Ritter Avenue: Time to Slim It Down?

On August 23, Mayor Ballard signed into approval Proposal 208, a Complete Streets ordinance that had already passed the City-County Council unanimously.  No doubt most regular readers of this blog already know the basic principles of Complete Streets, but for those in the dark, the new ordinance will require that the City “shall develop a safe, reliable, efficient, integrated and connected multimodal transportation system that will promote access, mobility and health for all users. . .including pedestrians, bicyclists, users of mass transit, people of all ages and abilities, motorists, emergency responders, freight providers and adjacent land users.” (Sec. 431-802 from Proposal Number 208)  The Director of Public Works must document any exceptions to this policy that indicates the basis for excluding a certain infrastructural project from these standards, and that documentation must be available to the public.


The impact of this legislation remains to be seen, especially since several Public Works projects are currently underway that clearly violate the Complete Streets principles: Urban Indy documented one of these—the widening of South Emerson Avenue—a few weeks ago.  Obviously the RFP and bidding for the Emerson project took place months, if not years, before the passage of the Complete Streets ordinance, but it demonstrates the need for this legislation to ensure that Indianapolis’ streets show regard for users other than vehicles.  The Emerson Avenue widening is likely to fall short of safely accommodating pedestrians, bicyclists, transit users, etc in a number of ways, all of which will be obvious when the project is complete.


In the meantime, while we survey upcoming projects to see how well they abide by the standards, it is interesting to scout various developments across the city to see what might have been if DPW had applied these standards at the time.  I came across one recently on the east side, just north of Irvington.

It’s Ritter Avenue just a few blocks north of Washington Street.  The street itself is in relatively good condition, with striping that most likely took place within the last five years, judging from the presence of the bike lanes.  But the sidewalk is only on the east side of the street.  South of the Pleasant Run Creek, a sidewalk runs on both sides, but the western sidewalk terminates right before the bridge, meeting (after a small set of stairs) with a jogging path in Ellenberger Park, as indicated here on Google Streetview.


Ideally, the Complete Streets ordinance would prevent any further improvements on this road from cutting corners in such a matter: a slight change in topography would not be sufficient justification for terminating a sidewalk, or, if the natural impediments were simply too great, at the very least, the design would allow for a crosswalk over to the other side of the street where the sidewalk continues, so pedestrians wouldn’t simply be stranded.


However, I didn’t create a blog post here to cavil about this segment of Ritter: it still has bike lanes, and the sidewalk on the east side of the road is set back from the curb by a grass planting.  No utility poles in the sidewalk either (at least not in this stretch).  By the standards of many of the roads in this part of town, this is a pretty good design.  However, Ritter Avenue continues northward, and once it passes 10th Street, the condition deteriorates for any users except cars.  Here is Ritter looking northward before the intersection with East 10th Street:

And here is how Ritter continues north that intersection:

The street is wiiiiiiide.  Does it really need to be?  No doubt the presence of Community Hospital East served as the primary justification for a four-lane Ritter Avenue.  The campus of this hospital, at the southeast corner of Ritter and East 16th Street, takes up almost nine city blocks; it undoubtedly serves as an employment node for the region.  My suspicion is that the hospital leadership argued that such a major institution should not front a relatively minor collector street such as Ritter; the Department of Public Works responded with a widening that transformed the segment of Ritter between 10th and 16th into a virtual four-lane arterial.


The expansion of Ritter at this location shows all the trappings of a DPW project from the 1980s or early 1990s: absolutely no sidewalks (at least one side of Ritter might have had them before the widening), hardened curbs that preclude the formation of an unofficial shoulder or verge by which pedestrians or bicyclists could navigate, a 35 mile-per-hour speed limit (speed limit is 30 on the two-lane segment of Ritter).  In short, a thoroughly incomplete street that accommodates cars to the detriment of every other user.  Look at how this poor guy manages walking along this stretch of Ritter:

I was not cognizant of road construction projects in the 1980s and early 1990s (I wasn’t old enough to drive), but this treatment of Ritter recalls other locations in which the road widening either failed to improve conditions for pedestrians or made the situation worse: Fall Creek Parkway south of 30th Street, South Meridian Street from between I-465 and Southport Road, various stretches of Kessler Boulevard East Drive.  The interventions on Ritter aren’t lengthy; once the street continues northward of 16th, it reverts to a two-lane country road, lacking curbs or storm sewers, and only occasionally offering a sidewalk.



