Did Interstates cause the end of acceptible transit in Indy?

I have been thinking more about this map that I posted last week that features Indy’s transit system in 1945. The map is a bit unclear in my photo, so I will explain it for you here.

Red lines are the streetcars
Black lines are trackless trolleys
The difficult-to-see green lines are buses.

One thing that really jumps out to me is that Indianapolis’ grid actually looks like a city, instead of the jumble of disconnected areas that we have currently. Another thing to notice is that there are very few regions that are more than a few blocks from a transit line of some sort.

Urban Freeways were a contentious part of the Interstate Highway Act, for obvious reasons. They were prohibitively destructive to neighborhoods. Much has been written about that. However, I wonder how much we appreciate that they also disrupted the logic of the street grids enough to further discourage transit.

It’s easy for a transit promoter like me to rip on the interstates without looking at the benefits. Indy does have a working downtown core that has rebounded after being nearly abandoned in the 1970’s. I guarantee that without the interstates, even more businesses would be located in the suburbs. However, with the interstates, it’s easy for commuters to bypass urban neighborhoods without much trouble, while the people who are left behind continue to struggle.

Growing up in Fort Wayne, we often talked about the city being like a donut. All of the items necessary for living were located on the periphery, while the downtown was nearly empty of people and services. However, in Indy, we have a reverse donut. A decent downtown, surrounded mostly by places that have seen a long period of disinvestment.

I don’t pretend to have answers for solving all of our problems in urban neighborhoods. And I’m certainly not suggesting that we should remove the interstates and start over. However, I believe that we need to look at how we got to this point.

As a final point, the map I mentioned at the beginning of the blog also contained a suggestion to watch this film. It’s about an hour long, but worth the time.

Comments 9

  • At the very least, interstates could be made to serve the areas that, up until this point, have disrupted. Having more than two pedestrian bridges in the city would be a start. Then move on to repair the continuity to shunted neighborhood streets, and perhaps more exits that server areas that have to contend with the noise and barriers that highways bring. I'm not saying any of these would fix the problem, but feel like ranting 😉

  • I'd add that unfortunately sometimes the location of freeways was not indiscriminate, but purposeful. Unfortunately, not for the best reasons. In Milwaukee some cut right through vibrant urban neighborhoods of African Americans.. this happened in NYC as well.

  • That is certainly believable. They didn't place Interstates in Washington Township, which is where the power base of the city has been for quite a while.

  • I agree with Dave Reid, the interstate placement was anything but indiscriminate.

  • Perhaps I should change the wording. Thanks for the correction.

  • I think I understood what you were saying, that the interstate systems were laid out in such a way that prevents effective transit systems. That is a good point. The legacy that the urban interstates have left the city makes it very difficult to integrate different parts of the city together.

    I don't know if I agree that the interstates saved the downtown, though. That only makes sense in the context that transit was abandoned. People used the roads because they were built, but it was not the only option. Indianapolis could have extended rapid transit systems to the newer neighborhoods, it may have even been cost competitive at the time.

    It is always difficult to argue hypotheticals, but maybe with enough time and major transit investments then cities would have been better off without the interstates / limited access highways.

  • Perhaps our biggest problem is our lack of borders. We are able to spread out in all directions easily. Most large American Cities with successful transit have physical barriers (or they created them in Portland's case). Of course, our flatness could also turn out to be a positive for bicycling and walking, if only we had the willpower to shift our development patterns.

    I certainly wish the city would have continued expanding our quality transit instead of building our interstates. But we are by nature a go-with-the-flow place, and the flow was going towards car-based development nation-wide.

    In addition, many people became employed in the auto industry, so that had to be another factor in our city's transformation. It became good for business to promote the private vehicle. I'd even go so far to say that the Indy 500 also played a role our city's psyche.

  • >>>However, in Indy, we have a reverse donut. A decent downtown, surrounded mostly by places that have seen a long period of disinvestment.<<<

    Indianapolis is similar to a large number of mid-sized cities in this regard. However, I would submit that it is not entirely the appearance of urban interstates that caused flight away from the city.

    In the 1960s, before many of these urban interstates had been built, we undertook a massive social experiment in this country to try and correct the iniquities of discrimination. It involved the breakup of community, and the forced busing of students to schools far away.

    We talk a lot about community these days. It was as important then as it is now. Families back then didn’t want their kids bussed to the other side of town to schools they had little involvement with. We wouldn't want it now either. The automobile, and the emergence of the urban highway system, combined with new, planned developments in the suburbs and new, affordable housing, made the choice easy for so many families who preferred to be part of a community.

    Those with a narrow perspective will view this in simple terms as just a racist reaction, but the reasons were far more complex, and at the same time, more basic.

    Transportation options in the immediate area around downtown Indianapolis are really quite good. Plentiful roads and bus service abound.

    As other cities have seen, many would prefer to be part of the city as opposed to part of the suburb. But with regard to Indianapolis, the inner-city has massive property taxes and a bloated, extremely poorly-performing school system. As long as that remains, families who have options are not going to locate there, regardless of transportation options.

  • The interstate helped downtown Indy develop into a convention center. I'm not sure how long it will take downtown population growth to increase 300%. A while. But gas prices will be the one factor that contributes to the reverse GM affect. Not that a government funded mass transit network for the country will make cities much more attractive than the suburbs. But $5 gas will change development standards in general to benefit both social structures.

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