A new transportation survey reveals the commuting habits of people who work, live or go to school in downtown or midtown Omaha, and it suggests that there’s an untapped appetite for using different methods — like walking, carpooling or riding the bus — to get around the city.
Verdis Group, an Omaha-based sustainability consulting firm, surveyed more than 8,500 people, most of them downtown or midtown dwellers or workers. Respondents included employees at First National Bank, the University of Nebraska Medical Center and Mutual of Omaha and tenants at the GreenSlate or NuStyle Developments, among others.
“It gives us a real insight into what people who live and work in downtown think about transit,” said Steve Jensen, a planning consultant for the City of Omaha.
Responses show, no surprise, that the car remains king among Omaha commuters. Most surveyed — 78% — drive to work alone in their car.
But 22% of respondents said they use one or more so-called active commuting methods — walking, biking, carpooling or taking the bus to get to work or school. (Yes, scooters count, too.)
Verdis Group officials think that percentage could nearly double if employers and city leaders promote and invest in alternate modes of transportation, even relatively simple measures like providing free bus passes or emergency rides home for employees who need to pick up a sick kid at school.
“We see employees wanting to get to work in different ways, but they’re limited, quite honestly, by employers’ assumption that everybody drives,” said Daniel Lawse, a principal and chief “century thinker” for the Verdis Group.
Putting policies and incentives in place to encourage workers to try different commuting modes could free up parking stalls, decrease money spent on parking, relieve road congestion and encourage more physical activity, said Lawse and Craig Moody, a managing principal with Verdis Group. The survey report includes recommendations for employers and city leaders.
The analysis suggests that if 39% of respondents tried active commuting, that could erase the need for more than 1,300 parking stalls per day and save nearly $2 million in annual parking costs.
Businesses, customers and city planners have wrestled with what some have called an over-abundance of parking garages taking up prime real estate downtown.
And the survey results arrive as employers, civic leaders and groups like the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce are taking a closer look at the city’s transportation offerings, especially as they relate to attracting and retaining workers who want a variety of transportation options, or come from cities that offer light rail, a subway or better bus systems.
“I’m wildly optimistic that this conversation really has fire behind it,” Moody said.
More than 1,000 First National Bank employees participated in the survey, and the bank provided some funding, too, said spokesman Kevin Langin. The company will study the responses and use it to gauge employee interest in different transportation options, he said.
“From the bank’s perspective, their responses better help us understand how do our employees get downtown today, what kind of obstacles do they run into, what kind of future transportation options are you interested in?” Langin said.
Working with Verdis Group, the University of Nebraska Medical Center, Nebraska Medicine and Clarkson College — the landlocked midtown campus where parking is at a premium — started a TravelSmart active commuting program in 2015. Today, about 2,800 employees and students participate.
Sustainability coordinator Tina Spencer meets with new employees. She can hook them up with a free bus pass, help find a carpool partner or locate shower facilities to freshen up after a sweaty bike ride. Regular monthly parking fees range from $16 to $85 per month, but if employees or students decide to carpool, their parking permit is free.
“We may not be New York City, but we don’t all have to have a car,” Spencer said. The TravelSmart efforts help the limited parking situation but also align with broader goals to support environmental sustainability and employee health, she said.
It doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing proposition, either. Depending on schedules, weather and other factors, people might decide to walk one day, drive the next and take an electric bike to an afternoon meeting at another location, Lawse said.
“There’s a big fear of the unknown when it comes to my commute, and so much rides on getting to work on time,” he said. “Take a step and try it once.”
The survey found that millennials are more likely to ditch solo car trips, live and work in the same area and use different commuting methods. And among all respondents, the survey found positive reactions to two mass transit options: the ORBT or Omaha Rapid Bus Transit line, a $35 million Metro Transit project set to debut in April 2020 that promises sleek buses and speedy routes, and an “urban circulator” — another name for the modern streetcar concept that’s been floated and debated in Omaha.
Seventy-three percent of respondents said they were somewhat or very interested in using an urban circulator, and 50% responded similarly to ORBT. Moody said the interest in the streetcar was notable considering most of the survey respondents — 71% — work but don’t live downtown or in midtown.
“It’s not an east Omaha versus west Omaha thing,” he said.
Getting workers moving smoothly across the city — not just downtown and midtown — isn’t going to hinge on any one mode of transportation, Jensen, Moody and Lawse agreed.
“ORBT doesn’t solve all the problems, or just bike lanes,” Jensen said. “No one thing is going to overnight change everything. It is all of these things working together.”
And commuters in different parts of the city may have different priorities — and public spending preferences. One commuter may want more dedicated bike lanes, while another wants to drive on streets that aren’t scarred by potholes.
“You have to fix the streets, you’ve got to widen streets in newer areas of the city and you have to do things with transit and maximize the infrastructure we have,” Jensen said.