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Two Steps Forward, One Pedal Back

By Phil Bors on September 24th, 2014

For nearly 10 years, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation funded Live Well Omaha (LWO)[1] to help make active living and healthy eating easier, safer and more affordable in Omaha and Douglas County, Nebraska. Relying on its strong relationships, LWO convinced key Omaha health funders to take a bold next step with them: to directly invest in the city’s transportation system. As their Active Living By Design project officer, I witnessed LWO’s growth from a media and program-centered organization to an influential force that’s helping Omaha develop into a healthier community. However, their journey has had its ups and downs.

In 2009, Peter Kiewit Foundation and another private funder partnered with the City of Omaha to create a 20-mile bicycle loop in and around downtown. The following year, Mayor Jim Suttle established the city’s first professional planning position dedicated to bicycle and pedestrian transportation. The private funders agreed to pay for the new position for three years, at which point the city would determine whether it would continue its funding. The new planner helped implement the bicycle loop, prioritized and oversaw pedestrian projects, wrote grants and staffed a new Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Council.

Despite successes over the three years (including increased bicycling in Omaha, a new B-cycle program and miles of trails and other projects), the bicycle and pedestrian planner position will cease to exist as this budget year closes. Omaha’s new mayor, Jean Stothert, declared that the city will not pick up the salary in the 2015 budget, as funders and advocates originally hoped.

For better or worse, her announcement sparked a very public debate this summer. Advocates argued loudly in support of the planning position and underscored Omaha’s progress, while detractors voiced their concern in the media and at public meetings that taxpayer dollars would be wasted on satisfying a noisy fringe group: bicyclists. Advocates held a rally (in the pouring rain) with over 150 people supporting the planner position. The mayor met with advocates, answered their questions and responded in the media. And despite a vote of the city council to fund the bicycle and pedestrian planner, Mayor Stothert stuck to her campaign promise and ultimately vetoed it from the budget.

The mayor is charting a different path forward that, ironically, will rely heavily on the leadership and convening powers of LWO. In August 2014, she signed an executive order establishing the Active Living Advisory Committee and named Julie Harris, LWO’s Active Living Program Manager, as its first chair. In addition, an open position in the planning department will incorporate bicycle and pedestrian duties and become the “balanced transportation manager.” The mayor also indicated support for a city complete streets policy, although the devil will be in the details.

Please don’t despair, Omaha advocates: communities across the country are facing, and overcoming, similar battles. Andy Clarke, President of the League of American Bicyclists, says that not only should we expect “bikelash,” but that it’s a normal and predicable sign of progress for any community change.[2]

ALBD’s Lessons for Leaders calls on community change advocates to continuously adapt when it’s necessary. In fact, flexibility is a key success factor. Setbacks should be opportunities to reexamine priorities, tactics and our bases of support. From an equity perspective, the upside in Omaha is that the Active Living Advisory Committee can potentially appeal to a broader array of residents, including those who don’t have biking shoes, may never climb on a bike and/or couldn’t afford one.

Omaha has come very far as a healthier place to live. Keep taking steps forward for good, Live Well Omaha!

[1] RWJF awarded Our Healthy Community Partnership, now known as Live Well Omaha, with an Active Living by Design grant in 2003 and a Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities grant in 2009, which ended in December 2013.

[2] Check out this recent CITYLAB article on the topic, and the video featuring Andy and other bicycle transportation professionals.

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Phil Bors

Technical Assistance Director

Community collaborator, enthusiastic brainstormer, and devotee of down time