Thursday, July 12th, 2007

A Comparison of the Columbus and Indianapolis Freeway Systems

As I’ve noted many times, Indianapolis and Columbus are the closest thing to twin cities in the United States. Both are artificial towns, selected as the state capitals of next door states because of their central location. Both really didn’t come of age until the 20th century. Both are at the top of the league tables for Midwest growth and are actually growing their metro area populations at a faster rate than the national average. Both of them are at their zenith and rising in terms of national significance and influence. Both are geographically larger cities, Indy through city-county merger and Columbus through aggressive annexation.

Another thing that is similar about these cities is their freeway systems, based on a simple beltway and spoke model. In the first of what I hope to be a small series of articles comparing these cities over the coming months, I will compare the freeway systems of these two cities.

Starting from the inside out, both cities have an “inner loop” freeway surrounding downtown. If you look strictly at the map, Columbus would appear to have an advantage here. It has a complete 360 degree loop circling downtown while Indianapolis only has a partial loop. The west leg is missing, replaced by a surface highway called West St.

Probe behind the map, however, and the Columbus inner loop looks much less attractive. The design of this route is rather narrow and exposes a critical failure in ODOT’s design philosophy of the past. Namely, they assumed that the vast bulk of all traffic at a freeway to freeway interchange will exit to the cross-freeway rather than continue as through traffic. This seems to be a belief that was in vogue sometime in the past, because other cities such as Los Angeles suffer from the same. What this means is that if you are driving I-70 through downtown, there is actually only one through lane that stays on I-70. All the rest of the lanes exit to various other parts of the loop or surface streets. As you might imagine, this is a formula for congestion and safety problem, and downtown Columbus has both in spades. The inner loop is highly congested and has a large number of accidents. ODOT is planning to address the problem starting with a $550 million reconstruction of the southeast half of it. The northwest half remains to be addressed, and my guess it it will cost a similar amount.

The Indianapolis loop, by contrast, functions very well, with only limited congestion, mostly caused by weaving traffic. One specific trouble spot is the north side onramp to I-65 from 11th St., where traffic has to immediately cross several lanes of traffic in order to get into eastbound I-70. But other than these isolated spots, things are functioning rather well.

In terms of actual design, both were fairly destructive of the urban fabric when built, but the Columbus loop much less so. For example, I-70 south of downtown is principally depressed, so if you drive over it on the way to or from German Village, you can easily miss noticing it. My subjective view is that the freeway is much less intrusive to the urban fabric of Columubs than it is in Indianapolis.

The implication of this is that Columbus is going to have to dedicate a significant portion – probably about a billion dollars – of its available transportation funding in the next couple of decades to fixing the downtown loop. This is money that could otherwise be going to fix congestion elsewhere. Indianapolis won’t have to do that. On the other hand, Columbus has the opportunity to really improve the affect of the roadway on the neighborhoods surrounding downtown. There is a proposal to put caps on the loop, for example, during reconstruction. We’ll see if this gets funded. In Indianapolis, with is mix of elevated and depressed segements, wide ROW, lack of frontage roads in many cases, and a generally lack of “getting it” locally (witness the Market St. ramp relocation, for example), no improvements are likely.

Moving to the interior routes, Columbus has much better connectivity to downtown than Indianapolis does. There are six interior spoke routes leading from the beltway to downtown in Columbus: I-70 (2), I-71 (2), I-670, and SR 315. In Indianapolis there are only four: I-65 (2) and I-70 (2). Indianapolis also has no direct connectivity from its fastest growing suburban areas on the north and northeast sides into downtown. Originally I-69 in Fishers was to continue downtown as I-165, connecting at the north split, but this was cancelled because of neighborhood opposition. Columbus has a similar development pattern, but has two parallel freeway direct from the north into downtown. Columbus also has a couple of small “crosstown” routes, notably SR 104. Indianapolis has short Airport Expressway and Shadeland Ave. freeway segments, but nothing major. In Columbus, all of the spokes are basically six lane freeways. However, there are points where they interchange with other routes, and at those points they drop to four lanes, clearly not a good thing. In Indianapolis, the spoke routes are six lanes, excepting I-70 east which is eight lanes. That section of I-70 is the heaviest travelled highway in Indiana, with over 180,000 vpd. That’s because this is the route north side traffic is generally forced to take to get downtown.

On the whole, Columbus has a far superior interior freeway system.

