Complete Streets Ordinance Update

Three years ago this summer, the City-County Council passed a Complete Streets ordinance in a unanimous vote, joining hundreds of cities nationwide that chose to commit to accessibility for all modes and abilities in their transportation planning. Shortly afterwards, Smart Growth America’s National Complete Streets Coalition recognized Indianapolis’ ordinance as the top Complete Streets ordinance out of nearly 130 policies adopted nationwide that year. The city has committed to this policy, but how has it been playing out in the implementation stage? Are the improvements on the ground living up to the praise our policy was awarded?

In a recent presentation at The Hall, the DPW shared some early results. The presentation highlighted two of the shining stars of Indianapolis’ recent development: the Cultural Trail and Georgia Street between the Convention Center and Banker’s Life Fieldhouse. While these projects are admirable examples of complete streets, they were already done (or nearly done) prior to the ordinance being passed. They’re also limited to downtown and the adjacent neighborhoods. So how does more recent development in other areas of town stack up?

Arlington Avenue

Arlington Avenue Bike Lanes Project. Photo: DPW

The Arlington Avenue project took the street down from four lanes to two with the addition of dedicated bike lanes, and included sidewalk repair and improvements. However, why was a tree lawn not placed between the sidewalk and the street to provide for separation between cars and pedestrians?

The right of way for Arlington Avenue appears to be about 70′ in this screenshot from MapIndy, with about 5′ to the east of the sidewalk on the east side of the street. With this extra space the sidewalk could have been placed 5′ further east to allow for a tree lawn to separate the sidewalk from the street.

arlington map
An aerial view of Arlington Avenue. Photo: MapIndy

For comparison, BikeStyle Spokane has a great example of a complete street done in only 60′ right of way, with tree lawns to boot. If this could be done with 10′ less ROW, why couldn’t it be done on the Arlington Avenue project? With the 10 additional feet on Arlington, the sidewalks could have even been made wider or bike lane separators could have been added.

A complete street with tree wells done with 10′ less ROW than the Arlington project. Photo: Bikestyle Spokane


Emerson Avenue

The Emerson Avenue project between Shelbyville Road and I-65 brought a sidewalk to the east side of the road where there previously was no sidewalk, and in this case a strip of grass if not a tree well was added to separate the sidewalk.


Missing sidewalks were added to Emerson Avenue on the south side. Photo: DPW
Missing sidewalks were added to Emerson Avenue on the south side. Photo: DPW

However, sidewalks are still lacking on the west side of the street. Furthermore, at the intersections where major businesses like Target, Aldi, and Home Depot are located on both the east and west sides of Emerson, there is no crosswalk to go from east to west. The intersection at Emerson and Southport Road, where more businesses are located on both sides of the street, also lacks an east-west pedestrian crosswalk.

A crosswalk takes pedestrians from north to south on Emerson but not from east to west, making the route between major businesses on both sides of Emerson more difficult and unsafe for pedestrians.
A crosswalk takes pedestrians from north to south on Emerson but not from east to west, making the route between major businesses on both sides of Emerson more difficult and unsafe for pedestrians. Photo: Google Maps (click photo for link to interactive street view)

The project document from DPW notes that traffic along this corridor has increased by 600% in two decades, and the project’s increase from two lanes for automobile traffic to five makes this a priority. In fact, the summary of the benefits listed in the document does not even include benefits for pedestrians or bikers; instead highlighting “reduced traffic congestion and better driving conditions” in addition to a longer life for the roadway.

According to Smart Growth America, Complete Streets do take into account context in their planning (a Cultural Trail type development certainly might not be appropriate for this commercial corridor with heavy automobile traffic). However, Smart Growth America’s own definition of a complete street includes the stipulation that they “make it easy to cross the street, walk to shops…” A sidewalk on one side of a major auto thoroughfare without a safe way to cross the street or a safe destination for pedestrians once they reach the other side really does not a complete street make.

To their credit, Smart Growth America was clear on the point that a Complete Streets policy isn’t a mandate that everything be overhauled immediately, nor is it a prescription for a one size fits all design. However, these projects which were highlighted at the presentation appear to have given the majority of attention to detail to the design of the automobile component of the projects and left the pedestrian infrastructure as somewhat of an afterthought. Considering our policy was recognized nationally for the quality of its standards, I was hoping for a stronger showing of pedestrian and cyclist options in the projects to date.