Was it really necessary for Ritter Avenue to be so wide for just six blocks?  Does it get that much traffic?  It’s not easy to know: the Metropolitan Planning Organization does not consider Ritter significant enough to be worthy of a traffic count.  The two principal north-south streets adjacent to Ritter are Emerson (to the west) and Arlington (to the east); only an older 2002 study of average daily traffic includes both.  They are both prominent streets, and Emerson in particular receives over 23,000 vehicles a day in the segment just north of 16th Street; both Emerson and Arlington carry about 17,000 a day in the segments south of 16th Street.  But both of these streets are over nine miles long. Ritter, meanwhile, is a second-tier collector street, running only from Brookville Road/English Avenue at the south, up to Massachusetts Avenue/32nd Street to the north—about 4.5 miles total.


Once again, the one compelling argument that would justify such a wide Ritter Avenue is the presence of Community Hospital East, which may very well demand high capacity roads to aid the ingress of emergency vehicles.  And the hospital has, at the very least, incorporated a sidewalk along its perimeter at Ritter Avenue.

Presumably the hospital is aware of the potential for issues of liability from pedestrians who might be hit by speeding vehicles.  But the rest of the segment of Ritter deserves a groaner of a pun to describe it: inhospitable.  Incidentally, Google Streetview shows that the cross street of East 16th is only three lanes (two cartways plus a central shared turn lane), despite the fact that 16th is a much, much more prominent and lengthier street than Ritter.  East 16th also has sidewalks on both sides of the street.


Would Complete Streets help provide the legal structure to encourage an improvement to Ritter Avenue?  It may not seem any more or less deserving than numerous other streets in Indianapolis, but reducing the street’s width from four lanes to three could extend the bike lanes that exist to the south of 10th, while providing ample room for sidewalks with setbacks on both sides of the street.  If the hospital objected to this practice, a compromise could be reducing Ritter from four lanes to three; it would offer the same level of service as East 16th and could still accommodate sidewalks and bike lanes.  Obviously numerous other street segments in Indianapolis could offer equally compelling arguments for road diets, but this at least offers a framework for thinking about legitimate streetscape improvements—careful thinking leads to better articulated arguments, and, at the very least, the city now has a codified basis for listening to such arguments.

Comments 16

  • There are so many streets that need to be put on “diet”. This would be a first small step in trying to create conditions for higher density, efficient mass transit, and walkable city. However, just remember how many people complained about BR avenue losing one lane not so long ago. It’s a hard sell, because many long term benefits are not obvious to many people.

  • “Would Complete Streets help provide the legal structure to encourage an improvement to Ritter Avenue? It may not seem any more or less deserving than numerous other streets in Indianapolis, but reducing the street’s width from four lanes to three could extend the bike lanes that exist to the south of 10th, while providing ample room for sidewalks with setbacks on both sides of the street. If the hospital objected to this practice, a compromise could be reducing Ritter from four lanes to three; it would offer the same level of service as East 16th and could still accommodate sidewalks and bike lanes.”
    I’m confused. Can you explain the difference between the two here? Are you saying the first has bike lanes and the second does not?

  • Sorry if the description was unclear. South of 10th Street, until Washington Street, Ritter Avenue is two-lane and has bike lanes. North of 10th Street, up to 16th Street, Ritter Avenue is four lane and has no bike lanes (or sidewalks). North of 16th Street, it is again two-lane, with no curbs or storm sewers, and intermittent sidewalks.

    JP, I agree that the city has plenty of over-capacity roads. Road diets should definitely correlate to those where traffic volume does not match the need. I have my doubts about the bike lanes on Broad Ripple Avenue, simply because I’m not sure the conditions were particularly bad for bicyclists beforehand, but the LOS on Broad Ripple has definitely decreased for cars. Bike infrastructure isn’t essential on every street in the city, and when it clearly diminishes the vehicular LOS for a street as it did with Broad Ripple, it only helps to sour moderates toward the installation of ANY bike lanes–people who would otherwise be favorably disposed to them when it’s clear that they “first do no harm”. The BR bike lane design does not contribute a great deal of political leverage for the installation of more bike lanes.

    Ironically, the Ritter Avenue Level of Service around Community Hospital East offers a huge contrast from the conditions around another hospital in the city. St. Francis Hospital sits at Emerson and Stop 11, and a huge stretch of Emerson is currently getting widened (as mentioned here on Urban Indy a few weeks ago), but the widening of Emerson will stop at Southport, a mile north of the hospital. Thus, it is probable that traffic on Emerson will bottleneck in the mile-long stretch from Southport to Stop 11, only furthering the argument for a second widening at a later point.