Each city has a full circumferential beltway: I-270 in Columbus and I-465 in Indianapolis. They are nearly the same length, at 55 miles in Columbus and 53 miles in Indianapolis. There is a small northwestern spur in Indianapolis called I-865, which is basically just a long ramp. There are 27 interchanges in Columbus, 30 in Indianapolis.

Both loops feature a basic six lane cross-section for most of their width. I-270 is eight lanes for the entire northern arc, however, a significant distance. It also has a short four lane segment on the south side. As with the downtown loop, ODOT assumed during design that various freeway-freeway interchanges would have mostly exiting traffic, so there are only four continuous through lanes under the I-70 interchanges. These will no doubt have to be reconstructed at some point. There is also an extended continuous C/D section on parts of the northeast side. I-465 has an eight lane segment from I-70 east to I-69. There is also a small eight lane segment from 71st St. to 86th St. There are no remaining four lane sections. The interchange at I-465 and I-865 does go down to four lanes through the limits of that interchange.

The beltway is the new Main St. in both cities. With the bulk of all growth occurring outside of it, both cities/states are going to be forced to spend a lot of money upgrading these routes.

Columbus is bisected by two interstates: I-70 and I-71. It also has state highways that are of freeway classification that radiate outward from the beltway, including US 33 to the northwest, and SR 161 to the northeast. US 33 to the southeast is being slowly upgraded to freeway status. Indianapolis is intersected by four interstates: I-65, I-69 (terminates at Indianapolis), I-70, and I-74. This gives it seven external spoke routes vs. six in Columbus, with all of them being interstate highways.

In Columbus, I-71 north is six lanes to Delware, about 12 miles beyond the arc. SR 161 is under construction to six lanes. I-70 to the east is six lanes for about three miles. I-71 to the south does not have any six lane or better section outside the loop. I-70 to the east is six lanes for about 27 miles outside the loop, representing the most improved segment of road. US 33 to the northwest in Dublin is four lanes.

In Indianapolis, I-69 is six lanes for five miles outside the loop. I-70 east is six lanes for about one mile outside the loop. I-74 to the southeast is four lanes its entire length. I-65 to the south is six lanes for seven miles outside the loop. I-70 west is six lanes for seven miles outside the loop. I-74 to the northwest is four lanes its entire length. I-65 to the northwest is four lanes its entire length.

With the exception of I-70 to the west in Columbus, the two exterior spoke systems seem broadly comparable in terms of width. However, Columbus only has four interstate spokes, while Indianapolis has seven. What’s more, Indianapolis sits at the intersection of two major interstates – I-65 and I-70 – while Columbus is only on one. Indianapolis is famous for having about the best interstate connectivity of any city in the US – only Atlanta is comparable or better – and this represents a key advantage for the city. It should be noted that both places appear to have similar thriving distribution industries, so this advantage has not yet manifested itself tangibly.

I think it is always difficult to get a real, objective, apples-to-apples way of comparing congestion. So I will give a purely subjective view. I’ve driven in both places, but far more in Indianapolis. My impression of Indianapolis is that it has some of the lowest freeway congestion anywhere I’ve driven. This is starting to change, with I-69 choked up a good period each day as well as routine backups on I-465 west of there. But so far it is hanging in there. Columbus also seems to have reasonable congestion levels with a couple of exceptions. The inner loop is highly congested. I’ve seen backups there as late as 10am (or anytime really, I’d suspect). I’ve also seen a lot of congestion on I-70 to the west backing up onto I-270 south. Both Indy and Columbus seem to have a lot of congestion driven by an inability to channel traffic off of the freeway fast enough at key points, with traffic backing up on off ramps onto the freeway itself, causing congestion.

Both cities have fairly ambitious freeway improvements laid out in their long range plans. But I am a believer in the “I’ll believe it when I see it” school of road construction. So I don’t consider those plans worthwhile to compare at this point.

I hope you found this comparison interesting and of use.

Topics: Transportation
Cities: Columbus (Ohio), Indianapolis

3 Responses to “A Comparison of the Columbus and Indianapolis Freeway Systems”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Nice comparison. Looking forward to the rest.

  2. The Urbanophile says:

    Thanks for reading and for the kind words.

  3. Steve says:

    I read one of your earlier post regarding the I-69 and I really hope that they will fix the I-69 sooner than later. I hope that will fix the ongoing everyday jam eastward on I-465 past US-31 (Meridian St Exit).

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