Thanks to Chris Corr who contributed research and analysis regarding the Arlington Avenue ROW and design.

Comments 8

  • When were these three projects designed. Based on the fact that they were completed in the last year, were started at least two years ago, and were probably announced 3-4 years ago means it is likely they were pre-ordinance. Anyone know for certain?

    If the city wants some suggestions of good streets for a complete street makeover, I would highly recommend East St from Virginia (a direct connection to the Cultural Trail) down to Pleasant Run Pkwy (a direct connection to the Pleasant Run Greenway and Garfield Park). They have done some bits and pieces (pedestrian refuge at East and Morris, separation of the bike lanes on the bridge over I70), but good god is that a wide street going past Lilly. Add a tree lawn, a planted boulevard, separate the bike lanes, and I would be so much happier with that area.

    • I agree, I hate the hard edge it gives Fletcher Place. Unfortunately the office buildings on the other side of the street make a people oriented development unlikely along East St.

    • That is a great point, and I do not know when they were designed. My thought was, if they included it in their presentation on the ordinance’s implementation progress then the ordinance would have impacted them. I’ll try to find out.

      And I completely agree with you about East St., I work on East St. just a little bit north of the section you mention, and the distance between safe crosswalks is irritating and adds a lot of time to my walk to work.

  • Small win: in the picture of Arlington’s new sidewalk, there isn’t a single power pole blocking the ADA path! (The ped signal post is close enough to the curb that there seems to be 3 feet of clearance past it.)

    In this location, if they’d moved the sidewalk back from the curb, it would have created an expensive problem just south of 9th where there is a fairly significant hillock that would have had to be cut and walled: see,-86.06416,3a,75y,33.75h,87.29t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1smjBmH0Eb76ZlHrJRRYuPpA!2e0!7i13312!8i6656?hl=en

    Note that across the street, and north of 9th on the east side of Arlington, there is a nice tree lawn, and bus stop pads. Let’s call this one a 66% Complete Street; it’s better than the usual DPW effort even if it isn’t quite there yet.

    • True, that segment near 9th and Arlington would have been expensive to rebuild in order to accommodate the tree lawn. In a world of compromise, I would have accepted DPW invoking the “unduly cost prohibitive” clause to bypass that hillock and maintain the sidewalk next to the street.

      However, a single, relatively short segment where it would have too been costly to set back the sidewalk is not justification to leave the rest of the sidewalk next to Arlington between Washington and 9th.

      Regarding the segment north of 9th where the east-side sidewalk is setback, is there a sidewalk on the west side of the street at all? That doesn’t seem very complete to me.

      • I agree with regard to the golf course frontage from the Pleasant Run bridge north to the golf course entrance: the sidewalk should have been set to the inside of the power lines instead of the outside. South of there, the curb-adjacent sidewalks appear to have been present since 1972 (and maybe 1962; the MapIndy aerial isn’t too clear).

        My point: when there are so many busy roads with no walks at all, acquiring additional ROW to put “proper” ones in where they already exist takes a back seat.

  • Regarding Arlington, I would guess the golf course did not want the sidewalk any closer due to possible liability of stray golf balls or just being greedy with that land. It is a better sidewalk but the golf course still does not shovel off the snow in the winter like everyone else is required to.

  • The primary issue with implementing a complete streets ordinance is that all of the street projects are programmed, overseen and designed by engineers who are not trained in and have no significant experience with complete street principles; therefore, there is very little attention given to the safety and comfort of the pedestrian or the cyclist in the design of the street, let alone consideration of more state of the art complete street techniques to integrate other modes of travel beyond the vehicle.

    A successful complete streets policy requires several key components:
    the financial capacity to implement,
    standards and guidelines that provide clear direction on the type and use of complete street facilities and techniques,
    and, perhaps most importantly, a commitment to require design team skill sets in lead project roles that go beyond traditional roadway engineering to include landscape architecture and multi-modal design experience

    Unfortunately, the City has fallen short on each of these items.

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