Wednesday, July 29, 2009

A tale of two (floundering) malls.

The enclosed shopping mall may be the one urban incarnation from the twentieth century that the cultural elite has maligned from its inception. Intellectuals and social reformers of the late 19th and early 20th often extolled the early streetcar suburbs as a respite from overcrowding, poor sanitation, and social decay they had witnessed in the cities—however, their praise subsided shortly after World War II, when suburban living became an aspiration for the majority of the middle class, and all of the accompanying commercial and retail amenities of the suburbs entered the mainstream. Auto-oriented shopping centers were still a curiosity at the time that J.C. Nichols developed Country Club Plaza in Kansas City in 1923, and its attention to venerable architectural forms of the past, as well as its discreet parking accommodations, have placed it in much higher esteem than the mall iterations that began cropping up all over the country in the 1950s. Country Club Plaza remains a premier shopping destination to this day, making it the longest-lived planned shopping center in the world.

The same can’t be said for many other malls across the country, which in recent years have been dropping like flies. Among the first and highest profile to perish was Dixie Square Mall in Harvey, Illinois, which closed in 1979 after only thirteen years in operation. It achieved notoriety after director John Landis rented the space to film a famous chase scene within the mall in The Blues Brothers, in 1980 after it had been closed a year. Like the shopping center I described in Plainfield a few weeks ago, economists attribute most mall failures to a shift in demographics in the trade area (usually to something less affluent than what was there at the time of the mall’s construction), or the development of a newer mall close by that lures all the business away from the older one. Dixie Square Mall’s demise is most likely attributed to the former of the two, because the Chicago suburb of Harvey suffered a massive outmigration of its middle class during the same years Dixie was in operation.

At the present day, the mall seems to be faltering as a viable retail typology. While many malls from the 1960s enjoyed new lives after renovations in 80s and 90s, others continued to struggle. Many developers converted malls into open-air plazas by stripping the roofs and adding landscape or courtyards; incidentally, this is how most early post-war malls began, though the contemporary approach emphasizes aesthetics more and has typically been re-branded as the “lifestyle center”. Other malls weren’t so lucky: anchors left, vacancies topped 50%, and sometimes whole wings of the mall were shut down. By this point, a mall could usually be classified as “dead”, and these anemic retail centers often drew legions of new curiosity seekers, who have captured the birth, life, and death of various malls in popular websites such as Labelscar and Deadmalls.

This blog post in particular features two examples of malls in Indianapolis that by most standards are dying: Lafayette Square Mall on the near northwest side of town (also featured in and Washington Square on the far east side. Both malls are still running, which indicate something about Indianapolis’ somewhat privileged mall culture: it is the headquarters of Simon Property Group, the single largest mall developer and operator and the largest Retail REIT in the world. Indianapolis has yet to experience a major mall closure. Compare this to Indianapolis’ twin city Columbus Ohio, which lost both the Northland Mall and the City Center Mall in the past few years. In addition, its Westland Mall is nearly dead, the Southland Shopping Center has been dismantled into a flea market, and the Eastland Mall is barely getting by with considerable vacancies. In Indianapolis, the only true casualty has been Eastgate, a 1950s neighborhood mall that began open-air and was quickly dwarfed by the larger regional centers. Simon is not single-handedly responsible for the prosperity of Indianapolis’ mall culture, but it certainly helps; the company has had a hand as a partner, sole developer, or manager of all the enclosed malls at one point or another. Columbus’s mall culture expanded rapidly in the late 90s and early 00s, effectively killing off the older malls (Northland, Westland, Eastland, etc) as the mall square footage was simply too great to support the population. Indianapolis has expanded its mall presence more conservatively, renovating when necessary, and aggressively seeking new anchor stores when one department store leaves or closes.

Nonetheless, Lafayette and Washington Square are clinging to life, and a quick visit to them both reveals how the retail mix has changed over time and what this reflects in the demographic shift of their respective trade areas. I have my own speculations as to the futures of these two malls, but I will first focus on Lafayette Square Mall:

This mall is the first major enclosed mall in the metro area; it opened in 1968 at the juncture of Lafayette Road and 38th Street, just west of the peculiar interchange with Interstate 65. (The only older mall is Glendale, which still survives, now as a cluster of box stores and small inline stores in an open air setting called Glendale Town Center.) It is the closest of the major malls to the city center and broadly served the west side for over two decades, with multiple expansions. Evidence of its decline began in 1995, when Circle Centre Mall opened downtown, stealing much of its client base with similar in-line stores and higher-end department stores (Nordstrom and the now-defunct Parisian). A renovation the next year helped breathe some life into the store, but only for a short time. The first anchor departed Lafayette Square in 2002, another left in 2004, and by 2005 the property managers (Simon Group, of course) we struggling to find newer discount tenants. Needless to say, the demographics had changed as well, as the Eagledale neighborhood nearby experienced white flight in response to growing crime both in the residential areas as well as at Lafayette Square. In addition, the outlying western suburb of Plainfield enjoyed rapid growth concomitant with the white flight of Eagledale; the growth was enough to spur the development of Metropolis in 2005, an outdoor shopping plaza, similar to a lifestyle center, but with on-street parking for cars alongside the broad pedestrian scaled sidewalks.

