Bike infrastructure booming in Indianapolis

By Robert Annis, photos by Jeremy Albert.

After decades of little or no attention paid to cyclists, Indianapolis has made massive strides over the past three years to encourage two-wheeled transportation, thanks in large part to a bike-friendly mayor and a small but dedicated group of advocates.

Before Greg Ballard was elected mayor in 2007, the Hoosier capitol had less than one mile of bike lanes within the city. During Ballard’s first term, road crews painted nearly 64 miles of bike lanes, and shortly after his November 2011 re-election, the mayor pledged $20 million to create an additional 75 miles of trails and lanes by 2015. Once completed, Indianapolis will have more than 200 miles of trails, greenways, and bike lanes, allowing commuter and recreational cyclists to travel nearly anywhere in the city almost entirely via the bike network.

A jaded observer might call the Republican Ballard’s courting of area cyclists an attempt to grab votes in a Democratic-leaning city, but it’s obvious after spending any time at all with him that he truly loves bicycling. Unlike many mayors who dust off their rusty Schwinn for the annual Bike to Work Day, Ballard rides as often as he can before heading into work in the morning. He’s also a fixture at organized rides, bike races, and trail openings, and even rode in the legendary Little 500, the race made famous by the movie Breaking Away. Ballard also sponsored the city’s first Polar Bear Pedal last January, which attracted nearly 500 riders on a snowy, sub-freezing day.

Ballard is already thinking past 2020 and beyond Indianapolis’ city limits. He and other mayors and leaders from the surrounding counties have been working on a proposal that would expand the trails to the suburbs and legions of potential bed- room community commuters.

Ballard’s Democratic predecessor Bart Peterson didn’t do much to encourage bike commuting, but he did help shepherd the 10-mile Monon Trail, which stretches north from Indianapolis to Westfield, to completion in 2003. Not only did the trail increase cycling’s visibility, but it also serves as the primary spine for the city’s northbound bike network.

“Anytime you create cycling infrastructure, it feeds upon itself,” said local advocate Tom McCain. “Trails lead to more cyclists which leads to the need for more bike lanes which again leads to more cyclists…the Monon has become more than just a piece of transportation infrastructure, it’s become a way of life for a lot of residents. It was an important first step that laid the groundwork for expansion.”

Part of that expansion is the eight-mile Indianapolis Cultural Trail, which, when completed later this year, will weave through several of the city’s hip neighborhoods, including Broad Ripple and Fountain Square. It also includes the new $1 million Indy Bike Hub, which opened to much fanfare last fall.

The Hub is located in City Market, a historic, city-owned building that had been struggling to keep tenants for much of the last decade. Officials had toyed with the idea of building a fitness center in the building’s east wing, but the idea quickly gained momentum after the bike proponent was added. In addition to showers and a locker room, the bike hub includes a full- service repair and retail shop, operated by Bicycle Garage Indianapolis.

“The Bike Hub sends a pretty strong signal we want people to ride to work, to have a place where they can get cleaned up and hit the gym if they want,” Ballard said. “We’re putting the pieces together to make bike commuting as easy as possible.”

Ballard claims he’s not a micromanager, but admits he was insistent on at least one aspect of the Bike Hub—lockers large enough for several days’ worth of work clothes and toiletries. The largest lockers available for monthly rental were reserved within weeks.

Ballard sees the infrastructure improvements as a much-needed form of alternative transportation in the growing city, and as another enticement for the young, creative class most regions are trying to at- tract. “There’s a cultural change going on in the city,” Ballard said. “As we see more physical changes [to the city and its residents], we’re going to continue seeing young and middle-aged people really respond to what we’re doing. By offering lots of activities and options, people are going to change the way they move around town.”

The hard work is getting noticed. In 2010, the League of American Bicyclists named Indianapolis a Bicycle-Friendly Community.

The city doesn’t yet have a solid grasp of exactly how many people are using the lanes, but the League of American Bicyclists estimates a 62 percent increase in commuter cyclists from 2008 to 2009. City Planner Jamison Hutchins said the city plans to hire an outside contractor to create a count sometime this year. McCain, who heads the local Pedal and Park non-profit, claims all-time highs last year for events worked and the number of bikes stored.

“A few years ago, demand for the program really took off,” McCain said. “We’re seeing a huge increase in the non-traditional cycling crowd, mostly young families who want to go to an art festival (or other event) and want to have fun and exercise at the same time.”

That’s not to say there haven’t been any hiccups. Some critics believe the city’s efforts on bike lanes are actually making commuters less safe. Local attorney and blogger Paul Ogden argues the design of some of the bike lanes leave cyclists open to getting hit by motorists opening their car doors, while other lane markings are too confusing for many drivers. Ogden also criticized the lack of upkeep of many of the lanes, saying they’re frequently covered in glass and road debris.

“These bike lanes are giving riders a false sense of security,” said Ogden, himself a frequent bicycle commuter. “They think they’re safe, but it’s only a strip of paint separating them from vehicle traffic. I wouldn’t want my son or daughter riding them.”

Although Ogden claims they’re dangerous, city officials aren’t aware of any motorist-cyclist accidents involving the bike lanes. By contrast, elsewhere in the city, there were 160 vehicle-bike collisions between January 1 and October 1 of last year.

Ogden and others prefer a greater emphasis on greenways or segregated bike lanes, both of which are more expensive than traditional bike lanes and not as financially practical for the cash-strapped city. Hutchins understands their desires, but believes they’re missing the point, arguing that most cyclists realize that just because they’re in a bike lane, they’re not magically protected from traffic.

Hutchins acknowledges some of the earliest bike lanes aren’t perfect, but claims city engineers are learning from previous mistakes. Local advocacy group Indy Cog recently created a list of suggestions for the city to help improve the existing lanes, many of which the city were already implementing.

City planners have gone out of their way to avoid controversies, declining to move forward with at least one bike lane project that would take away on-street parking for surrounding businesses. In- stead, the city went with sharrows.

“There’s still a bit of confusion every now and then,” Hutchins acknowledged. “But typically traffic continues to roll smoothly. There’s just one or two lane shifts; it really doesn’t change the way people drive.”

Ballard has heard complaints about the lanes from constituents, particularly those who are a little older, but is quick to point out the designs were created according to federal standards.

Education efforts are underway as well. Over three weeks last summer, Indianapolis police held a special enforcement campaign, issuing warnings to both drivers and cyclists they noticed breaking the law. As the bike network continues to expand, city officials hope to do more of the campaigns.

“Drivers were driving partially in the bike lane or not giving three feet to the riders; cyclists were riding on the wrong side of the road or running stop signals or signs,” Hutchins said. “Cyclists have the right to be on the road, but they also share the same responsibilities as a car. No one’s immune to the law.”

League of American Bicyclists spokeswoman Meghan Cahill says the best thing cyclists can do to promote safer riding conditions is multiply: “The more cyclists you have on the road, the more awareness you’re going to have.”

Bicycles will likely never outnumber pick-up trucks on Indy’s streets, but the city will continue the last three years of amazing progress. City officials and bike advocates admit Indianapolis still has a way to go before it can join the pantheon of bike-friendly cities like Portland or Minneapolis, but with Ballard leading the way, don’t bet against it.

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