Saturday, January 24th, 2009
It was last week when I was walking to work. I know, I know, strange concept, but bear with me. A woman and me were waiting to cross Delaware St. on the north side of the intersection with Maryland St. in downtown Indianapolis. The light turned, the walk signal came on, and we started to cross. Traffic came rocketing down Maryland and whipped it around the corner from dual left turn lanes at high speeds. The woman jumped and a car swerved to avoid her getting flattened. The car coming at me slammed on his brakes, at which point the driver stared at me with this look that said, “What are you doing in my lane.
People talk about building a transit culture in Indianapolis. Well, you can’t start building a transit culture until you have a walking culture. I continue to be amazed how even highly progressive hip urban types use their car for every trip. Multiple times I’ve had people drive me less than two blocks to a destination – crazy. Or maybe not. Clearly, walking on the streets of Indianapolis is neither safe nor pleasant. Until safety and quality of experience for pedestrians is radically improved, transit will never take off no matter how much money is spent on it.
Let’s take a look at some of what confronts pedestrians in Indianapolis today.
First, I am an avid runner. When I moved to my Fountain Square home, my first instinct was to use College Ave. as a jogging corridor. Here is what I discovered. Heading north, you come across a rail overpass with no sidewalk on the east side of the street:
Note the second rail overpass in the background. We’ll come to that shortly.
Not very safe here. So let’s cross to the west side of the street:
Ah, here’s a sidewalk – but note the tree growing in it. Fortunately it is now winter. But in the summer, that tree’s foliage renders the sidewalk unpassable.
Ok, we made it. Now we come to the next rail overpass just up the street at Washington.
Oops. Now no crossing on the west side of the street. So let’s cross back to the east.
Wait a minute. I can cross to the sidewalk on the far side – but I can’t continue north. So I’ve got to cross from west to east to cross Washington St., then go back to the west side to keep going north on College. Of course, when I do that, I find this blocking my path:
I’m very glad the contractors found the sidewalk such a useful place to put their sign warning motorists about upcoming construction. Clearly, College is not very good if you are on foot. Keep in mind, this is a very busy arterial street with lots of high speed traffic. Darting in and out of that traffic to navigate on foot is risky, no doubt.
So let’s deep six the College idea and try East St. instead. Here’s the east side crossing at Washington:
You might want to click to enlarge this one to see better. What we have are the ADA wheelchair ramps for the crosswalk, but no pedestrian signal or striping. You might be saying, “Ok, not great, but not that big a deal either”. Actually, it is. Because you see, there is actually not any point in the stoplight cycle when pedestrians can cross. There is perpetually a green light or arrow allowing cars to drive through. The wheelchair ramps are for a fake crosswalk that doesn’t actually exist. I hope no disabled people actually try to cross there. Or non-disabled people who don’t want to become disabled for that matter. Washington St. is seven lanes wide at this point, by the way.
Us downtown joggers are a hardy crew of urban adventurers. But I digress.
Back to my walk to work down Virginia. When you get to the expressway, here’s what confronts you:
The sidewalk is cut away to enable cars rocketing down Virginia to make that turn at high speeds without slowing down.
I talked before about all the little rituals that make a place what it is. In Indianapolis, one of the rituals you have to learn as a pedestrian is looking back over your shoulder just to make sure it is safe to keep walking down the same sidewalk you are on. This is Exhibit A of why. Here’s what that look back looks like
I took this shot standing in the wheelchair ramp. Imagine a child or someone in a wheelchair standing there. There’s no way those cars are going to see that person. Even a standing adult isn’t that visible until the car is almost upon you, a dangerous combination when paired with this high design speed turn.
Interestingly, this looks like a freeway on ramp, but it is not. It’s a connector street leading to the on ramp and comes to a stop sign only about 150 feet further on. That’s right. The road was designed for a very high speed turn that leads to a stop sign less than a block away. Nice.
So you might be saying right now, “Ok, Urbanophile. We get it. But come on. This was built in the 1970′s when we didn’t know any better. We’re not building things like this anymore.” Uh, actually, we are. Here is the currently under construction on ramp at Washington St., part of the city’s new $20 million “front door” of which it is so proud.
Not content with a mere six lanes of traffic on Washington, the designers kindly included a dedicated right turn lane with a high speed turn designed to channel rapidly traveling cars onto the freeway without them having to slow down. The building on the left is the Salvation Army Adult Rehabilitation Center. I’ve noted relatively high pedestrian traffic in the area (for Indy), and speculate that facility might generate significant pedestrian O&D traffic. Not safe.
Here’s a closeup of the curb that shows the incredible way it was designed to accommodate high speed car traffic.
Incredible. Also, gotta love those poles in the middle of the sidewalk too.
