It took 90 minutes, less than 20 volunteers and a vehicle full of tape, signage, stencils and paint for the 55 parents and students at the Indianapolis Public School last spring to lay a temporary bike lane on along a fast stretch of East 54th Street. The plan was to close the quarter-mile gap between the Monon Trail and the school.
“You were talking to parents and they were like, ‘Yeah, I would let my kids walk or bike to school if the traffic was lower on the street or the drivers were more careful,'” Matt Hygema said, father of two children. who later attended IPS 55. “So we started thinking about ideas to kind of make a dent in that.”
A parent led the convoy with a leaf blower, removing dirt and debris, followed by a group of children marking the new lane with sidewalk chalk. Groups of parents followed, laying down the tape, driving it into the sidewalk and stenciling bicycle symbols in the lane. Another day, a small group created a temporary crosswalk in 20 minutes.
Hygema is among Indianapolis residents taking a do-it-yourself approach to tweaking specific stretches of road near their schools, businesses and neighborhoods to better protect children and neighbors. Generally, the inhabitants coordinate with the city authorities but direct the work themselves.
Interest is on the rise, according to the Department of Public Works, which adopted its first coherent policy late last month to deal with low-cost temporary facilities widely known as tactical town planning. The approach has the potential to bring changes that would otherwise not be part of DPW’s project slates.
Last fall, for example, DPW swapped East 54th Street tape for permanent paint and extended the bike path a mile to Keystone Avenue for good measure. But, say proponents, the plans also lay bare how much work remains to make neighborhoods more pedestrian and bike friendly.
“It was rewarding, but it was also kind of like, ‘It was a really simple thing to do that literally nobody was against,'” Hygema said. “And it still took, you know, the better part of two years to do it – it probably would have taken a year without the pandemic. …Painted bike paths are the simplest, cheapest and probably the most [minimal] something you can do to encourage cyclists. But it still took a lot of effort.
Most traffic collisions in Indianapolis are car-to-car. But when they’re not, they become much deadlier.
Pedestrians made up just 0.5% of those involved in Marion County’s 66,277 crashes in 2019, according to a county-level report from the Indiana Criminal Justice Institute. But pedestrians accounted for 24% of the 106 fatalities. Cyclists made up only 0.2% of the total, but accounted for 2% of fatalities.
Indianapolis has also seen a string of high-profile traffic deaths recently, including that of 7-year-old Hannah Crutchfield, struck in September at a crosswalk outside her Irvington school, and longtime cyclist Frank Radaker, struck in September. October on an East 86th Crossing the Monon Street Trail.
Residents also see accidents waiting to happen elsewhere.
“We’ve been lucky so far, nothing too bad. It’s just a lot of people walking and running, and a lot of traffic,” said Louise Henderson, owner of Kan-Kan Cinema and Brewery, who worked with the Windsor Park neighborhood on a mural project for the rickety intersection of Nowland Avenue and his company’s parking lot, just before Commerce Avenue.
Widely accepted design principles, such as narrower vehicle lanes and designated bike lanes with protective barriers, as well as features such as sidewalks, can reduce danger. But for Indianapolis, maintaining its current roads is already a budget bust, let alone fixing all its problematic intersections and adding infrastructure.
“It will take billions and billions of dollars and decades – even if we have the money tomorrow – to meet the infrastructure needs that we have,” said Kim Irwin, head of the nonprofit Health by Design, referring to sidewalks. “We have chronically and historically underinvested in this infrastructure. We built our city without it. So at this point to modernize is just a huge undertaking.
Arterial sidewalks alone would cost at least $750 million, according to the 2016 pedestrian plan that Health by Design developed for the Department of Metropolitan Development.
Thus, Irwin and other infrastructure advocates are finding promise in cheap, community-friendly tactical urban planning projects.
“In the absence of [permanent infrastructure improvements] are those shorter-term, lower-cost interventions that can accomplish the same goal,” Irwin said. “They also allow us these kinds of opportunities for trial and error, testing and evaluation. And they serve to change the behavior of drivers, people on foot and on bikes, in a positive way.
Although the concept of tactical urbanism has received more visibility in recent years, organizations around Indianapolis have been organizing such projects for decades on an ad hoc basis.
