I’ve become one of those people who, when I travel, have to stop and check out the bicycle infrastructure in the cities and towns I travel through. By check out, I mean ride it.
That’s what I did yesterday. I was driving from Indianapolis to our new home in Ogden and my route took me through a number of cities with growing bicycling scenes including Champaign-Urbana, Des Monies and Omaha. My schedule was tight so I could only choose one. I chose Omaha, and I wanted to share my observations with you.
First things first. I’ve always liked Omaha. It’s Midwestern and pragmatic and has a healthy self-image. It reminds me of Indianapolis in some ways. In others, not so much. Like Indy, Omaha has a growing and handsome downtown. There’s a world class university (Creighton). Corporate citizens include Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway, the Union Pacfic Railroad and insurance companies like Woodmen of the World and Mutual of Omaha. Omaha is the semi-permanent site of the College World Series and they’ve built one of the finest baseball stadiums I’ve ever seen to house it.
As is the case in most cities these days, there is a lot of new housing and other multiuse development in downtown Omaha and connecting it all is a series of riverfront bikeways anchored by the spectacular Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge which crosses the Missouri River into adjacent Council Bluffs, Iowa. This is really a special piece of active transportation infrastructure. The design is unique. It’s beautiful. I’m not exaggerating when I say it just draws you in.
The real value of the Kerrey bridge, though, is how it connects Council Bluffs to its larger sibling across the river. Bridges like this take rivers, which naturally divide, and allow disparate urban areas to connect in a way that freeways never will. The Missouri is a significant river, but it’s not the Ohio or the Mississippi and so crossing this bridge is more akin to crossing the Shelby Street (John Seigenthaler Pedestrian Bridge) bridge into downtown Nashville TN than, say, the Big Four Bridge into downtown Louisville KY. It’s easy in spite of a climb. It’s a whole lot of fun. It would be a great daily commute.
The Kerrey bridge is a huge opportunity for Council Bluffs, a city that has always appeared to me to be a little hardscrabble and down on its luck. They seem to be making the most of it. At present, bicycle infrastructure is better on the Iowa side of the river. Trails connect more of the city to the riverfront and there’s a spectacular park with a village green for concerts that opens onto the Omaha skyline.
In summary, reclaiming the Missouri riverfront and centering it around active transportation is a huge win for the cities of Omaha and Council Bluffs. It draws people back to the urban core. It provides connectivity, a recreation resource and, most importantly, an alternative to the daily freeway grind.