It takes Omahans an average of 20 minutes to commute to or from work, but as the city grows to more than 1 million people, commute times could increase to an average of 30 minutes or more.
New data from the Census Bureau and compiled by the Associated Press shows that, for now, Omaha has it pretty good compared with cities its size.
Omaha’s commute time is in the top 15 percent of 195 cities larger than 100,000 people. And the city is well below the national average of a 26-minute commute. Carpoolers take an average of 23 minutes to commute, and public transit riders can take anywhere from 35 to 50 minutes.
That means the average Omahan is spending about 166 hours a year, or about 3 percent of our waking life, tied up in a commute.
Omaha has long been known as a 20-minute city.
But even with all the road projects scheduled, Omaha is still looking at a 10- to 15-minute-longer commute in a few decades, said Michael Felschow, transportation planner with the Metropolitan Area Planning Agency.
“You can only build a highway so wide,” Felschow said.
He said it’s important that drivers in vibrant communities have access to places they want to go and can get there in a timely manner. It’s his job to figure out how to keep commute times low.
“We need to make sure that we are maintaining the existing transportation system that is reasonably accessible and mobile,” he said.
One way Felschow analyzes roads is through computer models that calculate a “level of service” score, which measures the average speed of traffic during the evening rush. An A means no congestion and appropriate speeds, while an F means heavy congestion and stop-and-go traffic.
Many F-rated roads have been upgraded in the past few years, including stretches of Interstate 80 and 144th Street north of West Dodge Road. Parts of Harrison Street in west Omaha will be improved in 2017.
Felschow said cities also look at better traffic-signal timing, public transit and bike routes as ways to alleviate congestion. Omaha is buying into some of those ideas with a $30 million project to update to smarter traffic signals, Bus Rapid Transit that is set to start in 2018 and several street-widening projects in the works. It also is examining a complete streets initiative that would consider public transit, pedestrians and bicyclists in any street project.
In the future, self-driving cars could improve congestion. The smart cars could drive closer together and cut down on crashes that often snarl traffic.
Elected officials and transportation planners generally agree on the nation’s intensifying traffic congestion, but are divided on how to address it. The Obama administration and many urban planners have advocated getting people out of their cars because widening highways will simply attract more drivers and encourage urban sprawl, the AP reports.
MAPA’s Heartland 2050 long-range plan encourages the metro area to look at more sustainable urban planning that includes more densely developed neighborhoods where residents can walk, bike or take public transit to jobs, stores and entertainment.
Nationwide, Americans are more divided over building and improving public transportation such as rail and bus systems, the AP reports.
Four in 10 say spending on public transportation should be increased, but just as many say current spending is about right, according to an AP poll. Only 18 percent say transit spending should be cut.
Curt Simon, director of the Metro bus system, said the recent bus system upgrade, which includes later and more frequent service, will likely help improve the Metro’s bus average transit time of 42 minutes.
It may not be enough yet to get people out of their cars, but Simon predicts that public transit will become more widely adopted in the near future.
“Cultural changes are afoot,” Simon said.
Julie Reilly, executive director of Omaha By Design, a group dedicated to better urban design, said the tide is shifting toward more alternative transportation options in Omaha.
“Other cities have had it for years — what are we waiting for?” Reilly said. “We need to move more people more efficiently.”
She added: “Looking at transit in Omaha is something that we all need to be doing however we live or what transportation we use.”