It’s no secret that Ray LaHood and the current Department of Transportation believe that cities ought to be for people instead of cars. In late October, the Department’s $600 million Tiger II grants drove home this point, as 55% of the funds are going towards mass transit or pedestrian oriented transportation improvements across the country (16% went to ports and 29% went to road projects). Perhaps the most interesting project that received funding is Downtown Crossings in New Haven, Connecticut, which is getting $16 million to remove the limited-access Route 34. As New Haven urban planners say, the current elevated highway blocks foot-traffic and street front retail and separates the city’s Union Station and the Yale-New Haven hospital from the rest of downtown. In its place, two walk-bike-transit oriented boulevards will be constructed. On top of this, other highway tear-down projects in New Orleans and New York City received Tiger II funding for initial planning purposes.
These projects are the latest in a series of highway tear-down or burial projects that have been going on for decades (see Boston’s Big Dig or Portland’s Harbor Drive). Such efforts have pedestrianized our urban cores and have brought higher quality of life to our cities. Lately, our cities are beginning to go through heightened pedestrianization acceleration with the continued reconfiguration of auto-oriented thoroughfares to pedestrian plazas (see New York City’s Times Square and San Francisco’s Pavement to Parks). New Haven’s, New York City’s, and New Orleans’s tear-down projects only add fuel to the fire of this movement. While Indianapolis is certainly seeing the fruits of this movement in the Cultural Trail and the new Georgia Street configuration, the City could always do more to pedestrianize its urban core and offer the quality of life characteristics that more and more people desire. Below are five (out of 100 I am sure) ideas on how Indianapolis can amplify the pedestrianization acceleration for its urban core.
One: Urban Circulators
Downtown Indianapolis needs to improve pedestrian access between activity nodes (the CBD, Mass Ave, Fountain Square, and IUPUI) and rail urban circulators are a proven tool in doing so. Plus, rail transit allows pedestrian-oriented development to occur in higher densities, something that’s needed so a critical mass can be reached and a truly vibrant downtown can be achieved.
Two: Out with the One-Way Streets
As it stands today, the Downtown Indianapolis street system is full of one-way streets that feel more like urban highways than local roads. These one-way thoroughfares are designed to speed cars in and out of downtown as quickly as possible, all the while creating a hostile environment for pedestrians. Indianapolis needs to reconvert these streets to two way thoroughfares, something that will slow down traffic, create a safer environment for pedestrians, and increase exposure to downtown businesses, thus fueling economic development.
Three: Lift Ridiculous Regulation and Demand Better Urban Designs
In my opinion, some of the current urban design guidelines for downtown Indianapolis encourage homogeneous streetscapes, creating predictability and monotony in a place that ought to celebrate the ‘human touch’ and allow for diversity and eclectic environments. Some of the regulations, such as those on outdoor seating and signage, devastate urban vitality and an interesting street life and thus inhibit downtown’s ability to pedestrianize. Indianapolis ought to be encouraging urbanity, demanding better urban designs, and activating pedestrian activity whenever possible, not discouraging it through over-regulation.
Four: Implement a Public Space Plan
I believe downtown Indianapolis’ strongest and most under-utilized asset is its open spaces. Monument Circle and the War Memorial are beautiful and should be seen by anyone visiting the Circle City. Plus, intimate spaces such as the pocket park at Mass Ave and Alabama Street are strong open space features that should be celebrated. The City needs to program more events in differing spaces throughout downtown, something that can activate street life and create a more vibrant pedestrian experience. If Indianapolis can define themselves around vibrant, beautiful open spaces and public life in general, a better pedestrian experience can be achieved.
Five: Hide the Highways
Unlike other cities, Indianapolis is lucky that urban highways didn’t catastrophically destroy its downtown. Still though, the existing highway system creates barriers to pedestrian movement that ultimately inhibits economic development and urban vitality. Hiding these highways or simply getting rid of them would increase neighborhood connectivity and allow for a more integrated urban fabric to develop. For example, a ‘cap’ could be placed on Virginia Avenue that would allow for buildings to be erected over the highway (ie. the cap in Columbus, Ohio along High Street) to better connect Fountain Square with downtown and create a seamless urban fabric suitable for pedestrian activity.
The pedestrianization acceleration is a recognized movement sweeping across America’s urban cores. Indianapolis and the Cultural Trail has been at the forefront in the Midwest, turning over auto-oriented right-of-way to pedestrian needs. But if Indianapolis wants to take their downtown to the next level and become a great, vibrant, mixed-use. 24/7 district, more needs to be done. I believe implementing even one of the five ideas outlined above can go a long way in reaching this goal.