OPINION: Car-centric catastrophe: Omaha’s battle with sustainable transportation

Many UNO students and faculty interested in sustainable transportation push for a new resolution to be passed that will allow all UNO students to have free access to the electric bikes on campus.  

The Heartland Bike Share Bikes parked at the station outside of UNO’s Arts and Sciences Hall. Photo by Kaitlyn Kelly

Traffic slows to a standstill on Dodge Street as you commute to UNO for class. A nervous sweat breaks out as you look at the time because there’s a mere ten minutes before class begins, and you still must find a parking spot. An onslaught of rage and restlessness hijacks your usual calm, cheerful personality. This is a version of you, seen only inside the metal box you call a car. Five minutes go by, and that’s when the honking starts; it dawns on you that everyone here is in the same mental desperation as you. Funny enough, this is a regular anger-filled Tuesday morning in Omaha, Nebraska.   

It has become increasingly apparent to many that Omaha is a very car-centric city, meaning that Omaha citizens don’t have many choices other than driving to get around. Due to this, many students and citizens of Omaha have been advocating for expanding bike infrastructure in the city.  

In December of 2022, a group of UNO students wrote up a resolution asking for an allocation of student government reserves for $15,000 to get 200 students a free Heartland Bike Share pass for the whole year. The resolution passed in January, and the passes were distributed to 200 students within a week. Zoe Miller was one of the main organizers of the initial resolution. As the end of the 200 free passes approached, she began to support a new solution that would make the Heartland Bike Share accessible for all students.  

“The passes can cost a lot of money if people don’t have one of the free passes we got last year, and that’s the point; we want to make it as accessible as possible by having these free passes. Biking is such a great way to get around. Even for people who might have trouble riding a bike, it can be easy, especially with the motor assist. For me, I literally hate going up hills, I can’t do it. So, I love having the motor assist to actually propel me up the hill. We get how expensive the passes are, and we just want to make sure everyone has that universal access,” Miller said.  

The B-Cycles cost $12 for a day pass, $20 for a month pass, and $156 annually. For school staff and students, military personnel, and seniors, there is a $56 discount, making the annual pass $100.  

The Heartland Bike Share is a valuable amenity for many UNO students, some more than others. Jaafar Al Lawati is an international student from the Sultanate of Oman, and he is one of the 200 students who allocated a free bike share pass.  

“As an international student, I can attest that, like many of my peers, I initially found it challenging to navigate the city due to the limited public transportation options,” Al Lawati said. “These bikes have been a lifeline for international students like me, bridging the gap and making it more feasible to explore the city efficiently while embracing a sustainable lifestyle.” 

To use the bike share, one must first download the BCycle app, sign in and then determine the pass situation. Then, you’ll tap on a station near you and see how many bikes are available for checkout, and if there are docks open at the destination, you’re going to. At the checkout station near you, you pick a numbered bike and then tap the number in the app, and this will unlock the bike from the rack. Sometimes, there’s a power button to wake up the bike, and you determine if you want motor assist, and then the bike is yours for an hour. Once finished, you can put the bike at any open station around Omaha.  

“On a typical day using the Heartland Bike Share, I start by checking the app or on-campus stations to find an available bike. This process is quick and user-friendly. I unlock a bike using my free pass, and on I go. Instead of waiting for the shuttles, that are often packed, I cycle between campuses to get to my classes. To me this is a welcome break from academic demands and an opportunity to enjoy the outdoors while getting to my destinations efficiently,” Al Lawati said.  

The Heartland Bike Share is available on campus and all over downtown Omaha. However, the bike share cannot fully sprout due to the layout of Omaha and the reluctance to install proper bike infrastructure.  

UNO Professor Farrah Grant bikes to UNO every day, rain or shine, and is a strong advocate for increased bike infrastructure as well as increased funding for the ORBT public transit system. Grant believes that providing free Heartland Bike Share passes to UNO students will cause a paradigm shift for more biking infrastructure.  

“It’s that chicken and the egg situation, where people say, ‘Well, no one bikes,’ and others say, ‘Well I don’t want to bike because I don’t have a protected bike lane or path.’ So, if you don’t build the path, people aren’t going to bike; it’s deciding what needs to come first,” Grant said. “And I think students at UNO can advocate for similar type policies by having the B-cycle passes. And if more students become accustomed to biking around as transportation, they are going to make living choices as they leave college.” 

Grant urges people to realize that only some people in Omaha have access to vehicles for various reasons, and this is one of many situations in which increased bike infrastructure is vital to a city. 

“If you don’t have a car in Omaha, it’s almost like you have become a second-class citizen,” Grant said. “I would see people stressed because a bus didn’t come; then they were going to be late for work, and they were concerned that they were going to lose their job. Cities are much more equitable when people are able to move around in a variety of ways without a car. That made me more passionate about the importance of having sustainable transportation in a city.”  

The new resolution for the Heartland Bike Share passes is being written by a special group within the student government and is being proposed in January. Many hope this new resolution will pass for easier transportation in Omaha and improve Earth’s climate. Transportation planning is climate planning.  

“Driving a car from point A to point B in Omaha, even like a 10-minute drive, that’s a lot of emissions,” Miller said. “And we have hundreds and thousands of people who are doing the exact same thing. So, if we can reduce that by having UNO students try to be more bike-focused, it is seriously going to impact our already horrible pollution in this city. It will also show our city that biking does matter. It’s taken years to get a climate action plan in Omaha, and we have people in our city government who don’t consider climate change and biking infrastructure a priority.”