One of America’s Most Auto-Centric Cities Ditches the Car

Indianapolis has transformed itself into a walkable bicycling metropolis—and if you still need a car, there’s an electric option.
A new greenway alongside Indianapolis' Central Canal. (Photo: Visit Indy)
Oct 28, 2015
Melanie Haiken is a San Francisco Bay Area–based health, science, and travel writer who contributes regularly to Forbes.com and numerous national magazines.

Until five years ago, Indianapolis had less than one mile of bike lanes. Home of the Indianapolis 500, it was a city where cars reigned supreme.

“Cars have been such an essential part of the culture here, you might even say people viewed them as an extension of self,” said Scott Manning, communications director for Sustainable Indianapolis and the Indianapolis Department of Public Works. “Owning and driving a car was an absolute necessity, and that mind-set permeated city planning for decades.”

But visitors to Indianapolis today see a city that looks more like Portland, Oregon, than like Detroit, where traffic lanes have been replaced by broad, tree-lined pedestrian paths crowded with strollers, boats ply the Central Canal, bike lanes follow the curves of the White River, and greenways link the farthest-flung areas of the city.

It all began in 2010, when the city sold its water and sewer utility to a public trust, reaping a $500 million windfall. How did the city decide to spend it? Not, for a start, on freeway expansion and road repairs, as would have been the case a few years before, Manning said. Instead, Indianapolis set about asking its citizens what they wanted. (Reallycity officials held more than 50 public meetings.) What they wanted was to walk.

The result: a five-year transformation that the Project for Public Spaces, a New York City nonprofit, dubbed one of the “biggest and boldest” moves an American city has made to reclaim its pedestrian soul.

The Indiana Cultural Trail. (Photo: Indiana Cultural Trail)

The poster child for the city’s rebirth is the Indiana Cultural Trail, eight miles of wide, bricked pedestrian lanes linking the city’s most historic and culturally significant areas, such as Broad Ripple Village, the Wholesale District, and Market East. Dotted with public art installations, landscaping, and benches, the trail connects the urban downtown core with the gorgeously restored Indianapolis Canal and White River State Park and with long overlooked neighborhoods.

A perfect example is the Fountain Square neighborhood, a mile and a half south of the city center, which as recently as a few years ago would have charitably been described as a blighted wasteland.

“It was a dead zone, full of empty storefronts and abandoned buildings left behind when Interstate 70 came through,” Manning said. With the advent of the Indiana Cultural Trail, it’s an up-and-coming hub of restaurants, bars, boutiques, and general hipsterdom.

But when it comes to going car-free, the biggest impact may come from greenway extensions that are pushing existing bike and pedestrian trails farther out while connecting them.

RELATED:  The 10 Most Walkable Cities in America

More than 4,000 riders a day use the Monon Greenway, a rails-to-trails conversion along the old Chicago-Indianapolis line that runs 18 miles from the north end of city to the outlying suburbs of Carmel and Westfield.  

New extensions to the Eagle Creek Greenway bring the trail closer to the dream of a continuous route down the west side of the city.   

Add it all together, and the city that until recently had just a mile of bike lanes now has more than 90 miles of designated bike routes. Bringing more riders to those trails is the new Pacers bike-share program, established in 2014, that surprised everyone—even its promoters—by garnering 100,000 rides in its first year.  

“Usership exceeded any of the expectations anyone set—we outpaced Denver, Nashville, and many other cities that already had a much more entrenched bike culture,” said Manning. “It’s incredibly rewarding to see Indy suddenly making all the bike-friendly lists when biking wasn’t part of the culture here at all in the past.’

Perhaps the most attention-getting piece of the puzzle is still in the birthing phase. Blue Indy, an all-electric car-share service that aims to be largest of its kind in the United States, began its rollout in September and expects to have 500 cars and 200 rental stations by 2016. A branch of Autolib, which has taken Paris and London by storm, Blue Indy saw more than 1,500 rides in its first month.

All told, you’ve got a Midwestern city where it’s possible not only to get around downtown without a car but also to commute to multiple suburbs and take day trips. While visitors may seem like the most obvious beneficiaries—and tourism is way up—residents are heeding the call, with a significant influx of millennials and empty nesters to the urban core.

“There’s this movement backward out of the suburbs and back into the city center,” said Manning. “People are discovering this whole new lifestyle where they don’t have to own a car and realizing that’s what they want. The entire face of the city has changed.”

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