Recently, the Indy Star’s editor published an article inspired by readers who had some ideas for how to revitalize the city.Â As well-intentioned as they are, from our point of view, they didn’t tackle one of our city’s core issues: residential density. We’ve put together a list of 7 ideas that hope to address this. Our city’s sprawled-out manner has hurt our bottom line, as we have had to spread our limited funds, resulting in large areas with crumbling infrastructure. Here are some low-to-middle cost ideas to tackle our city’s ongoing issues:
1) Change the zoning (kind of already underway): Indy lacks density. We’re a city where the central township has lost more than half of its population since 1960. Our current zoning dictates that redevelopment must meet more suburban ideals. But Indy is a city, and we should be the best city we can be. That’s how we will compete. Encouraging people to live and work closer to our long-lost neighborhood commercial centers is key to creating a living, thriving, urban organism.
2) Impact Fees: Okay, so we changed the land use map to permit higher-intensity zoning and allow walkable, scalable neighborhoods. How do we accelerate the reconstruction of our central township? It costs less money to build and maintain existing infrastructure in dense areas than new infrastructure that is in spread out areas. So, why not ensure that this cost is not burdened on the taxpayer, but the developer? The fees are more expensive as proposed development lose density and are located farther out from Center Township. This encourages infill development within the core; bonus points for locating around bus rapid transit lines, high frequency bus lines, and bicycling facilities to lessen the burden on our streets.
3) Urban democracy is in the snow: Indianapolis is a cold weather city, but this doesn’t have to be a disadvantage. Have you ever seen unused spaces on the street when it snows? I bet you have. Almost completely undisturbed snow at street corners that are paved for cars, but not at all used by them. What if that space was used to create more pedestrian space? Bump-outs?Â Street trees? Perhaps a protected intersection for bicyclists (intersections are where the majority of bike-motorist conflicts occur)? You’ve likely seen footprints in freshly fallen snow where there are no sidewalks. These are known as “desire lines” and can be used to facilitate decision making based on human behavior.
4) Change our performance metrics and design standards: Indy still uses a performance metric for streets known as “Level of Service.” This measures how many seconds of delay motorists experience at intersections and how many cars a lane of traffic can carry in a given time frame. Have you every been riding in a bike lane, just to have it suddenly disappear at an intersection? LOS is why. Several cities in the United States have shifted to a performance metric known as “Vehicle Miles Traveled,” or VMT. This doesn’t prioritize speed, but rather prioritizes reducing driving entirely. In this performance metric, amenities such as sidewalks, bus lanes, and bikeways are prioritized and designed to be a comfortable and convenient mode of transportation. Numerous guides from the National Association of City Transportation Officials exist to design streets. The heavy lift is essentially done, we just need to adopt it. If we want Indy to be a physically active city with better public health rankings andÂ lower costs of transportation, then VMT is a policy adjustment worth examining.
5. Transform stroads back into streets: City streets that have block-long center turn lanes are possibly wasting 1/3 of their potential on mostly-unused asphalt. The medians could be planted with trees, providing shade, and lowering vehicle speeds. Or the streets could really be transformed with trees on each side of them. Either way, we just have too much publicly owned asphalt.
6. No new roads. This Strong Towns mantra keeps coming back to me. Recently, the city announced that they are planning on widening Emerson Avenue on the South Side for the cost of $10 million. That’s $10 million that we won’t have for other purposes. And it means that whenever we repave that road in the future, it will cost even more than it does now. I’m not going to claim that there isn’t congestion on this road, but I’m not sure if actual alternatives to widening have been explored in areas such as this.
7. Look for redundant or overbuilt infrastructure, and remake them in a smaller manner. Morris Street on the near south side and the Washington Street interchange with Shadeland are good places to rethink our streets, but I’m sure there are others around town. Every time we repave these areas, we pour more money into an account that will never pay off.