Pedestrianizing Downtown Indianapolis

It’s no secret that Ray LaHood and the current Department of Transportation believe that cities ought to be for people instead of cars.  In late October, the Department’s $600 million Tiger II grants drove home this point, as 55% of the funds are going towards mass transit or pedestrian oriented transportation improvements across the country (16% went to ports and 29% went to road projects).  Perhaps the most interesting project that received funding is Downtown Crossings in New Haven, Connecticut, which is getting $16 million to remove the limited-access Route 34.  As New Haven urban planners say, the current elevated highway blocks foot-traffic and street front retail and separates the city’s Union Station and the Yale-New Haven hospital from the rest of downtown.  In its place, two walk-bike-transit oriented boulevards will be constructed.  On top of this, other highway tear-down projects in New Orleans and New York City received Tiger II funding for initial planning purposes.

These projects are the latest in a series of highway tear-down or burial projects that have been going on for decades (see Boston’s Big Dig or Portland’s Harbor Drive).  Such efforts have pedestrianized our urban cores and have brought higher quality of life to our cities.  Lately, our cities are beginning to go through heightened pedestrianization acceleration with the continued reconfiguration of auto-oriented thoroughfares to pedestrian plazas (see New York City’s Times Square and San Francisco’s Pavement to Parks).  New Haven’s, New York City’s, and New Orleans’s tear-down projects only add fuel to the fire of this movement.  While Indianapolis is certainly seeing the fruits of this movement in the Cultural Trail and the new Georgia Street configuration, the City could always do more to pedestrianize its urban core and offer the quality of life characteristics that more and more people desire.  Below are five (out of 100 I am sure) ideas on how Indianapolis can amplify the pedestrianization acceleration for its urban core.

One: Urban Circulators

Downtown Indianapolis needs to improve pedestrian access between activity nodes (the CBD, Mass Ave, Fountain Square, and IUPUI) and rail urban circulators are a proven tool in doing so.  Plus, rail transit allows pedestrian-oriented development to occur in higher densities, something that’s needed so a critical mass can be reached and a truly vibrant downtown can be achieved.

Two: Out with the One-Way Streets

As it stands today, the Downtown Indianapolis street system is full of one-way streets that feel more like urban highways than local roads.  These one-way thoroughfares are designed to speed cars in and out of downtown as quickly as possible, all the while creating a hostile environment for pedestrians.  Indianapolis needs to reconvert these streets to two way thoroughfares, something that will slow down traffic, create a safer environment for pedestrians, and increase exposure to downtown businesses, thus fueling economic development.

Three: Lift Ridiculous Regulation and Demand Better Urban Designs

In my opinion, some of the current urban design guidelines for downtown Indianapolis encourage homogeneous streetscapes, creating predictability and monotony in a place that ought to celebrate the ‘human touch’ and allow for diversity and eclectic environments.  Some of the regulations, such as those on outdoor seating and signage, devastate urban vitality and an interesting street life and thus inhibit downtown’s ability to pedestrianize.  Indianapolis ought to be encouraging urbanity, demanding better urban designs, and activating pedestrian activity whenever possible, not discouraging it through over-regulation.

Four: Implement a Public Space Plan

I believe downtown Indianapolis’ strongest and most under-utilized asset is its open spaces.  Monument Circle and the War Memorial are beautiful and should be seen by anyone visiting the Circle City.  Plus, intimate spaces such as the pocket park at Mass Ave and Alabama Street are strong open space features that should be celebrated.  The City needs to program more events in differing spaces throughout downtown, something that can activate street life and create a more vibrant pedestrian experience.   If Indianapolis can define themselves around vibrant, beautiful open spaces and public life in general, a better pedestrian experience can be achieved.

Five: Hide the Highways

Unlike other cities, Indianapolis is lucky that urban highways didn’t catastrophically destroy its downtown.  Still though, the existing highway system creates barriers to pedestrian movement that ultimately inhibits economic development and urban vitality.  Hiding these highways or simply getting rid of them would increase neighborhood connectivity and allow for a more integrated urban fabric to develop.  For example, a ‘cap’ could be placed on Virginia Avenue that would allow for buildings to be erected over the highway (ie. the cap in Columbus, Ohio along High Street) to better connect Fountain Square with downtown and create a seamless urban fabric suitable for pedestrian activity.