According to executive director Jim Walker, the nonprofit cultural and place-making organization Big Car Collaborative began staging tactical urbanism-style demonstrations in 2000, in Fountain Square. The group collaborated with the Southeast Neighborhood Development Corp. to transform a parking lot into an open-air cinema. In another protest, Big Car temporarily closed Virginia Avenue, then a four-lane.
Since then, the group has temporarily slowed traffic and turned parking lots into gardens in Lafayette Square, created all-weekend bike lanes and block parties in Garfield Park, and hopes to bring its expertise further into the suburbs of Indianapolis, Walker said.
For years “there was nothing written about it, and probably, the things we did in the grip, if we look [Department of Business and Neighborhood Services] rules or whatever, may not have been completely in line with how it’s supposed to be done,” Walker said. “But we weren’t… creating problems with backing up traffic. We went to traffic engineers and people like that around town and said, ‘Hey, does that look like a problem?’ »
While this has given project owners a certain level of freedom, some say it has also complicated efforts.
“City staff [were] do their best with what they had to guide people, but I also think we lost some occasions, where things didn’t move forward because there were too many setbacks, or they didn’t couldn’t come to a consensus or just couldn’t get the project off the ground because there wasn’t enough information,” said Irwin, whose organization provides advice to newcomers on tactical urban planning.
That’s changing, thanks to the DPW board-approved tactical town planning policy, which cited a surge in resident interest prompted by the pandemic.
There is also a source of funding, through a semi-new grant program from the Indiana Department of Health’s Division of Nutrition and Physical Activity, from which Hygema, Henderson, and Walker have all received funding. .
Other motivations are seasonal: DPW regularly hears from residents who see half-plowed streets and want to “reclaim” the unploughed space for pedestrians and cyclists year-round, a council member said during the pre -February meeting.
The 11-page policy sets out a permit and spells out what residents must include in their applications, including design, installation and maintenance plans. It lists what DPW looks for in applications, primarily that proposed projects will not aggravate traffic or create safety hazards, and will not interfere with storm water drainage or DPW maintenance efforts.
Crosswalks, while important in many past proposals, are not part of the agreement, due to what DPW says are strict state and federal design requirements.
Indianapolis already has low state funding because Indiana’s allocation formula uses road miles, not lane miles, giving single-lane rural roads the same amount of money for construction and maintenance than Indianapolis’ multi-lane arteries. DPW deputy director of policy and planning, Abbey Brands, said there was no desire to risk the scarce dollars the city receives.
There is, however, a hint of a path to permanency.
Proponents should collect data on their demonstration projects (defined as lasting 30 days or less) or pilot projects (lasting 30 days to one year). DPW could make low-cost, semi-permanent versions of successful projects, according to Brands, or add more expensive ventures to DPW’s long-term capital plan for permanent installations.
Arrive in the streets
The new policy was good news for Hygema.
“I like that there is a mechanism to get people out on the street and put something physical on the street. That’s how you make real change,” he said.
It will also go hand-in-hand with a street art policy the Public Works Board passed in July, which itself has been a relief for Henderson and the Windsor Park Neighborhood Association. They had postponed their mural project until June, to wait for DPW to develop its internal guidelines.
“Nobody could get us answers, because there were no answers,” Henderson said. More recent conversations have been “more fluid,” she said, “because [Brands] now has this roadmap of this [DPW’s] politics is.
The partnership plans to submit a permit application for the mural in March, which Henderson said hoped to beautify the street and calm traffic, especially when paired with certain community festivities.
If approved, the mural will be installed in early June. But now that there is also a tactical urban planning policy, Henderson said, she hopes the mural will be the first of several traffic-calming experiments.
DPW, meanwhile, plans to publish a basic checklist for permit applicants, followed by a user-friendly practice booklet full of examples.
Big Car, which runs a lending library of common tactical city-planning supplies, might see other takers. For Walker, the new policy could be a chance for Indianapolis to promote a growing sense of community.
“An opportunity might be to go in a direction where a partner or an entity within the city not only keeps tabs on things legally, or whatever, but also encourages those kinds of things,” Walker said. “…Like, ‘We want this to happen. It’s good for the city. It’s good to engage with your neighborhood if you want to do that.’”•