By Ned Bagniewski

Located in the Northern Great Plains on the western bank of the Missouri River, Omaha, Nebraska, is a city with a thriving, steadily growing economy. More than ten companies here are ranked in the Fortune Top 1000, and the metropolitan area is expected to exceed a population of over one million people by 2023. However, beneath the surface, Omaha has some challenges that city leaders need to address.

Urban sprawl: The Omaha metro area has grown from 585,192 people in 1980 to 942,000 people in 2018. Demand for affordable new homes in sought-after suburban school districts, combined with population growth, has pushed development into the rural western part of the county. Housing developments with cul-de-sacs and low-density housing have replaced what was once prime farmland, and before that, native tallgrass prairie. Passing through the outskirts of the metro area reveals that this rural-to-suburban conversion will continue for the foreseeable future. “Prime Land for Development” signs continually appear in the remaining agricultural land as developers give farmers offers that are too good to refuse.

Suburban expansion and lack of alternative transportation options have resulted in car dependency, increased traffic congestion, and longer commute times. Omaha is fortunate to have average commute times lower than the national average, but as the city grows the average commute is expected to increase by over 10 minutes per trip by 2040. Generally speaking, the historical solution for relieving traffic congestion in the city has been to add road lanes. However, continually adding lanes to meet demand is not sustainable or realistic, due to high costs and right-of-way constraints. Additional roadway lanes often lead to what is known as induced demand, where more lanes simply attract more drivers.

Barriers to social mobility: As is often the case, the people who move into new suburban developments are those that have the financial resources to do so, leaving behind those that cannot afford it. This has created an increased concentration of poverty and inequality in Omaha. Lack of access to convenient public transportation and presence of food deserts are two indicators of a neglected community.

In Omaha, an annual bus pass is $660, while it is estimated that yearly vehicle ownership expenses average $8,698. The high vehicle ownership costs combined with car dependency and lack of convenient transit are often barriers to decent employment opportunities.

Access to healthy food options is another issue associated with transportation and inequality. A food desert is defined as an area within a community that has at least one third of its residents living in poverty and at least one fifth of its residents living over one mile away from the nearest supermarket. The Omaha metro area has twenty-six identified food deserts. Thirty-seven percent of people living below the poverty line in Omaha do not have access to healthy foods. Lack of transportation options together with food deserts increases the likelihood that residents will opt for food choices that are less expensive and have lower nutritional value, which can lead to increased obesity rates and decreased life expectancy.

The good news is that city leaders are beginning to realize that alternative transportation options are necessary to reduce traffic congestion. A new express bus line is being developed from western Omaha to downtown. This route will have exclusive lane occupancy rights, and will be integrated with the traffic signal system to give the buses priority, to make the route more efficient for riders. The system is referred to as Omaha Bus Rapid Transit (ORBT) and is expected to begin service in 2020.

Unfortunately, due to the exclusive east-west movement of the route, it will not provide direct connections to the currently underserved communities in north and south Omaha. The city is also undergoing a study to determine the feasibility of a modern streetcar system, referred to as the Urban Circulator, in downtown Omaha. Additionally, a mobility study was recently completed by surveying residents in central and downtown Omaha. The survey asked residents how they currently commute to work and what options they would want to have for their commutes. According to this study, approximately twenty-two percent of residents in these areas use active transportation (bus, carpooling, walking, or biking), at least some of the time. The study explored the possibilities of employer incentives for active transportation, ORBT, and the Urban Circulator, and found that active commute participation could grow to forty-nine percent.

Revitalizing neighborhoods: While it is difficult to find any information regarding policy action that Omaha has taken to discourage urban sprawl, there are examples of neighborhood revitalization going on throughout the city. These initiatives are creating mixed-use developments with walkable neighborhoods that are attracting residents back to previously neglected areas in north and central Omaha. For example, the Fair Deal Village Marketplace in north Omaha is a recent mixed-use development, taken on by the non-profit Omaha Economic Development Corporation to revitalize a once vibrant but now neglected neighborhood. The development utilized shipping containers as an economical and eye-catching way to build the structures for stores. Shops, nightlife, and restaurants are returning to the Blackstone district in south central Omaha, and with it are young professionals looking to move into this trendy neighborhood. Little Bohemia in south Omaha is revitalizing old buildings to become a haven for artists and creators.

As the Omaha metro area approaches a population of one million, it is critical to understand the complexities of the region so that the city can grow in the most sustainable, inclusive, and resilient way. Urban sprawl and mobility significantly affect the quality of life for city residents. While there are signs that some incremental steps are underway in terms of addressing mobility and inequality, stronger policy efforts and funding are needed for lasting impacts.

Ned Bagniewski

Ned Bagniewski is a graduate student in the Online Master of Natural Resources program at the Virginia Tech Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability. This story is based on Ned’s report written as part of the Urban Ecology course.