The Indianapolis Star just ran an excellent in-depth article on the city’s sad situation with street lighting. Indy placed a moratorium on new streetlight installation in 1980, leaving a vast city with very few streetlights relative to its population and geography.
As I pointed out some time ago during the Detroit bankruptcy, when the fact that half its streetlights weren’t working was national news, even a half-functioning streetlight system in, of all places, Detroit was better than the situation in Indy.
But streetlights are the least of it. Indy has by far the poorest infrastructure of any Midwestern city I’ve seen. Vast numbers of its streets lack curbs, sidewalks, or much else in the way of infrastructure. The picture at the top was my old street on the North Side. This was part of the city pre-Unigov, so consolidation can’t be blamed for its design deficiencies.
This neighborhood could be worse. The houses have basements. There are alleys (though basically unpaved apparently unmaintained by the city and not used for trash pickup) and some storm sewers. But this doesn’t even meet the minimum standards for a city street. No wonder that citywide 27 pedestrians were killed last year and 585 since the streetlight moratorium took effect.
The city is flat broke financially (or so they say – there always seems to be some way to find money to subsidize real estate developers). Given that putting in proper infrastructure would be a multi-billion dollar endeavor, it seems unlikely to ever happen. And even if the city tried, it has not proven to date that it is even capable of designing and building a proper urban street.
What’s more, even if it did somehow magically find the funds to build all this infrastructure, Indy suffers from the “Strong Towns Problem“: the tax base of the city doesn’t generate enough revenue to pay to maintain it. That’s one reason why even the deficient base infrastructure is in such bad shape, as the city itself would be the first to tell you.
As the streetlight moratorium itself illustrates, Indianapolis has already effectively declared bankruptcy on much of its street and alley infrastructure.
Indy will be an interesting test case on the importance of “livable streets” to urban success. To date, it has done reasonably well despite its infrastructure limitations. If it succeeds over the long term as a municipality, it will prove that the rhetoric around the importances of sidewalks and the like is overblown. If it fails, there were certainly be multiple factors to blame, but it will nevertheless still be a cautionary tale for others than aren’t taking care of infrastructure business.