Emerson Avenue: lopsided improvements.

The south side of Indianapolis has long perceived of itself as the most neglected part of town, and not just in terms of its relationship with local media.  When it comes to investment from city agencies, whether Parks and Recreation, the City-County Public Library system, or mass transit, basic empirical evidence suggests that per capita spending is significantly lower in the three townships south of the Circle than anywhere else.  So southsiders could greet an improvement to Emerson Avenue with the predictable if paradoxical mixture of doe-eyed optimism and an ossified doubt.  The long planned widening of this over-15-mile boundary between four townships (Center and Warren to the north; Perry and Franklin to the south) is heavily traveled across most of its duration, but it tapers into a collector-level capacity south of Beech Grove, despite the fact that, in the past twenty years, residential and commercial development on either side places South Emerson at a comparable income density to some of its northern segments.


Without belaboring the basic urban planning principles that discourage most road widening, suffice it to say that the Indianapolis Depart of Public Works has begun a long-planned expansion of Emerson Avenue’s capacity, starting at Thompson Road and continuing southward for two miles to Southport Road.  The project is well underway and is likely to finish before the end of the calendar year.  I made a visit about two weeks ago to assess progress:

The majority of the widening seems to be taking place on the eastern side of Emerson Avenue, the side from which I took the above photo.  Meanwhile, judging from the color of the concrete at the curb, the western side is nearly finished.

But it appears to be missing the most basic of transportation enhancements: the sidewalk.  Despite thorough specifications for the placement of sidewalks, nothing in the Section 731-221 Special Regulations within the Dwelling Districts Zoning Ordinance expressly requires the placement of them on both sides of the street.

I am not aware of an approved residential subdivision since around the mid-1990s that lacks them on both sides, so the City may perceive them as a fundamental to a site plan in order to earn an excavation or construction permit.  However, that doesn’t mean that the City’s own Public Works Department has to abide by this ostensible gentleman’s agreement.  A view of the Emerson Avenue from a point somewhat further to the north while standing on the west (Perry Township) side confirms: the upgrade does not include a sidewalk on the one side of the street.  Here’s a view looking southward:

And northward:

The DPW has obviously only recently placed that curb, and the adjacent asphalt to the cartway is brand new.


A quick glance at the City’s official press release on this project shows that, yes,  the plan has always been only to install “new sidewalks along the east side of the roadway”.  So Southsiders have little more to anticipate than a sidewalk on one side of the road—the same prototype the City implement in many of the road widening projects that took place in the early 1990s, well before the city ramped up the standards for new sidewalk construction, and obviously preceding RebuildIndy, Mayor Ballard’s comprehensive multi-year infrastructure improvement project.


Obviously moderation is in order here, like everywhere: we cannot expect comprehensive sidewalks on every linear foot of every arterial and collector in the city.  Indianapolis is simply not densely populated in many districts to justify such expenditures.  If these street improvements were taking place two miles to the east, on Franklin Road, it would be difficult to justify adding a sidewalk on both sides of the street, since only the western side of the street hosts very many residential subdivisions.  (And if improvements took place three miles to the east, on Acton Road, almost the entirety of the street is rural in character, weakening any argument for the installation of a sidewalk at this point.)  But Emerson Avenue is already a longer and more significant street than Franklin or Acton, it hosts a number of residential subdivisions on either side of the street, and the northwest corner of Emerson and Southport Road is home to one of the busiest shopping centers on the south side, featuring a Target and Kohl’s as anchors.


But the biggest argument in favor of double-loaded sidewalks on Emerson echoes another widespread crusade: the goal of linking pedestrian nodes with transit corridors.  Emerson has long hosted one of the few Indygo bus routes to the south side: Route 16 operates six days a week and stretches southward to just past the Marion County line.  Does the Department of Public Works think that Indygo users will only need to wait for northbound buses?  Based on the design of these improvements, Indygo riders embarking on the southbound route will have to walk in the grass, which means that those with mobility impairments will have maneuver on the edge the street—a newly widened Emerson Avenue, whose improved Level of Service will inevitably encourage higher automobile speeds than before.  Not desirable at all.


This shortsighted initiative is business as usual for the Department of Public Works, and sidewalks are hardly an anomaly among infrastructure updgrades.  The Star recently posted an article about managing surges in crime around Broad Ripple, with many residents requesting the City to enhance lighting on the virtually pitch-black side streets that intersect Broad Ripple Avenue.  The city’s response?  A DPW spokeswoman says that the city’s policy “for decades ahs been tor elocate unneeded streetlights rather than to install new ones, with few exceptions.”  So any improvements to the lighting in Broad Ripple will most like come at another neighborhood or corridor’s disadvantage.


