On most days, and in most ways, I am thrilled with the progress of cycling in Indianapolis. We have gone from virtually no dedicated bicycle lanes to 80 miles in five years, and we are on our way to 200 miles. We now have the Cultural Trail, the Bike Hub, Indycog and a number of other new structures and institutions that support cycling.
Even so, I had an experience this Fall that took me aback, and made me think that our mentality about cycling has not kept up with our ambition, and that The Bad Old Days for cyclist may, in some ways, still be with us.
I was on my way to work in early September, along the route I have traveled now for 23 years, when I came across a sign blocking my passage over the 30th Bridge, stating "Sidewalk Closed."
This alarmed me, because this stretch along the 30th St. Bridge, together with about 200 yards of sidewalk on the north side of 30th St., is a vital link in my daily commuting route. It is the only place where I routinely ride on the sidewalk. I feel entirely justified in doing so, because the sidewalk is part of our Greenways system, and it links together the Central Canal Towpath and the White River Trail, as well as the unnamed trail along the east side of the White River, leading to the Major Taylor Velodrome.
I regard the sidewalk through stretch this as essential to the safety of both cyclists and pedestrians, as the intersection is confusing and dangerous. Thirtieth Street splits off at this point and becomes a one-way street, going west, while 29th Street goes east, and the two streets intersect with White River Parkway. It is an area where cars go way too fast because they have a straight shot down 30th St. or 29th St., and are often unprepared for the bend that takes them over the river.
I have twice been hit by cars, but I have never been hit on my commuting route. I attribute this safety record to the fact that my route is largely off-road, taking advantage of a bike lane along Cold Spring Road, a path down the Soap Box Derby Hill, the sidewalk over the 30th St. Bridge, and the Canal Towpath, which takes me to the back door of Butler University, where I teach. It's a beautiful route, and it brings me pleasure every time I ride it.
In the days after the sign appeared, I held out hope that it promised only a minor and temporary inconvenience. The concrete columns supporting the balustrade along the bridge are constantly crumbling, and I figured that a small project might be underway to repair them. Then, a few days later, heavy equipment moved in and workers began demolishing the sidewalk. The sign announcing the closure of the sidewalk was no longer a vague and distant promise-it was an inescapable fact.
At this point, I tried to figure out what was going on. I scoured the city's websites, but could find no description of the project in the pages devoted to the Departments of Public Works, or Metropolitan Development, or the Office of Sustainability, or the Greenways. I did find an article on the private website, UrbanIndy, which mentioned that a multi-use path was planned for this stretch of 30th St., but it offered few details and no schedule.
I next wrote to Jamison Hutchins, the Bicycle and Pedestrian Coordinator in the Office of Sustainability, who answered me promptly, and explained that the closure was "due to the cycletrack that will hopefully make this a much safer link between the two greenways." Mr. Hutchins put me in touch with Tammy Brooks, the project manager in the Department of Public Works, who wrote to me that the "30th Street concrete work (sidewalk and curb) will be complete by 10/9/13. The roadwork and pavement markings will be complete by 11/15/13. Of course this is all weather dependent."
When I received this message, I was miffed that the project had begun without any prior announcement, and that no provision had been made for cyclists and pedestrians to pass safely through the construction site. I also resented being forced into a traffic stream that I had successfully avoided for 23 years. On the other hand, though, it seemed that the cycling and pedestrian portion of the project would be done in three weeks' time, and would result in a much better route for me and cyclists passing through the intersection, so it seemed a fair trade-off.
Over the next two months, I watched as the heavy equipment repaved the street, widened the sidewalk over the bridge, and dug a trench for a cycletrack. The cycletrack-to-be then became a parking lot for the heavy equipment. Day after day, I watched this idle equipment, hoping that they would at last finish the cycling and pedestrian portion of the project. They never did.
Finally, I wrote again to Mr. Hutchins and Ms. Brooks again on December 1 to ask about the status of the project. At this point, Jason Koch, who had taken over management of the project for DPW, wrote to me to say that the project would not be finished until the Spring, at the earliest, and that the "The 30th Street project has always had a completion date of June 2014." Mr. Koch went on to say that difficult weather conditions in September and October had delayed the completion of the project.
There are two problems with Mr. Koch's explanation. First, the weather was not especially bad in the Fall. Secondly, weather conditions had not delayed the completion of the vehicular portion of the project. The intersection had never been closed to motorists, as it was closed to pedestrians and cyclists, and, contrary to the schedule originally offered by Ms. Brooks, the vehicular portion was completed first, while the pedestrian portion was allowed to languish.
At this point, I'm afraid, I did not respond very well to news of further delay, and I wrote back to Mr. Koch that the management of the project showed "at best . . . a disregard for cyclists; at worst, outright contempt," and I posted a similar statement, using the word "contempt," on my Facebook page.
From there, things grew more heated. Mr. Jameson took exception to my claim that the delay in the project showed contempt for cyclists. He said that I had libeled the DPW, and that I was not taking into consideration the Department's efforts to reverse the damage caused by decades of engineering the city for automobiles. Most alarmingly, Mr. Jameson told me that, because of my complaints, the city would "make sure to be less ambitious on bicycle projects and their construction in the coming years." Soon thereafter, Mr. Jameson unfriended me on Facebook.
