha Bicycle Co. shop. The attached protest bike was still locked to the rack, according to a witness.
Greg Lilly, whose bike was locked to the corral, got it back on Thursday morning.
It was retrieved from the back of an Omaha Public Works pickup truck, still locked to the bike corral section.
Lilly said the bike corral's removal “feels like a loss for the bikers in the community and for Benson,” Lilly said.
“A lot of people work really hard to make this a bike-friendly city, but it’s too bad that this is one step back," he said.
Johnson owned the bike shop until closing it in September. The city installed the bike corral in 2013 to boost biking and walking in Benson.
Festersen said he, through City Council staff, asked Public Works to stop the removal Wednesday as soon as constituents alerted him that it was happening. He is asking for it to be put back together.
“I told them to stand down and that we want to keep that bike corral there,” Festersen said. “We worked hard to get that established, and we think that multimodal opportunities are important. … Most people in Benson feel very strongly that it’s a strong addition to Benson.”
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After the removal, Festersen said the move was “unbelievable.”
“The Public Works Department assured us it would remain when we contacted them at noon,” he said. “I feel like they lied to me and have misled the public. ”
Assistant City Public Works Director Todd Pfitzer said it wasn’t Festersen but the Mayor’s Office that caused him to halt the removal Wednesday. He said the Mayor’s Office asked him to hold off while it looked into why the removal was happening.
“It’s going to be taken out,” Pfitzer said.
He said the city has received calls from Benson businesses suggesting that the bike corral be taken out to free up a parking spot. He said the corral was put in for Johnson’s business, and remained there for the life of the business.
“It was just a simple matter of the bike shop’s no longer there,” Pfitzer said.
Removing the corral will allow a car to park in that spot, and parking is “desperately needed in that area,” Pfitzer said.
The corral also requires maintenance each spring after being damaged by snowplows, he said.
Festersen said he had received no complaints about the bike corral and knew of no problems with it. He said it was about much more than just one business.
“It was all about building up the bike and pedestrian infrastructure in the area, which is in the public interest to do,” Festersen said.
Johnson, who still owns her business’ building, agreed that parking is an issue in Benson. But she said the bike corral helps with parking, because it can accommodate 12 people parking bikes in a single car parking spot.
“We’re talking about capacity of parking people, not just cars,” she said.
Johnson rushed to the corner Wednesday morning and alerted fellow cyclists after a neighboring business owner called her to tell her the crew was removing the corral.
“It’s hilarious that they (the city) thought they could swoop in and take it out with no repercussions,” she said.