Street planning in the Omaha metropolitan area is in drastic need of a revamp, to promote public safety and meet residents’ competing transportation needs. Accidents in Papillion and Blair, only a day apart, have taken the lives of two children who were attempting to cross busy streets. And a recent Omaha Planning Board meeting demonstrated the growing importance of accommodating the interests of drivers, pedestrians and bicyclists.
Improvement will depend, too, on the mindset of drivers, pedestrians and cyclists. We all need to be more attentive to our surroundings and safer in our actions.
Both of the fatal accidents occurred in high-traffic areas:
» Abby Whitford, 10, of Bellevue was killed in Papillion on Aug. 22 while using the crosswalk to get across four lanes of traffic on 84th Street, also known as Washington Street. The site sees steady traffic moving north and south.
» Jaycoby Estrada, 11, was struck and killed by a semitrailer truck in Blair on Aug. 23 as he was trying to cross five lanes of traffic on his bike at the busy intersection that brings together Nebraska Highways 91, 30 and 75. In all, four state highways pass through Blair. “There is a real high volume of large-wheel traffic when you have this many state highways,” Blair Police Lt. Aaron Barrow told World-Herald columnist Erin Grace in her recent examination of Omaha-area street concerns.
Car accidents took the lives of 230 Nebraskans last year, including 24 pedestrians, Grace reports. The number of Nebraska pedestrian deaths in 2018 was 62% higher than the average for the previous four years.
Papillion and Blair are by no means unique in terms of the potential for serious accidents. In Omaha, for example, it’s hardly uncommon to see drivers make turns without paying adequate attention to whether someone is crossing the street.
These recent tragedies should prod elected officials and transportation planners throughout the Omaha area to take a fresh look at ways to improve safety. In some cases, cities and towns will need to provide signage and other aids to do a far better job of alerting drivers to pedestrians and signaling all parties about street conditions at any given moment. The intersection in Blair, for example, has no painted crosswalks and no painted lines showing vehicles where to stop.
Municipalities should give new thought, too, to options for progress in what Papillion Police Chief Scott Lyons calls the “ever-continuing project of slowing people down.”
All parties, including pedestrians, bicyclists, motorcyclists and scooter operators, have responsibilities to be attentive to their surroundings and mindful to proceed safely. As Grace noted, technology and modern conveniences increasingly enable people to cocoon themselves while driving, biking, jogging or walking. Smartphones and automobile high-tech amenities distract people while behind the wheel. Music from earbuds erode a pedestrian’s or jogger’s awareness of his or her surroundings. On busy streets, such distractions can carry terrible risks.
Elected officials and transportation planners have an additional obligation: reconciling the differing needs of drivers, cyclists and pedestrians. The Omaha Planning Board commendably promoted that approach last week in considering redevelopment plans in north downtown associated with construction of the new Kiewit Corp. headquarters. In the face of Kiewit’s proposal to close part of Burt Street, a variety of Omahans spoke in opposition, noting among other points that the connection is the most heavily traveled bike route in Omaha.
The board voted 7-0 to approve a plat of the site that includes vacating Burt Street from 16th to 17th Streets. But the board also recommended requiring Kiewit to “provide dedicated public bicycle and pedestrian connectivity though the vacated area of Burt Street.” The Omaha Planning Department had recommended that stipulation. The City Council will make the final decision on this issue.
Traffic conditions in the Omaha area are raising increased concern and debate. To meet the challenge, municipalities need to step up with better planning and policies. And citizens, whether behind the wheel, on foot or on bike, need to reduce their distractions and keep themselves and others safe.