City looking to keep people out of their cars

2013-10-14T03:30:00Z 2014-03-02T16:21:00Z City looking to keep people out of their carsBy NANCY HICKS / Lincoln Journal Star JournalStar.com

A plan to encourage more Lincolnites to keep their cars in their garages is winding its way through the city's bureaucratic maze.

Its goal would be to create a travel options program that would encourage people to ride a bike, take a bus, walk more or share rides to work, and thus reduce the number of cars and trucks on city streets.

The plan offers examples from cities where organized programs have increased the number of people who use their cars less:

* The number of children walking to school in Missoula, Mont., increased from 22.9 percent in 2011 to 28.2 percent in 2012 with an aggressive walk to school program.

* The Madison, Wis., bus system provides ride-home cab fare vouchers for people who carpool, ride the bus or bike to work if they miss a last bus home or have an emergency.

* The Ann Arbor, Mich., city transit authority operates a VanRide program in which commuters drive a city-purchased van to work.

Each are pieces of a much larger, coordinated, funded, well-branded and multi-dimensional travel options programs in each community.

Lincoln has seen a decline in the percentage of people who leave their cars at home over the past few decades.

More than 80 percent of Lincoln residents drive alone to work, a rate that has increased steadily over the past 20 years.

Only biking has seen an increase, likely because of Lincoln’s extensive trail system, according to the report.

However, spending money on a travel options program may be a hard sell in Lincoln because the city doesn’t need to fix typical community problems caused by vehicles, the report acknowledges.

Lincoln has clean air and, in fact, has been ranked as one of the cleanest metropolitan areas in the country.

Lincoln has one of the best average commute times in the nation — Lincoln's mean travel time to work is 17.1 minutes, compared to 25.1 minutes nationally. But the commute time will lengthen as the city grows unless more residents pick a different travel option, the report notes.

The downtown also has parking for those who work downtown or come for entertainment.

So the argument for a travel options program is based on maintaining the current quality of life, on improving the health of Lincolnites and on attracting young well-educated workers.

A city that encourages biking and walking appeals to highly trained, highly paid young workers in high-tech fields, the kind of people looking for cool towns, said the city's Planning Director Marvin Krout.

Reducing congestion is a benefit to drivers and to government by reducing the need for maintaining and expanding the road system, he said.

The report also says alternative travel options could save money and fuel. 

Lincolnites would save between $7 million to $9 million annually, based on estimates of a travel options program's success. 

Even if only part of it was spent in the local economy, the annual economic benefit would be between $10 million and $13 million. 

The Travel Options Strategy draft report was presented last month to two transportation-related committees, Lincoln's Metropolitan Planning Organization, made up of local state and federal officials, and a technical committee, made up of federal, state and local planning and transportation staff.

The draft report outlines the need, the local climate and travel patterns, and a staffing and work plan for a travel options program.

Funding for a local program, which could cost an estimated $183,920 the first year and $328,000 by the fifth year, is problematic, the report acknowledges.

One suggestion, to take $1 per vehicle from the city's wheel tax, is no longer part of the draft report. City leaders have said that tax will be used on street maintenance and improvement. 

The hope is that city staff will be able to find federal grants to start the program.

A coordinated travel options program would build on the work being done by groups, including the local bicycle commuter challenge, Bike UNL, a university initiative to promote bicycling; safe routes to schools; the Great Plans Trails Network; and StarTran programs.

Nelson/Nygaard Consulting Associates, a transportation planning firm, did much of the research for the draft report at a cost of less than $88,000, with federal funds paying 80 percent, according to Mike Brienzo, transportation planner with the county-city Planning Department.

Reach Nancy Hicks at 402-473-7250 or nhicks@journalstar.com.

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