    • I am ok with not accommodating vehicle traffic. I am not saying we should abolish all roads, but walkable, dense and sustainable cities with efficient mass transit only happen when vehicle traffic is not being constantly accommodated. Or we can wait another 50 years, and then we will be forced into action. Therefore, 9 out of 10 times, I would probably vote for a “road diet”. In the long-run, it’s a no-brainer. Of course, this has to be accompanied with smart zoning policies, investment into mass transit, etc.

  • I am the property manager of Roland Manor apartments seen to the left in the view at 21st and Ritter. Recently, contractors finished replacing an old box culvert just north of the intersection..New paving, guardrails, and lane markings are in place all the way up to 30th street. However, no pedestrian bridge or sidewalk was included. My residents must walk in the traffic lane to cross – VERY dangerous ! I recently submitted a request to the Mayors Action Center for a footbridge. Again, this project was no doubt planned a long time ago and no consideration was made for walkers or bikers.If anyone on this board has any ideas on how to help get this done, I would appreciate the help. Thanks!

  • Tim, I can tell you from personal experience safe and accessibile sidewalks for pedestrians, homeowners or city residents is a very low priority for DPW. In the face of a clearly irrefutable life-threatening situation dpw will not acknowledge the fact they created it to begin with! They will – without skipping a beat – tell you “there’s nothing that can be done” or “it meets city codes”! It’s unconscionable that our lives are not highly valued but it’s the reality.

    Have you spoken with your councilor or neighborhood liaison? Also encourage the residents to file complaints w/ the mayors action center and their neighborhood association. I wish you luck.

  • Can’t say I agree with you.

    Simple rule with streets: the wider, the better.

  • Commute this street most days and it is clear that the 5 lanes between 14th & 16th are absolutely not needed. The sidewalks near 16th clearly serve Indygo riders.
    And Tim is correct: residents along Ritter must walk in the street to access the commercial node at 21st. Not enough pavement there.

  • East 16th Street still has a missing sidewalk segment just west of the hospital and several others just west of Emerson; only in 2008 did a 1/2 mile of more of other missing segments become complete. Ritter was missing a sidewalk near the intersection with 10th Street prior to the bike lanes being added a few years ago.

    Just as with other roads, the traffic anticipated along this stretch of Ritter was grossly overestimated, as CHE did not continue to grow as anticipated. If it had the lanes would probably be needed, when considering emergency needs, bus routes, etc.

    And bike lanes are not needed on Ritter because of how wide it is. Bike riders are much safer riding in the street, as is. DMD staff tried to get sidewalks at Lutherwood when they expanded (prior to the sidewalk Ordinance), but it was said to be an unreasonable request.

  • The missing sidewalk along Ellenberger Park (from creek northward) is not uncommon since many parks have loop trails along their outer perimeter to serve pedestrians, Eric. If one descends those steps at the “dead end”, the park trail leads up to 9th & Ritter (sort of). But in-park trails are primarily intended for recreational use, not “direct pedestrian transport”.
    In that immediate area, I see as many walkers and runners on the bike lanes (Pleasant Run Pkwy has them too) as cyclists.

    Also: the sidewalk on the east side of Ritter is barely 24 inches wide for about a block south of the Parkway…and, of course, there is a pole infringing on it there. East along the Parkway…missing sidewalk segment for about a quarter mile, so people walk the bike lanes to get to the IndyGo stop at Ritter & PR Pkwy.
    I must admit this is a case of Aaron Renn’s pet peeve: doing the small stuff poorly, even in a neighborhood with very strong and organized community activism, generally good bones, and thriving local businesses.

    • Yep. The intersection of Ritter and Pleasant Run Parkway, at the southeast corner of Ellenberger Park, is a damn trainwreck. Because the road curves there, the crosswalk on the west side of the intersection is extremely long, and there is no walk/don’t walk signal. There is no crosswalk at all on the east, south, or north boundaries of the intersection. Southbound traffic on Ritter is allowed to turn right on PRP even though it is essentially a blind turn. It’s an embarrassment for what should be a major access point for most neighborhood residents to a large park.

      The southwest corner of the park isn’t much better. There is a crosswalk and a flashing yellow light where the Pleasant Run Trail crosses the parkway, but traffic from PRP North Drive screams around that curve. Crossing there requires a leap of faith. I live a block south of the park, and it’s pretty sad that jaywalking at Irvington Avenue is a much safer option for getting my kids to the park than crossing at either of the marked crosswalks. If I were czar for a day I would put a crosswalk and flashing yellow there in addition to improvements to the other points.

      Given the existence of the trail inside the park and the narrowness of the right of way (and bridge) at that point, I don’t necessarily have a problem with the absence of a sidewalk on the west side of Ritter. But the problem is that there is no formal pedestrian accommodation for getting to that east side sidewalk.

