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Kerrey Bridge
photo by Tim Fitzgerald

Early Usage of the Kerrey Bridge: Some Empirical Findings and Thoughts on the Future

Donald Greer and John Noble

School of Health, Physical Education and Recreation

In years and months leading up to the completion and opening of the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge it was clear to anyone reading the Omaha World-Herald Public Pulse that there was at least a moderate amount of public controversy over this federally-funded project. As the World-Herald pointed out on December 31, many area citizens have continued to consider the Bridge "a $19 million boondoggle," and many suggestions have been offered about how these funds might better have been spent. And we have seen at least one current website identifying the Kerrey Bridge with the famed Alaskan "bridge to nowhere." But in the same December 31 article the World-Herald named the Kerrey Bridge one of the top ten area stories of 2008 and defended it, concluding that "…it proves to be hugely popular on both sides of the Missouri River."

We agree with the World-Herald that the Kerrey Bridge has proved to be popular with the public. As occasional users of the Kerrey Bridge, our anecdotal observations are certainly consistent with the newspaper's conclusions. Even in windy and blustery conditions it very often seems to be pretty crowded up there. What is more, we need not rely on anecdotal evidence to support our conclusion: we can back it up with some numbers based on more than just casual observation.

Between September 29 and October 31 our student workers spent a total of 78.5 hours systematically observing and recording entries to and exits from the Kerrey Bridge. In scheduling these observation periods we achieved a balance between weekday and weekend time periods, and also spread the times out throughout the morning, midday and afternoon hours. Eighty-two percent of the observation hours were on weekdays and about 60 percent of them were done on the Omaha side of the bridge.

During these hours of observation at both bridge entrances there were a total of 14,650 observed uses for an overall entry/exit rate of 187 persons per hour. On the Omaha side of the bridge the entry/exit rate was approximately 204 per hour, while about 161 entries or exits were observed per hour on the Council Bluffs side. During one Sunday afternoon our observer counted over one-thousand persons in a single hour passing his checkpoint at the bridge entrance in Omaha.

It should be noted that these numbers represent both bridge entries and exits combined, and it seems likely that a given user of the bridge would have been counted twice in most cases -- once upon entry and again upon his/her exit. For this reason we would divide our observed user counts in half and conservatively estimate an average daytime usage rate of approximately 90 persons per hour on the Kerrey Bridge.

During the bridge observation sessions we also recorded the type of bridge usage taking place, and the data suggest that the Kerrey Bridge is at present not just a pedestrian area. Rather, it is very much a multi-use area with a variety of things going on. Although walking did account for 80 percent of bridge usage, there were also substantial numbers of runner/joggers and bicyclists. About eight percent of all observed bridge uses were by runners and about twelve percent of bridge entries and exits were by cyclists.

The nature and extent of this mixed-usage leads us to think about what it actually means to the various types of users, the future of the bridge in years to come, and also the about the possibility of user conflict.

Although we have only observed bridge users and have yet to interview them, we believe that to a high percentage of its pedestrian users the bridge is at present primarily a destination in and of itself, i.e. it is mostly a place to go to enjoy the view while getting some mild exercise. A good many of these users, we suspect, simply go up on the bridge and return as opposed to crossing over. This purpose for visiting the bridge is by no means trivial and has proved to be more than sufficient to help generate high rates of pedestrian activity in the short-run, and we believe it is likely to remain the primary focus for pedestrians until further development occurs and there are significant attractions within walking distance on the Council Bluffs side. And given the Kerrey Bridge's powerful aesthetic presence we think it unlikely that this type of bridge use will diminish in the foreseeable future.

To cyclists on the other hand, we believe that the bridge, for all its aesthetic qualities, has a somewhat different purpose. To the bicyclist, the Kerrey Bridge almost certainly means enhanced connectivity and access to new opportunities for fitness and active recreation. It provides bicyclists with a vital connecting link between two still-developing municipal trail systems, both of which are made much more viable by its presence. Given the current lack of bicycle-friendliness on metro area streets, local cyclists need space and safe places to ride. It is not unusual for even a casual cyclist to travel five or six miles in a ride and more serious recreational and competitive riders often travel five to ten times that distance. The bridge also serves as a connector between Omaha trails and streets and southwest Iowa's communities via the popular and well-known Wabash Trace Trail.

As to future types and rates of bridge usage, no one can predict what time will bring. We suspect that in the years to come uses of the bridge will evolve somewhat in response to surrounding community features and attractions. Perhaps the newness and novelty of the bridge will wear off and its function as a destination-attraction will subside somewhat. Even if this is so, the development of attractive commercial entertainment and park facilities on both sides (but especially in Council Bluffs where there are big plans) seems likely to sustain a fairly high level of pedestrian usage. And, as the Omaha Riverfront Trail is connected to Boyer Chute on the north and the attractiveness of trail connectivity increases, there is certainly no reason to expect bicycle usage to decline.

If these observations are correct and if bridge usage rates do not significantly subside, we believe that challenges almost certainly lie ahead for those in charge of Kerrey Bridge management. Indeed, user conflict is quite common in multi-use recreation settings, as witnessed by recent disagreements at Lake Zorinsky (see Omaha World-Herald: June 16, 2008). We do not wish to sound alarmist, but it is almost inevitable that occasional accidents will happen and disagreements will flare up as users with different needs and interests try to make use of a somewhat limited space. And there are other issues that may need addressing as well. For example, on one very recent visit to the bridge we noticed that graffiti has already started to appear on the bridge decking. It seems likely that to prevent or at least mitigate these types of issues a police patrol on the bridge is going to be required on a relatively frequent basis. Improved signage and lane markers to direct and manage traffic flow may also be a good idea. Of course these management practices will have to evolve over time to fit changing and developing needs as they become more apparent.

As to sentiments that the Kerrey Bridge is a prime example of wasteful "pork" spending (and these expressions have been voiced as recently as March 22, 2009), we can only say this: the early numbers are in, and they clearly indicate that the bridge thus far has been a tasty treat for many. Indeed, area citizens have thus far shown a substantial appetite for this dish. We do hope, though, that the chefs in charge will continue to refine their recipe.

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