It’s not entirely fair to through Public Works under the bus.  Clearly it is reflective of a broader Indianapolis culture of “low cost, low service”, manifested by numerous ballot initiatives that often undergo countless dilutions and compromises in the interest of cutting cost.  And it is completely unreasonable to advocate more, more, more in this regard, since my advocacy would only confirm my pro-pedestrian chauvinism.  But the mentality in planning for street upgrades at this point lacks an obvious ecumenicalism: did anyone involved in the design of this widening even consider if Emerson Avenue south of Thompson Road served a bus route?  Did they consider that most of Emerson north of Thompson Road (through the excluded town of Beech Grove) has sidewalks on both sides of the street?  We can only hope that the recently passed Complete Street Ordinance will foster a change—not that it will hold DPW to higher standards (it’s definitely going to do that, even if the Department attempts to maneuver around the standards as much as possible in order to save money).  The biggest goal is that the ordinance might tether the designers of Indianapolis’ street improvements to a mentality that considers roads from the perspective of their diverse array of users.  Designing and bidding for the Emerson Avenue expansion preceded Indianapolis Complete Streets.  At the least it will be interesting in a few months to see if the sidewalk on the east side of Emerson has the benefit of a separating planting strip or manages to provide enough space around those utility poles.

Comments 13

  • Thanks for this provocative post. I’m sadly not surprised that road widening is still seen as superior to pedestrian infrastructure along the city’s corridors.

  • “It’s not entirely fair to through Public Works under the bus.”
    Meh, I think they typically deserve it. You allude at the end to poles in sidewalks and separation between sidewalks and streets. Doing those things cost money, yes, but it is such a ridiculously small amount when compared to the budget for a project like this. If they could just start doing the small things right and not relegate it to an afterthought, it would make a massive difference. DPW deserves the full brunt of the bus’s undercarriage.

  • Also, I see exactly zero mentions of bike infrastructure. That sucks.

  • One slight amplification: Emerson is also the boundary between Washington and Lawrence Townships for about a mile and a half, from 38th to Ladywood Drive.
    A bigger amplification: Emerson (going south from Washington) is on-and-off four lanes, down to to two just north of Prospect (1000 south). It loses both its sidewalks, which extend from 21st south to the 600 south block. The road continues as two-lane, no-sidewalk from Prospect to Raymond St., from which it becomes 4 lanes, no-sidewalk until Albany St. in Beech Grove.
    The east sidewalk along the “Great Wall of Amtrak” is not ADA compliant, and a “real” sidewalk starts at Garstang St. Dual sidewalks then run all the way through Beech Grove to Wal-Mart, south of I-465. (This is one of few places in Indy where dual sidewalks cross over 465 on bridges.) There’s a little more single sidwalk south of there, on the east side from Thompson to Shelbyville.
    North of 21st across I-70 and Mass Ave, there is a sidewalk gap to 32nd. From there, there are dual sidewalks north to 46th, with a single west sidewalk north to Laurel Hall Drive (5400 north).
    In the IndyConnect plan, the Emerson corridor would get a north-south crosstown route all the way from Wal Mart (just south of where Emerson crosses I-65) north to 46th. I don’t think the plan addresses the lack of sidewalks.

  • Oops…make that “all the way from St. Francis Hospital” instead of Wal-Mart.

  • Great post Eric.

    I would expect that, with Complete Streets in place, DPW would call this project a complete street because it accommodates pedestrians (and perhaps even bicyclists) on that one sidewalk. It would be inconsequential to DPW that most pedestrians would need to unnecessarily cross a high-speed, five-lane roadway, once if not twice in order to complete their trip. This is why I don’t see the Complete Streets ordinance as a panacea. DPW will say that one sidewalk is good enough, and that will be that, presuming there isn’t a huge uproar from the citizens and/or the City-County Council.

    By the way, in addition to watching for the tree lawn/separation between sidewalk and curb (which I think might actually be included in much of the project), you should also watch for the unnecessarily long crosswalks, if they are even included, caused by DPW’s typical “overdesign” which will attempt to accommodate the biggest, longest vehicles turning corners at the fastest speeds possible. Since you won’t have a sidewalk on the other side of the street, what need would there be for a crosswalk. And, of course, few people will use the one sidewalk due to its difficulty in accessing it and its low utilitarian value. Then, the infrequent use of the sidewalk will be used as a justification for not spending the additional money it would’ve taken to build two sidewalks here, or to do so on a similar project in the future.

