7 Crazy Ideas to Transform the City – A Gentle Rebuttal

Recently, the Indy Star’s editor published an article inspired by readers who had some ideas for how to revitalize the city.  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? 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 and 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.


Comments 10

  • Crazy idea: speed enforcement to improve street safety.

    I grew up in suburban Rochester, NY and people mostly followed the speed limits because you really feared being pulled over. You hardly EVER see ANYONE pulled over ANYWHERE in Indianapolis, and if you do I bet you assume they were pulled over for something more nefarious than driving 46 in a 35.

    While street design absolutely helps to control average vehicle speed, Meridian St. north of 38th is a perfect example where too-close-for-comfort narrow lanes and street trees won’t stop certain people from driving way beyond the posted speed limit without at least a modicum of speed control.

    And the kicker is that it doesn’t usually cost anything: hiring police officers for traffic control or installing cameras that automatically ticket for speeding or running red lights basically pay for themselves!

    • Spot on! I drive throughout Indianapolis on a daily basis. and never EVER see anyone pulled over for speeding, red light running, failure to use signals, or any number violations. I challenge IMPD to release annual statististics on traffic stops. My guess is they don’t do it be ause the numbers would be paltry. Some argue that the cops have more important things to do. Yet traffic stops in other cities often result in the arrest of those with outstanding felony warrants, confiscation of illegal drugs and/or weapons, or getting uninsured motorists off the streets. I am a firm supporter of red light and speed cameras for enforcement. The photo evidence is sufficient for conviction, and the resulting fines would more than pay for the investment in the technology with no additional time commitments by the police.

  • There’s actually a little public health/public safety benefit to widening Emerson where they’re planning to do so, as that’s the arterial road that serves Franciscan/St. Francis hospital, located at Emerson and Stop 11.

    It’s no different than the superwide Ritter Ave. in front of Community East, or Capitol, 16th, 21st and Senate surrounding IUHealthMethodistHospital.

  • A community conversation on speed limits. Do we really need to be going 45mph on Allisonville? From Fall Creek to 82nd it is mostly a residential street.

    Second, quality over quantity when it comes to bike lanes. I use Allisonville’s bike lanes daily. But because much of the bike lane has a curb adjacent to it between 82nd and 62nd, it just collects all the dirt and trash and roadkill right into the bike lane. This area would’ve benefited a lot more with a multi-use path like we see along 62nd on one side of the street rather than a bike lane on both sides.

    In fact multi-use paths over bike lanes and sidewalks should be our preferred method when making infrastructure investment for people who aren’t in motorized vehicles. Walkers, cyclists, and yes maybe someday even scooters, can safely use them and co-exist without having to worry about 35mph+ vehicles. I’d rather have more high quality trails than a dozen shoddy bike lanes.

    • Could not agree more with the quality idea. The new-ish bike lane on Illinois completely disappears at times because car tires have rubbed the paint off. It’s ridiculous to think that some paint can do the job of protecting cyclists.

    • Amen to multi-use side paths.

  • Great ideas! Good rebuttal. Better yet, all but 5 & 7 are basically cost neutral. Thank you for this.

    How about density incentives? Build w/in a 1 mile radius, and no property taxes for 10 years. Within 2 mile radius, 8 years without taxes. 3 mile radius, 6 years … and so on up to 5 mile radius.

    This would also help fill in the holes in the near DT neighborhoods.

  • Kevin, I would add another crazy idea: Discourage low-density development of open space and right-size the city.

    Look at all the poor-quality open areas we have in the city: the former RCA site, the old airport site, the new justice center site. The City has plans to redevelop all of these, to great cost now and into the future.

    Instead of going through costly environmental remediation, infrastructure development (all of these sites are in car-dependent areas), and public subsidies to entice development, why not just plant some trees and encourage development elsewhere?

    Detroit is employing a similar strategy to take parts of the city offline in terms of services.

    The two exceptions might be 16 Tech and the GM site, since those two sites hold the most promise in terms of connectivity and return on the City’s investment.

  • I would also add an official Vision Zero policy. Really any kind of ped/bike vision from the City would be an improvement, but since we’re dreaming…

  • What zoning changes are you aware of that would do this? Indy Rezone, by and large, did not accomplish this with the exception of carriage house permissions.

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