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Indianapolis' 'Complete Streets' Order Ushers in Transit Renaissance

Making Hoosier streets safer for all

Brenda McAtee works to incorporate Prospect St. which has no pedestrian access into the Complete Streets program in Indianapolis

Brenda McAtee joined with AARP Indiana in successfully urging the Indianapolis and Marion City-County Council to adopt a "complete streets" program for the benefit of all road users. — Peter Hoffman

For years, Brenda McAtee has watched her neighbors risk their lives dodging traffic as they walked to and from the nearby grocery store.

See also: Happy (bike) trails for Hoosiers

With few sidewalks in their Indianapolis neighborhood of Norwood, many residents are forced to walk on busy city streets, often in heavy traffic.

"You see kids, the elderly, moms with strollers on those roads," McAtee said. "You see close calls all the time. Every day is an accident waiting to happen."

So McAtee, 60, president of the Norwood Neighborhood Association, joined with AARP Indiana and several other nonprofit groups to push for a "complete streets" ordinance. Passed unanimously by the City-County Council of Indianapolis and Marion County in August, the ordinance requires transportation engineers to consider all users — pedestrians, bicyclists, people with disabilities and motorists — when designing new and remodeled roads.

A quality of life issue

Norwood has a core of older residents who have called it home for many decades. Adding sidewalks and additional transit options would allow them to continue to live in the neighborhood comfortably as they age, McAtee said.

"It's up to us to make the quality of their life easier. Those folks are the roots and memory of our community," she said. "If you want to know when something happened in the neighborhood [60 years ago], or what life was like back then, you know who to go to."

Ironically, the urban hub of Indianapolis was designed with pedestrians, and later rail, in mind. But as the city expanded outward in the 1940s and beyond, walking and biking took a backseat to the automobile. For the last 50 years or so, sidewalks were an afterthought in many outlying areas of the city.

But now Indianapolis seems to be on the verge of a transit renaissance. Support is growing for a proposed light-rail system linking the suburbs and downtown. A record number of passengers are riding the IndyGo buses system, and there are plans to expand routes next year. Mayor Greg Ballard (R) has spearheaded efforts to encourage bike commuting.

The year before Ballard took office, the city had less than a mile of bike lanes. Five years later, there are more than 64 miles of bike lanes and trails, with plans to more than double that number in the next few years. The city also collaborated with the local YMCA to create the Indy Bike Hub, where downtown workers can shower, store their bikes and even get some repair work done by Bicycle Garage Indy technicians.

"Society has changed," said Lori Miser, the city's public works director. "People are more health-conscious and looking for choices; they want to walk or bike to work or school or to the store. Our aging population might not be able to drive or might choose not to drive, so it's especially important to have that infrastructure in place. So we need to retrofit our streets, even though it could be harder and more expensive than if we'd done it the first time around."

A 2011 poll of AARP members in Allen and Marion counties showed 85 percent wanted local infrastructure improvements to make it easier to get around without a car.

Next page: Lengthy process predicted. »

Brenda McAtee works to incorporate Prospect St. which has no pedestrian access into the Complete Streets program in Indianapolis

Brenda McAtee joined with AARP Indiana in successfully urging the Indianapolis and Marion City-County Council to adopt a "complete streets" program for the benefit of all road users. — Peter Hoffman

Lengthy process predicted

Changes won't happen overnight or on every street, Miser warned.

"We'd love to put bike lanes on every street, but in certain circumstances that's going to be impractical," she said. "We've got to focus on connectivity — bike lanes connecting to bus or rail routes, bus stops located on accessible sidewalks — on major thoroughfares as well as the secondary streets."

To cut costs, most of the work will be done during routine road resurfacing projects. Miser anticipates many transit changes in the next five to 10 years based on complete streets concepts.

With the ordinance passed in the capital and other major cities, including Columbus, Evansville and Bloomington, AARP Indiana is focusing on the legislature, where complete streets bills have languished for three years over worries about cost, said Paul Chase, AARP associate state director for public policy.

In a tight economic environment, there have been concerns that the extra features will bring about extra costs, but Chase quickly downplays those notions.

"The costs involved are pretty insignificant, especially when you consider all the health, environmental and potential economic development benefits," Chase said.

"With one in every five Hoosiers over the age of 65 by 2030, it's important we start getting things done now."

Robert Annis is a journalist who lives in Indianapolis.

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