  • Yes it more than fair to “throw DPW under the bus.” Turnabout is fair play especially since our right to safe and accessible streets is clearly expendable in their eyes . . .

  • Thanks for the comments, everyone. Glad to hear people have some fire in their bellies when it comes to DPW. At the very least, the Complete Streets ordinance will prove a better method to hold the decision-makers to task for egregious pedestrian/bicycle oversights. I expect this improvement, when completed, will look pretty similar to the sidewalk (not plural) along Post Road north of 21st street or thereabouts. The big difference, of course, was that the Post Road improvements took place about 15 years ago, if I recall correctly, and the awareness of good street design within the community has risen exponentially since then…though it remains to be seen if that exponential increase includes the people that can really push it into effect.

  • You are supposed to target investments in areas like Mass Ave, Fountain Sq, etc. But sidewalks are pretty basic.

  • Can tell you without any reservations DPW will only do the bare minimum. Gotta always remember we are talking about an agency that places pedestrian safety at the very bottom of their list of priorities . . .

  • As someone who lives near the Emerson Avenue corridor on the south side, I would like to provide a few insights.

    -First, the bus line down Emerson Avenue from about Thompson Road south to County Line Road is actually pretty new compared to other corridors, having been extended from Thompson Road south to County Line about five…maybe a few more than that…years ago. It used to end at the Kmart shopping center there at Emerson and Thompson where it connected with the Keystone Crosstown route. So the fact that the bus line wasn’t considered much doesn’t surprise me. Some bus pullouts would be nice along with a sidewalk along the western side of the street, but I’m asking for way too much right there.

    -The intersection of Emerson with Southport is a huge clusterf**k, and anyone who travels through that area knows it. I think the key words for that area are “lack of planning.” Businesses on the northwest and southwest corners of that intersection can only be accessed via Emerson (increasing traffic on that street) while the northeast corner has some connectivity with both roads. The southeast corner has perhaps the best connectivity and is the primary reason I go to Meijer over Target in that area.

    -Sidewalks? What are these sidewalk things? Kidding aside, pedestrian access is virtually impossible around this area, and with the new sidewalks being installed there, it will only be “mostly” impossible. This is Indianapolis though, I suppose we should be glad that some streets are getting sidewalks. Southport, Edgewood, Gray, Shelbyville, Arlington, Thompson, etc have almost no sidewalks and despite the lack of density, some of these roads could use them, especially to the west of Emerson (no sidewalk planned for the western side of Emerson of course.) And yes, the new nature of this road will make it faster to go on, not making it any safer for pedestrians. But this is the south side, we don’t even have any trails (I’m not including bike lanes or Greenwood.)

    -The other thing, from purely a traffic standpoint, is that DPW is forgoing any work to widen Emerson from Southport, or more precisely the bridge of Interstate 65 (gotta save that money) south to Emerson, creating a chokepoint through that area. South of County Line Road in Greenwood, Emerson is five lanes wide with sidewalks/multi-use paths on both sides of the road. Obviously, the people who read these articles don’t look too kindly at widened streets, and rightfully so, but this shows just another example of DPW not thinking ahead

  • The Southside is absolutely the step-child of Indy – and will continue to be for the foreseeable future. I grew up on the near Southside I can give you three very fundamental socio/political reasons:
    1.There is absolutely no social infrastructure or community organizing apparatus (CDC’s, strong neighborhoods, etc)
    2.Elections are not competitive. It’s been overwhelmingly “R” since the Roosevelt administration (the first one). That’s not a “political” dig, it’s just a reality
    3.“South-Siders” seem to be pretty okay with it…. So things wont be changing anytime soon.

  • Thanks for the comments Mr. Deck and Mr., uh, Freely. Good point about forthcoming the bottleneck south of Southport Road, where it will meet with Stop 11 at St. Francis Hospital, one of the biggest employment nodes on the entire southside. And I appreciate recognition that this is a relatively new extension to the bus route. Obviously the argument that bus routes come and go would be one the DPW would probably use for not constructing sidewalks along them, and it’s true that they often change. A better argument would be residential density at a quarter mile buffer from each of these proposed streets for improving (i.e., widening). Any place where the houses within a mile buffer exceed a certain amount should justify the inclusion of sidewalks on both sides of the road.

    As for the Southside being the “step-child”, I’d have to agree, and maybe you’re right about it not having the sort of community organizing apparatus that the northside does. Certainly not in the way of urban neighborhoods, though the south side still has its share of neighborhood associations. With the significant influx of minorities in the last 10-15, the south side is probably not as reliably republican, but it will be interesting to see how the votes will shift now that redistricting has put much of this side of town under Rep. Andre Carson’s district.

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