The south side of Indianapolis has long perceived of itself as the most neglected part of town, and not just in terms of its relationship with local media. When it comes to investment from city agencies, whether Parks and Recreation, the City-County Public Library system, or mass transit, basic empirical evidence suggests that per capita spending is significantly lower in the three townships south of the Circle than anywhere else. So southsiders could greet an improvement to Emerson Avenue with the predictable if paradoxical mixture of doe-eyed optimism and an ossified doubt. The long planned widening of this over-15-mile boundary between four townships (Center and Warren to the north; Perry and Franklin to the south) is heavily traveled across most of its duration, but it tapers into a collector-level capacity south of Beech Grove, despite the fact that, in the past twenty years, residential and commercial development on either side places South Emerson at a comparable income density to some of its northern segments.
Without belaboring the basic urban planning principles that discourage most road widening, suffice it to say that the Indianapolis Depart of Public Works has begun a long-planned expansion of Emerson Avenue’s capacity, starting at Thompson Road and continuing southward for two miles to Southport Road. The project is well underway and is likely to finish before the end of the calendar year. I made a visit about two weeks ago to assess progress:
The majority of the widening seems to be taking place on the eastern side of Emerson Avenue, the side from which I took the above photo. Meanwhile, judging from the color of the concrete at the curb, the western side is nearly finished.
But it appears to be missing the most basic of transportation enhancements: the sidewalk. Despite thorough specifications for the placement of sidewalks, nothing in the Section 731-221 Special Regulations within the Dwelling Districts Zoning Ordinance expressly requires the placement of them on both sides of the street.
I am not aware of an approved residential subdivision since around the mid-1990s that lacks them on both sides, so the City may perceive them as a fundamental to a site plan in order to earn an excavation or construction permit. However, that doesn’t mean that the City’s own Public Works Department has to abide by this ostensible gentleman’s agreement. A view of the Emerson Avenue from a point somewhat further to the north while standing on the west (Perry Township) side confirms: the upgrade does not include a sidewalk on the one side of the street. Here’s a view looking southward:
The DPW has obviously only recently placed that curb, and the adjacent asphalt to the cartway is brand new.
A quick glance at the City’s official press release on this project shows that, yes, the plan has always been only to install “new sidewalks along the east side of the roadway”. So Southsiders have little more to anticipate than a sidewalk on one side of the road—the same prototype the City implement in many of the road widening projects that took place in the early 1990s, well before the city ramped up the standards for new sidewalk construction, and obviously preceding RebuildIndy, Mayor Ballard’s comprehensive multi-year infrastructure improvement project.
Obviously moderation is in order here, like everywhere: we cannot expect comprehensive sidewalks on every linear foot of every arterial and collector in the city. Indianapolis is simply not densely populated in many districts to justify such expenditures. If these street improvements were taking place two miles to the east, on Franklin Road, it would be difficult to justify adding a sidewalk on both sides of the street, since only the western side of the street hosts very many residential subdivisions. (And if improvements took place three miles to the east, on Acton Road, almost the entirety of the street is rural in character, weakening any argument for the installation of a sidewalk at this point.) But Emerson Avenue is already a longer and more significant street than Franklin or Acton, it hosts a number of residential subdivisions on either side of the street, and the northwest corner of Emerson and Southport Road is home to one of the busiest shopping centers on the south side, featuring a Target and Kohl’s as anchors.
But the biggest argument in favor of double-loaded sidewalks on Emerson echoes another widespread crusade: the goal of linking pedestrian nodes with transit corridors. Emerson has long hosted one of the few Indygo bus routes to the south side: Route 16 operates six days a week and stretches southward to just past the Marion County line. Does the Department of Public Works think that Indygo users will only need to wait for northbound buses? Based on the design of these improvements, Indygo riders embarking on the southbound route will have to walk in the grass, which means that those with mobility impairments will have maneuver on the edge the street—a newly widened Emerson Avenue, whose improved Level of Service will inevitably encourage higher automobile speeds than before. Not desirable at all.
This shortsighted initiative is business as usual for the Department of Public Works, and sidewalks are hardly an anomaly among infrastructure updgrades. The Star recently posted an article about managing surges in crime around Broad Ripple, with many residents requesting the City to enhance lighting on the virtually pitch-black side streets that intersect Broad Ripple Avenue. The city’s response? A DPW spokeswoman says that the city’s policy “for decades ahs been tor elocate unneeded streetlights rather than to install new ones, with few exceptions.” So any improvements to the lighting in Broad Ripple will most like come at another neighborhood or corridor’s disadvantage.
It’s not entirely fair to through Public Works under the bus. Clearly it is reflective of a broader Indianapolis culture of “low cost, low service”, manifested by numerous ballot initiatives that often undergo countless dilutions and compromises in the interest of cutting cost. And it is completely unreasonable to advocate more, more, more in this regard, since my advocacy would only confirm my pro-pedestrian chauvinism. But the mentality in planning for street upgrades at this point lacks an obvious ecumenicalism: did anyone involved in the design of this widening even consider if Emerson Avenue south of Thompson Road served a bus route? Did they consider that most of Emerson north of Thompson Road (through the excluded town of Beech Grove) has sidewalks on both sides of the street? We can only hope that the recently passed Complete Street Ordinance will foster a change—not that it will hold DPW to higher standards (it’s definitely going to do that, even if the Department attempts to maneuver around the standards as much as possible in order to save money). The biggest goal is that the ordinance might tether the designers of Indianapolis’ street improvements to a mentality that considers roads from the perspective of their diverse array of users. Designing and bidding for the Emerson Avenue expansion preceded Indianapolis Complete Streets. At the least it will be interesting in a few months to see if the sidewalk on the east side of Emerson has the benefit of a separating planting strip or manages to provide enough space around those utility poles.