It is an odd thing to have a public official, in charge of an area important to your life, declare himself not to be your friend. I suppose, though, that I will have to get used to this. I do regret using the word "contempt" because of the conflict it brought me into with Mr. Jameson, and if I had it to do over again, I would take it back.
Nevertheless, I did have reasons for using the word "contempt." Almost ten years ago, the DPW had closed down a stretch of Michigan Road to cyclists and pedestrians-but not to cars-which was crucial to the route I cycled with my son to school (I wrote about this at www.nuvo.net/indianapolis/a-good-ride-ruined/Content?oid=1228475#.Utl44xAo7IU). During that time, I went to a meeting of the DPW's city council committee at which a group of citizens had petitioned for a reduction in the speed limit of their street in order to protect children playing on their street. A DPW engineer testified that the street was engineered for vehicles going 40 miles per hour, and that was the end of the discussion. It was quite clear that cars mattered to DPW in ways that people did not.
Since then, there have been leadership changes at DPW, and the agency has presided over a great expansion in pedestrian and cycling infrastructure. I am not sure, though, that DPW has any deep commitment to maintaining and preserving, on a day-to-day basis, the infrastructure they have helped to build. Many of our new bike lanes are strewn with glass. I have occasionally seen street sweepers in Indianapolis, but I have never seen one take a pass at a bike lane. When it snows, not only are the bicycle lanes left unplowed, but the snow from the road is pushed into the bike lanes, making them unusable. And when temporary signs are put up for automobiles, they are often placed in bike lanes or on sidewalks, where they impede the progress of cyclists and pedestrians.
For me, then, the casual way in which an established cycling and pedestrian route was taken out of use, and then the whole project is delayed by as much as eight months, is indicative of an attitude which does not value cycling. I cannot prove it, but I suspect that at some point, someone in DPW decided that it didn't matter if the project were finished for cyclists, because no one would be riding through the intersection in the winter anyway. And without very much thought, an important corridor for cyclists and pedestrians-which just happens to be part of my daily route to work--was disrupted for an extended period of time.
This disruption would never actually stop me from commuting by bicycle to work. If DPW told me that the 30th St. Bridge were closed altogether, and that I would have to ford the White River on foot, I would find a way through. And, in keeping with the perverse mentality that infects veteran bicycle commuters, I would have taken pride in surmounting yet another obstacle to my daily commute.
The problem, of course, lies in encouraging less experienced and less determined cyclists to start commuting by bicycle. While Indianapolis has made enormous strides in building cycling infrastructure, it lags behind other cities in the percentage of commuters who travel by bicycle to work. According to statistics kept by the League of American Cyclists, in 2011, Indianapolis ranked 43rd out of the 70th largest cities in the U.S. for the percentage of bicycle commuters (see http://www.bikeleague.org/content/bicycle-commuting-data). We are slightly ahead of Oklahoma City and Toledo, but slightly behind Cleveland and Milwaukee. And we are way behind the leaders in this area, including Portland, San Francisco and Minneapolis.
It may be that the "If you build it, they will come" principle applies to bicycle commuting, and that as the City reaches 200 miles of dedicated bike lanes, more cyclists will use them. My instinct, though, is to doubt that this is true, and I believe that it matters how you roll out, maintain and communicate about new infrastructure. People who rely on bicycles need safe, dependable and predictable routes for their daily travels. You can't mess, willy-nilly, with people's routes to school or work and expect them to keep riding.
In order to avoid situations like the one I have experienced, and to encourage more commuting by bicycle, I would like to offer three modest proposals:
1. Changes to existing cycling or pedestrian infrastructure should be announced in advance. If an entrance ramp to the interstate, or a stretch of Meridian Street is to be closed, signs announce this closure to motorists well before it happens. Don't we owe the same courtesy to cyclists and pedestrians? Often, a detour for motorists might require just a few more minutes of travel in air-conditioned or heated comfort. Because cyclists have fewer alternative routes, a detour can make for a much longer commute, sometimes in inclement and less safe conditions. Cyclists need even more warning and more time to prepare than do motorists.
2. When existing cycling or pedestrian structures are closed, we need to create temporary alternative routes. I understand that doing so might cost money, and might deplete our funds for the additional development of infrastructure. But if we really do believe in the infrastructure we are building, then we should not allow it to disappear without alternative provisions. If a vital path or sidewalk can be taken away overnight, only to return when the weather and the contractor's schedule align with Mars, then the infrastructure is not worth very much.
3. The City needs to bring cyclists into the planning and development of cycling infrastructure. If you know where to look on the city' website, you can find a "2012-2015 Connectivity Plan," but it is hard to read, and it is hard to know exactly what this plan portends for the future. We would all be better off if there were greater awareness, and greater support for the planned improvements to cycling infrastructure.
Mr. Hutchins has taken an important step toward communicating future plans by agreeing to provide a "Construction Update" to IndyCog's monthly newsletter. In the most recent edition of the newsletter, Mr. Hutchins notes that the City is constructing a 10-foot, "curb-protected cycletrack" which will connect the Shelby Street to the Pleasant Run trail. He goes on to say that "A similar connector between the Canal Towpath and the White River Trail is also under construction."
While this announcement comes a little late, and is a little short on detail, it is certainly a step in the right direction. Let us hope that this contribution signals more robust communication between the city and the cycling community, as well as a greater commitment to preserving and promoting reliable routes for cyclists.