      • I agree, John, and would go further. There ought to be a 3-way stop at the trail crossing where PRP North crosses the bridge and joins PRP S. Or at Irvington since there’s a bus stop and ped bridge into the park there.
        You can cross Ritter at PRP…I sometimes do…but it is a long angled crossing anywhere at that corner. Another funky crossing is at 10th/Ellenberger Pkwy across Ritter to that east sidewalk. It’s safest to jaywalk from the south edge of Ellenberger across Ritter, about 3 or 4 houses south of 10th.

  • Thanks for the additional comments, everyone. Maybe many of us are expecting a sea change in how the DPW constructs/improves roads, thanks to the Complete Streets ordinance. I’m not. The new standard will probably best address the countless instances of “doing small stuff poorly”–even if it doesn’t change the way of thinking at DPW, the public will at least have resource to cite when construction teams intervene along a road and don’t improve the pedestrian environment. The “it meets city codes” that Paula hears can’t be an excuse, because there’s now a city ordinance that will–given sufficient public opposition–hold their feet to the fire when they cut corners.
    Chris, while I certainly am aware of the loop trail in Ellenberger, I have my doubts as to whether these are as common as we tend to think. My southside chauvinism might be getting the best of me again, but I can only think of a single park that has a perimeter path in Perry Township–the newly created Gray Park. (It’s hard enough to find any park down there.) That said, the recreational perimeter trails are not always made of asphalt–sometimes they are gravel, making them a pretty sad proxy for a serviceable roadside walkway. And in the case of Ellenberger, the sidewalk ends only to provide a stairwell for accessing the perimeter trail. Other poorly done examples abound: the sidewalk on the north side of Southern Avenue ends at Garfield Park (no recreational perimeter path for much of walkway), or the fairly new sidewalks along South Keystone Avenue, which abruptly end on the east side at Sarah Shank Golf Course. Are golf courses exempt from sidewalks? It would appear so, and yet DPW still provided crosswalks and small paved “shelters” at the intermittent bus stops on this side of Keystone. Not well thought out at all.
    Private developers routinely put in better designed sidewalks within their residential subdivisions than DPW builds. (How developers build the perimeter walks that front the collector and arterials used for accessing these subdivisions is a different story.) I’m content if the changes we see over the subsequent years are mundane and incremental–there’s plenty room for improvement there, and in many regards that is more critical at reinforcing a pedestrian and bicycle network.

    • Eric, I am most familiar with larger parks east. Christian Park has about a mile of frontage on English Ave., with a sidewalk the whole way. But its other sides along Pleasant Run Parkway and neighborhood streets just have the perimeter trails…there they are all paved. Spades and Brookside have some trails but no sidewalks that I can remember except at Rural.

  • I thought it was very interesting with the new sidewalks on Keystone Avenue in the vincinty of Sarah Shank that there are crosswalks and little “sidewalk areas” to serve bus stops on the east side of the road, one or two of these by the golf course IIRC. It’s a tragedy that there are roads out there that “should” be four lanes, the aforementiond Emerson between I-65 and County Line, while there are roads such as Ritter that don’t really need the four lanes. There’s almost too many wide streets in the center part of the city and not enough wide streets in some of the outlying areas in places where cars are still the dominant mode of transportation. Not that you couldn’t have complete streets as well, but complete streets don’t work on every street. Perry Township is not Portland, Oregon and will probably never be. If only we could “transport” the four lanes situation off of Ritter and over to Emerson, or something like that. The point is yeah, Ritter should look similar from 10th to 16th, and really at least to 21st as it does from Washington to 10th.

  • To elaborate on Eric’s observations about Complete Streets: overlooked in the recent successful Complete Streets campaign was including Dept. of Metropolitan Development in the ordinance. By including DMD in the ordinance, it would have obliged planning staff working on neighborhood plans to include a multiplicity of road users. This, in turn, would provide the staff with support it needs when considering variance requests. Perhaps new DMD leadership will be able to implement internal changes to adopt a Complete Streets approach to planning on the DMD side w/o having to resort to getting another ordinance passed by the CCC. (NOTE: I should add that I was supportive of the Complete Sts. ordinance as proposed and passed. I began to think about broadening the effort when I was told recently by a DMD planner that the Complete Streets ordinance didn’t apply to DMD staff in its deliberations re: insisting a petitioner for variance add sidewalks/bike lanes/transit stops, etc. as part of Staff’s recommendation for a variance request. It could also provide guidance to Board of Zoning Appeals and Hearing Examiners when deliberating about such measures in variance hearings.)

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