A new Omaha initiative is encouraging people to park their misconceptions about alternative transportation and try it.

They might like it, said Daniel Lawse, one of the movers behind Midtown on the Move.

The effort focuses on the Leavenworth, Joslyn Castle, Gifford Park, Blackstone and Midtown Crossing neighborhoods.

Midtown on the Move is asking people in those neighborhoods to experiment with traveling by bus, bike, on foot or by sharing a car ride — any means other than driving alone. They call it “switching a trip.” They’re inviting people to pledge to switch one trip each week from Friday to June 30, and to complete quick surveys about their experiences.

Organizers hope that at least 1,000 of the 12,000 people who live in those neighborhoods will participate, Lawse said. Nearly 300 had signed up in advance of a launch party scheduled for Thursday.

“Momentum is building,” Lawse said. “It’s exciting.”

Midtown on the Move is funded in part by the Douglas County Health Department. It contributed $47,000 from a federal chronic disease prevention grant through the State of Nebraska.

Studies show that “the more physical activity people get, the more they move around, the healthier they are,” said Andy Wessel, a community health planner for the county.

People don’t always have the time or money to build physical activity into their day by going to the gym, Wessel said. But maybe they can work in more activity by walking, biking or taking the bus.

Fewer car trips also mean less air pollution — and could translate into less of a need for parking spaces, Wessel said. The cost of Midtown on the Move is equal to the cost of creating 12 surface parking spots or three garage parking spots, he said.

The environmental consulting company Verdis Group and public relations firm Emspace are managing and promoting the effort.

The Metro transit agency, Midtown Crossing, Ponderosa Cycling and Tour, Dundee Bank, Mode Shift Omaha and GreenSlate Development also are sponsors. And more than 25 businesses have donated gift cards and other prizes as incentives for people to complete the surveys, whether they switched trips or not. That’s because tracking what people did and why is important for future efforts.

“I don’t care if you did or didn’t switch your trip,” Lawse said. “I just want to know.”

Wessel said Omaha has several active transportation efforts afoot for corporations and other institutions. This is the first to focus on a general neighborhood.

Lawse said focusing on a particular geographical area “builds momentum, excitement, buzz and relationships.”

Why Midtown? It has several characteristics that made it a perfect fit, said Lawse, a principal at Verdis Group and a member of Metro transit’s board of directors.

The area’s population is diverse in age and income. It’s close to several destinations — restaurants, stores, major employers, bars, churches, schools.

“It’s about a 10-minute walk from one end of the neighborhood to the other,” Lawse said.

Similar efforts have been most successful in other cities when they took place right before, or right after, a major change in transportation infrastructure, Lawse said.

A bus rapid transit line is being planned to run on Dodge Street between downtown Omaha and Westroads. "Metro transit also recently changed its bus schedules so that Dodge Street Route 2 runs every 15 minutes from 5 a.m. to 7 p.m."

One of the misconceptions about alternative transportation is that everyone has to do it for it to work, Lawse said.

“It’s not going to work for everyone,” he said.

Nor do people have to abandon cars entirely to benefit individually and as a community from getting around by other means.

“Hop on the bus or walk or ride a bike, just try it, not necessarily change your life,” Lawse said.

That said, organizers hope that the initiative will have an ongoing effect for people who live or work in midtown, and a ripple effect beyond.

“We do hope that at least some of the people who try it do enjoy it, find adventure in it and they do switch more trips,” Lawse said. “We hope that there are some sustained habits formed over time.”

Chris Burbach covers the Douglas County Board, Planning Board and other local government bodies, as well as local neighborhood issues. Follow him on Twitter @chrisburbach. Phone: 402-444-1057.

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