On August 23, Mayor Ballard signed into approval Proposal 208, a Complete Streets ordinance that had already passed the City-County Council unanimously. No doubt most regular readers of this blog already know the basic principles of Complete Streets, but for those in the dark, the new ordinance will require that the City “shall develop a safe, reliable, efficient, integrated and connected multimodal transportation system that will promote access, mobility and health for all users. . .including pedestrians, bicyclists, users of mass transit, people of all ages and abilities, motorists, emergency responders, freight providers and adjacent land users.” (Sec. 431-802 from Proposal Number 208) The Director of Public Works must document any exceptions to this policy that indicates the basis for excluding a certain infrastructural project from these standards, and that documentation must be available to the public.
The impact of this legislation remains to be seen, especially since several Public Works projects are currently underway that clearly violate the Complete Streets principles: Urban Indy documented one of these—the widening of South Emerson Avenue—a few weeks ago. Obviously the RFP and bidding for the Emerson project took place months, if not years, before the passage of the Complete Streets ordinance, but it demonstrates the need for this legislation to ensure that Indianapolis’ streets show regard for users other than vehicles. The Emerson Avenue widening is likely to fall short of safely accommodating pedestrians, bicyclists, transit users, etc in a number of ways, all of which will be obvious when the project is complete.
In the meantime, while we survey upcoming projects to see how well they abide by the standards, it is interesting to scout various developments across the city to see what might have been if DPW had applied these standards at the time. I came across one recently on the east side, just north of Irvington.
It’s Ritter Avenue just a few blocks north of Washington Street. The street itself is in relatively good condition, with striping that most likely took place within the last five years, judging from the presence of the bike lanes. But the sidewalk is only on the east side of the street. South of the Pleasant Run Creek, a sidewalk runs on both sides, but the western sidewalk terminates right before the bridge, meeting (after a small set of stairs) with a jogging path in Ellenberger Park, as indicated here on Google Streetview.
Ideally, the Complete Streets ordinance would prevent any further improvements on this road from cutting corners in such a matter: a slight change in topography would not be sufficient justification for terminating a sidewalk, or, if the natural impediments were simply too great, at the very least, the design would allow for a crosswalk over to the other side of the street where the sidewalk continues, so pedestrians wouldn’t simply be stranded.
However, I didn’t create a blog post here to cavil about this segment of Ritter: it still has bike lanes, and the sidewalk on the east side of the road is set back from the curb by a grass planting. No utility poles in the sidewalk either (at least not in this stretch). By the standards of many of the roads in this part of town, this is a pretty good design. However, Ritter Avenue continues northward, and once it passes 10th Street, the condition deteriorates for any users except cars. Here is Ritter looking northward before the intersection with East 10th Street:
And here is how Ritter continues north that intersection:
The street is wiiiiiiide. Does it really need to be? No doubt the presence of Community Hospital East served as the primary justification for a four-lane Ritter Avenue. The campus of this hospital, at the southeast corner of Ritter and East 16th Street, takes up almost nine city blocks; it undoubtedly serves as an employment node for the region. My suspicion is that the hospital leadership argued that such a major institution should not front a relatively minor collector street such as Ritter; the Department of Public Works responded with a widening that transformed the segment of Ritter between 10th and 16th into a virtual four-lane arterial.
The expansion of Ritter at this location shows all the trappings of a DPW project from the 1980s or early 1990s: absolutely no sidewalks (at least one side of Ritter might have had them before the widening), hardened curbs that preclude the formation of an unofficial shoulder or verge by which pedestrians or bicyclists could navigate, a 35 mile-per-hour speed limit (speed limit is 30 on the two-lane segment of Ritter). In short, a thoroughly incomplete street that accommodates cars to the detriment of every other user. Look at how this poor guy manages walking along this stretch of Ritter:
I was not cognizant of road construction projects in the 1980s and early 1990s (I wasn’t old enough to drive), but this treatment of Ritter recalls other locations in which the road widening either failed to improve conditions for pedestrians or made the situation worse: Fall Creek Parkway south of 30th Street, South Meridian Street from between I-465 and Southport Road, various stretches of Kessler Boulevard East Drive. The interventions on Ritter aren’t lengthy; once the street continues northward of 16th, it reverts to a two-lane country road, lacking curbs or storm sewers, and only occasionally offering a sidewalk.
Was it really necessary for Ritter Avenue to be so wide for just six blocks? Does it get that much traffic? It’s not easy to know: the Metropolitan Planning Organization does not consider Ritter significant enough to be worthy of a traffic count. The two principal north-south streets adjacent to Ritter are Emerson (to the west) and Arlington (to the east); only an older 2002 study of average daily traffic includes both. They are both prominent streets, and Emerson in particular receives over 23,000 vehicles a day in the segment just north of 16th Street; both Emerson and Arlington carry about 17,000 a day in the segments south of 16th Street. But both of these streets are over nine miles long. Ritter, meanwhile, is a second-tier collector street, running only from Brookville Road/English Avenue at the south, up to Massachusetts Avenue/32nd Street to the north—about 4.5 miles total.
Once again, the one compelling argument that would justify such a wide Ritter Avenue is the presence of Community Hospital East, which may very well demand high capacity roads to aid the ingress of emergency vehicles. And the hospital has, at the very least, incorporated a sidewalk along its perimeter at Ritter Avenue.
Presumably the hospital is aware of the potential for issues of liability from pedestrians who might be hit by speeding vehicles. But the rest of the segment of Ritter deserves a groaner of a pun to describe it: inhospitable. Incidentally, Google Streetview shows that the cross street of East 16th is only three lanes (two cartways plus a central shared turn lane), despite the fact that 16th is a much, much more prominent and lengthier street than Ritter. East 16th also has sidewalks on both sides of the street.
Would Complete Streets help provide the legal structure to encourage an improvement to Ritter Avenue? It may not seem any more or less deserving than numerous other streets in Indianapolis, but reducing the street’s width from four lanes to three could extend the bike lanes that exist to the south of 10th, while providing ample room for sidewalks with setbacks on both sides of the street. If the hospital objected to this practice, a compromise could be reducing Ritter from four lanes to three; it would offer the same level of service as East 16th and could still accommodate sidewalks and bike lanes. Obviously numerous other street segments in Indianapolis could offer equally compelling arguments for road diets, but this at least offers a framework for thinking about legitimate streetscape improvements—careful thinking leads to better articulated arguments, and, at the very least, the city now has a codified basis for listening to such arguments.