The pedestrianization acceleration is a recognized movement sweeping across America’s urban cores.  Indianapolis and the Cultural Trail has been at the forefront in the Midwest, turning over auto-oriented right-of-way to pedestrian needs.  But if Indianapolis wants to take their downtown to the next level and become a great, vibrant, mixed-use. 24/7 district, more needs to be done.  I believe implementing even one of the five ideas outlined above can go a long way in reaching this goal.

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Comments 16

  • That Cap in Columbus is great. I’d love to see something similar on Virginia Avenue.

  • I have to respectfully disagree with your opinion of one-way streets. City cores require one-way streets. Without the ability to efficiently move traffic in and out of the city, more traffic is created. More traffic results in a less pedestrian friendly environment. In addition, more traffic creates more agitated drivers that act in erratic ways such as ignoring traffic signals and bike lanes.

    What would benefit pedestrians is MORE one-way streets with pedestrian friendly cross-walks. More buttons to trigger the walk signals, more walk signals that display the time to cross and audible signals for the disabled, more bike paths (which take less space and planning on one-way streets). The inherent width increase of a one-way street versus a two-way also makes parallel parking easier.

    Despite my disagreement with this item, I think there are a lot of good points in this article. Anything to get more people out and about in our downtown would be a welcome change.

    • Rodney, I’ll have to respectfully disagree with you on that as well. More traffic does not necessarily result in a less pedestrian friendly environment. Often more traffic, especially two-way traffic, slows down the vehicles because drivers fell less like they’re using a highway. Environments where there is a steady stream of slow-moving traffic are often the most pedestrian friendly environments of all.

      • I personally think that the one-ways are fine in the core of downtown (Delaware to West, Ohio to Maryland), where speed limits are 25 and the stoplights are so close together that traveling much faster is difficult. I think they actually improve the pedestrian’s experience, simply because there’s fewer turning opportunities for cars. However, outside the core, where the stoplights get spaced out and cars regularly hit 45-50 MPH, they need to go back to two-way (Delaware, Penn, Capitol, Illinois, Central, Michigan, New York, etc). Those were residential streets that were exploited so that suburbanites could get in and out fast.

        • I have a few comments about your argument for one-way streets:
          1. One-way streets are not justified based on ADT counts (
          2. The “outside the core” streets you named have the same block sizes as the rest of downtown, and the same stoplight spacing. There are a few exceptions such as the government center and monument circle.
          3. Two-way streets improve the pedestrian environment. Traffic slows, businesses get more exposure, pedestrian safety actually improves, and bicycle traffic can share lane space rather than requiring a separate lane.

          For these reasons, the consensus opinion is that 2-way streets are best except in special circumstances (i.e. not downtown Indy).

          • Regarding #2, the blocks are very different downtown, and there is a signal at every intersection. Rarely is there a signal spacing of more than 500 ft. Outside the core, (Delaware from 16th to 22nd comes to mind), there are stretches of 3/4 of a mile without a signal. I bike downtown every day, the one-ways are better than the two-way as long as the speeds are the same.

  • Rodney and Bob. One way streets are solely for traffic efficiency. It does nothing good for pedestrians. Walk down some of these classic Indianapolis one-way/no-life streets and then drive down afterwards: Central Avenue from Fall Creek to 11th Street; Delaware from Market to 22nd; Michigan from Rural to IUPUI; Illinois from Maryland to 38th; and so on. There is a reason for not even attempting to walk these streets for the most part. The fact is, downtown Indianapolis will eventually turn some of these streets back to 2-way in favor of the community, once residential density increases to a point. This statement is pretty basic but how can anybody argue that one way streets are actually better for pedestrians? Have you ever walked or biked these streets?

