It's tough for mass transit to compete with the fast country roads and wide open spaces of America's heartland. Take Omaha, Nebraska. Population and job densities are super low, the suburbs are super sprawled, parking is super cheap, and pedestrian infrastructure is anything but super. The city's Metro bus system averages just 18 boardings per revenue-hour, and only two of its 34 lines run every 15 minutes—the minimum threshold for show-up-and-go service.
"There's areas where we still don't stand a chance against cars," says Evan Schweitz, a planner with the city's Metro transit agency.
But demand for better transit is ticking slowly upward in Omaha—especially downtown. Population in the core was up 5.5 percent in 2010 over 2000. Metro ridership has been on a steady rise and eclipsed 4.2 million trips in 2012. A microtransit start-up just launched a bar shuttle. Residential developments without on-site parking are no longer out of the question. "We're seeing more people live downtown and prefer to not own a car," says Schweitz.
A car-free lifestyle is about to get easier in Omaha. At the end of May, Metro will debut its FORWARD plan: a fully reconfigured bus network that emphasizes more frequency, better night and weekend service, direct lines through high-ridership corridors, and grid-style access to many parts of the city. The top five routes will now all get 15-minute peak service, and there's a new max wait time of an hour across the system—down from 90-to-120 minutes.
All this for the cost of: on the house. Rather than lobby for more taxpayer funding or jack up fares, Metro looked for more efficient ways to use its existing resources. (Similar to what Houston recently did on a larger scale.) System coverage will suffer a bit, but the remaining service will be much stronger. "We haven't made a change this big in 20 years," says Schweitz. "The city's changed a little bit since then, and our routes didn't really reflect that."
A Focus on High-Ridership Routes
Over the years, Metro has made ad hoc tweaks to its system to accommodate job and residential growth to the city's western suburbs. "Eventually you end up with a system that's so sprawled out and spliced that it doesn't work as an entire network," says Schweitz. The result was a lot of underperforming bus routes. Whereas Metro's top five lines carry 42 percent of the system's entire ridership, its bottom 16 carry just 24 percent, according to a July 2013 network vision plan.
So Metro scaled back on the fringes of the city—discontinuing five routes—and poured those resources into improving its more popular lines. Take the No. 24 as an example. Currently, travelers that start their trip on this bus from North Omaha have to get off downtown and transfer, because that's where the line ends. In the new 24 route, that transfer still exists for those who need it, but the route continues south of downtown, so riders can more easily access that part of the city.
Metro also bought itself some extra service by eliminating inefficient route designs. In the current system, for instance, several routes pull off onto a side street near the Crossroads Mall to drop off passengers. That turnabout added five minutes to every bus that used it. Getting rid of the loop added up to enough service hours that it bought Metro a whole other route. You can see the clear pile-up around Crossroads Mall in the old map:
And the lack of route clutter in the new one:
For riders these types of changes mean a farther walk to and from a stop. That's evidently a tough sell in Omaha. ("That's a little hard for people around here," says Schweitz. "They don't like that idea so much.") So Metro has included a walking and biking key (below) to its new route map in the hopes that people will recognize they might be closer to a higher-frequency route than they realized.
"If there's a way to make it easy to see, 'hey, I'm only 10 minutes away from this line that runs every 15 minutes,' that becomes an easier sell than just taking away a route and giving them no other option," says Schweitz.
Setting the Stage for BRT
By focusing on high-ridership corridors, Metro knows it must sacrifice some transit coverage. But it says the new routes provide an 11 percent increase in overall service to low-income and minority neighborhoods. And Schweitz says there were "several cases" where consultants recommended removing a low-ridership route—including one that gave access to a homeless shelter—but Metro kept the service based on community concerns, though it meant less frequent buses elsewhere.
The new design also means Omaha residents get all-day (or, at least, more-of-the-day) transit access where they once had a system that operated mostly for the peak period. Nine routes will now have extended service hours past midnight. And all weekend routes will run at least every hour—down in some cases from two hours in the current system.
The changes also set the stage, farther ahead, for the city to adopt bus-rapid transit. Last September, Metro was awarded a $15 million TIGER grant from the U.S. DOT to go toward an 8-mile BRT line that's expected to launch by 2018. Schweitz says the service will replace the new No. 2 route, that it will have 10-minute frequencies, and that current plans call for it to operate in an exclusive lane for some segments.
Metro has no illusions that it can accomplish its goals alone. Transit will remain a tough sell in Omaha in the absence of denser, transit-friendly development patterns, as well as a more pedestrian-friendly system of sidewalks and crossings. But Schweitz believes the FORWARD plan can serve as proof that strong transit isn't just "a Portland thing or a New York thing"—that it can work in Omaha, too.
"It's pretty hard here to argue based on ideas rather than fact, so we need to be able to point to one success story," he says. "We're hoping these route changes do that."