Ok, you might be saying, things might not have been thought completely true, but it wasn’t like anyone pointed this out in advance. Uh, actually, I did. You can read my evaluation of the project renderings, published in advance of the letting, that pointed out this and the many other problems with this project. It made absolutely no difference. People often ask me why I don’t write letters to the city or state with feedback on projects. But after a decade plus of doing that with not one change to show for it, I got tired of the exercise in futility.
Oh, and if I try to walk to work on the other side of Virginia, I’m confronted with another problem. Here’s the crosswalk at McCarty St.
Again, you might need to enlarge to see clearly, but while there’s a wheelchair ramp on the far side of the street, there’s not one on the near side, there is no marked crosswalk, and the far side wheelchair ramp – also useful for people with strollers, luggage, etc – points directly at a non-traversable raised median. Here’s a closeup of that.
Lest you wonder, there is a wheelchair ramp on the other side, but it is pointing out into space:
Given that this leads directly into the middle of the intersection, I sure hope no one actually tries to walk where thing thing points.
“Ok, ok,” you might be saying, “But surely we’re not doing that sort of thing today.”
Uh, actually, we are. Or at least something similar. Here’s a picture from another one of Indy’s showplace developments, Fall Creek Place:
What you see here is that the ramp crossings are offset to the left from the sidewalk. This means anyone, for example, pushing a stroller has to turn left when they get to the corner, cross the street, then turn right in order to get back to the main sidewalk. There’s a mini-detour built in to every single street crossing. Not very pedestrian friendly to put it mildly. Someone must be very enamored of this setup, however, since it appears to be an emerging quasi-standard. I notice it used by Lucas Oil Stadium too. Let’s hope someone changes their mind on this.
Fall Creek Place has several other design problems as well. For example, on the blocks of Alabama St. from 25th to 22nds, the designers thoughtfully decided to exclude any street lighting. That’s certainly not much encouragement for pedestrian or bicyclist to use that street after dark, especially considering that this is still an emerging neighborhood.
Speaking of bicycles, this development is not bike friendly either. Here’s a picture of College Ave. showing cars parked along it. While there is no marked bike lane, you can see that the dashes from the travel lanes mark out a pretty generous space for bikes. My friendly advice: if you want to ride north from downtown any distance, don’t risk getting mugged on the Monon. Take College. If you are only going up to 22nd or so, take Alabama.
Now let’s see what Delaware St. looks like in Fall Creek Place, a new, modern development.
Note here the bump-outs with trees in them, with marked parking spaces. This is supposed to be a traffic calming device. And indeed it does provide protection for people on the sidewalk who would otherwise be directly next to the street. It keeps drivers from using the parking lane as a travel lane if people aren’t parked there. However, there is no space for a bicycle, so cyclists are forced into the main travel lane. Delaware is a one way commuter arterial with synchronized traffic signals that moves large volumes of cars at very high speeds. More free advice: if you value your life, don’t ride a bicycle on Delaware if you can avoid it.
It’s pretty fitting that all of these are in a city known for a famous car race. Because moving cars quickly is the only value expressed by the design of its streets and roads. Lest you think I’m cherry picking bad examples, think again. I’d guess over half the mileage of arterial streets in Indianapolis don’t have sidewalks at all. All of my examples are from downtown or the urban core, so can be expected to have higher quality of pedestrian experience. Indeed, two of them are premier city developments that leaders point to with pride as an example of progress.
I realize that the longest journey begins with a step, and it is going to take a long time to improve the quality of experience in the city’s public spaces. Unfortunately, the city is still moving backwards. The first rule when you’re digging yourself into a hole: stop digging.
Fortunately, there’s a least one example where the city is getting right big time. That is the great Indy Cultural Trail project. This urban trail actually has separate auto, bike, and pedestrian lanes for much of its length. What’s more, on the stretch that has been completed on Alabama, a one way street, the trail designers actually included a red arrow cycle for turns off Alabama when the light is green for through traffic. This gives pedestrians and bikes a clear and safe period to cross the street where even turning traffic won’t interfere. Brilliant.
The challenge, as I’ve noted before, is that Indy has produced some absolutely, totally legitimate world class public spaces. The Cultural Trail, Monument Circle, and the Wholesale District stop lights all come to mind. But none of these are leveraged apart from the isolated location where they are first installed. Indeed, they are often left unmaintained to decay over time.
Let’s hope the Cultural Trail will be different, and that it will inspire the city to think differently about quality of space in its public places. Again, the mark of a great city isn’t in how it treats its special places, but its ordinary ones. If Indy ever hopes to create a downtown worthy of what it is, a transit system that is well used, and much more, it needs to start changing the game on pedestrian friendly design and other parts of its public space. I’ll be optimistic and hope that the Cultural Trail inspires us to do that. It’s an absolutely essential part of having a “safe and liveable” city.
In the meantime, if I stop blogging without explanation, you’ll know what happened.