  • I drive New York, Michigan, College, Pennsylvania and Central/East daily. Penn through FCP and Herron Morton is a very nice walk (I occasionally walk there and see a good number of walkers and runners). There are lots of pedestrians on East south of 10th, especially around Henry’s and Aesop’s, but also along Lockerbie Square. I see plenty of bike riders and walkers on both Michigan and New York all over the east side.
    Creating or getting rid of one-way streets by itself does not create or destroy pedestrian activity in a populated area: Manhattan, the Loop, and Center City Philadelphia are all full of one-way streets AND pedestrians. Simply returning streets to two-way operation won’t really do a thing. (Just look at College from Fairfield to Massachusetts. It’s been two-way for 15 years or more. The new commercial development in that time consists mainly of two new gas station-c stores.)
    The direction of traffic flow is only a small part of whether a street has pedestrian activity. The bigger part of the issue is the built form of the ROW and the neighborhoods along it, including the residential density, the commercial intensity, the amount of auto-dominant commercial, and whether there’s parking in the curb lane. Transit routes and ridership play a part, as well.
    Where there are lots of things to do and lots of people living and/or working, it almost doesn’t matter whether it’s a one-way or two-way street. But making a street two-way has almost nothing to do with bringing lots of things to do or lots of people.

  • bob, I dont know what streets you ride on, but there is no way that I would ride my bike in rush hour one way traffic. I cruise through downtown on my bike headed for school at IUPUI a couple times a week and I will use the bike lanes on Michigan and NY, but I find it worth the extra time to get across DT using 2 ways than it is to use Michigan & NY. Mostly because people speed through those areas.

  • If you’re only using pedestrian-friendly as your criteria than maybe eliminating one-way streets makes sense. But I’m not sure that’s the only criteria that should be used.

    I’d be interested in discussions about how to maximize pedestrian-friendliness downtown while also maximizing safe and efficient traffic flow. I’m not sure it needs to be an either/or, bur rather an AND.

    I’d be curious to see a simulation of traffic after a Colts game lets out or during peak rush hour times, etc. if all the streets were two-way. I’m not saying it would be worse. But it would be interested to see some computer models of what would happen.

  • I am writing this as an onlooker from Portland, OR. Our downtown consists of mainly one ways but the blocks are much smaller. Bikes are not allowed on the sidewalk in the core area. It is easier to ride a bike than to drive a car. The signals are set for a car at about 10-15 mph, so a bike has no problem keeping up.
    I think the major difference, as I noted earlier, is the block size and width of sidewalks. You could probably fit 4 Portland city blocks in one Indy block. We have no alleys, so there is no where to hide those ugly things: trash, recycling, etc.
    If you were to widen the sidewalks and add bike lanes in Indy it would lead to a more inviting atmosphere for getting out of you car and reduce the size of those monstrous streets. I am always overwhelmed at the distance while crossing the street in downtown Indy, usually 6 lanes?

  • Fisherpdx, I completely agree with you. The real problem in DT Indy are block sizes and ROW widths. I contemplated putting ‘shrink block sizes’ in as one of my ideas, but was not sure how that could be implemented. If Jane Jacobs taught us anything, its that block sizes are extremely important to urban vitality, use diversity, and pedestrian choice. But it seems to me that Indy is stuck with the block sizes it has for quite some time, so turning the streets to two way streets is a reasonable alternative. One way streets with large block sizes is a recipe for disaster.

  • For fisherpdx, it might be a lesser known metro, but Ft Wayne has blocks that are pretty similar to POrtland. Having visited both in the past few months, I thought that it was interesting that Indiana’s second largest city has so many differences about it. I found the smaller block sizes, and narrow right of ways to make the city much more inviting.

  • One other thought, corner curb extensions. I know that corners are a big topic on here, and having them stick out really makes those intersections a helluva lot less intimidating. I believe I have seen a few posts on the city re-working corners to make it easier for cars to speed around them, at least that would be my guess for it.

    • Yes, that is a huge problem in DPW and INDOT. This is still happening in Center Township. If it is happening there, it will be hard to hope for the full-scale rethinking of our development patterns as a city.

      • Curb bump-outs in many areas should be first priority just for some relief, plus it’s a simple/practical traffic calming solution (College Avenue???). Hopefully, new architecture/development will be the most natural way to make Indy more pedestrian friendly. Indy needs to focus on diversifying it’s neighborhoods with affordable, mix-used development and creative street infrastructure…more than what has been done over the years.

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