Simon Property Group sold the mall in December of 2007 to Ashkenazy Acquisition Corporation, a manager/developer that specializes in underperforming large-scale retail. Lafayette Square continued to hemorrhage department stores though, losing Sears at the beginning of 2009 and Macy’s a few months later. Thus, at this point the mall has no flagship department stores. Instead, it has an all-purpose ultra-discount called Shoppers World:

It also has the national chain Burlington Coat Factory, nicknamed by some as “the grim reaper of the retail world”, because of its tendency to move into failing malls:

The last anchor is a kid-themed entertainment/arcade center known as Xscape, a bit like Chuck E. Cheese but with go-karts. Two departments store spaces remain vacant. The in-line stores that comprise the majority of the mall appear about 65% occupied, while the kiosks in the central walkways are still doing well: probably 80% were put to some kind of use.

Now for the part I enjoy most: seeing what kind of people use the mall, and how they adopt the space as a very comfortable means of congregation. This is where I defend malls against attacks that they are culturally deadening destroyers of downtowns: while this may to a small degree be true (I will argue more on this at a later post), these malls also become a public forum for the surrounding community, a place for spontaneous encounters, and one that facilitates casual congregation quite effectively. Teenage mallrats become stereotypical denizens of such places not just because they like to shop; even those with no disposable income go to the mall because it is the best place to randomly encounter other people. Even dying malls sometimes manage this effectively. And as uncomfortable as it may be, I cannot reasonably analyze a mall’s shift without mentioning race—in nearly all instances of a locality’s shift in demographics, race and ethnicity plays a critical role. The same can be said of these two malls in Indianapolis.

I went to Lafayette Square in mid-afternoon on a weekday—not usually a peak time for mall patronage, though busier than usual among teenagers because it was in the middle of summer. The mall was by no means bustling, but it was hardly dead either:

Some parts, where the in-line stores were at the highest vacancy, were understandably the least crowded:

The food court, of which about half the restaurant spaces were empty, had become a desirable hangout apparently for late-middle aged and retired African American men, who were socializing and playing cards when I was there.

The racial demographics have changed significantly at the mall since its 1968 construction. My estimate of the ethnic composition on the few times I’ve visited in the past three years is that it is about 50% black or African American, 5% white, 35% Hispanic/Latino, and 10% Asian (strongly skewed to Southeast Asian). This picture reflects the participation level of many of the remaining whites visiting the mall:

An elderly gentleman walking, clearly for exercise, since there is no discernable destination in the shuttered department store behind him. This is where, in cities that have a largely suburban and auto-oriented built environment, malls have proven to be an effective substitute (at least from their peak years of 1960 to 1990) of the impromptu personalization of public space that William H. Whyte witnessed in Manhattan in his book (and popular accompanying documentary) The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces (1980). The placement of furniture at the vertices of various passageways in malls, the broad seating areas alongside fountains with skylights, even faux-urban accentuations such as clock towers, cupolas, or awnings clearly mimic the desirable features of a city center. Malls, of course, have the added advantage of centralized management, climate control, and lockable points of entry. By many standards they were better sanctuaries for retail than downtowns; the fact that they could only emulate but not replicate the positive aspects of urban shopping no doubt contributed to their decline at a time when most large cities (Indianapolis included) are focusing on building downtown retail.

This is why the elderly mallwalkers and card players in Lafayette’s food court are both a boon and a curse. While these individuals hardly embody the criminal element that often scared much of the white middle class from the mall and the surrounding region, they contribute to the sense of activity within a mall while doing little to supplement the revenue. The mall would scarcely want to kick them out for loitering, because no struggling mall can afford to sacrifice its reputation in order to exclude a population that is not overtly causing harm, but it would certainly be preferable to management if they would either purchase goods at the mall or take their congregation to a bona fide public space (such as a city park) rather than privately managed common area that is open to the general public. These individuals are sometimes part of the scene at economically healthy malls, but they are more prevalent at places like Lafayette Square with high vacancy precisely because they do not have to contend with crowds.

I would love to document more of the activities I saw in common area at Lafayette Square, but at about this point I was asked to leave by mall security. Clearly they don’t allow photograph taking at this mall (as is often the case), though they are far less likely to go after parents taking a picture of their child on the carousel then a strange man snapping photos all over the place while purchasing nothing. I’m far more of a concern than an elderly mall walker or poker player at the food court. I can respect this, and I was told that I may be allowed to photograph if I called management in advance and told them it was for a research paper. However, I was able to get most of the images I needed.

On my way out I covertly snapped a few more shots of in-line stores, because I had to get the retail mix. As is the case in most of the malls documented on Labelscar or Deadmalls, the downgrade of retail usually reflects a departure of national chains and the arrival of local enterprise, social services, or chains that target a minority group. Lafayette Square had all of these. Long gone were the major clothiers such as Gap, Limited, Lane Bryant, or Old Navy; among the few major names that often survive a bit longer in struggling malls are Bath and Body Works, Victoria’s Secret, big shoe stores (Foot Locker, Finish Line), and for some reason Aeropostale seems to outlast the other trendy clothing brands. (Aeropostale was gone from Lafayette Square at this point, though it was still here during my last visit three years ago.) Kay Jewelers has survived here, though all the other major names have departed and local or lesser-known jewelry vendors have replaced them. The mall no longer has any sit-down restaurants, chain or independently managed. General Nutrition Center and Radio Shack are often the last soldiers standing in a truly dead mall; at Lafayette Square, the former remains in business while the latter appears to have closed. Aside from the relative preponderance of apparel targeting African Americans (usually classified as “urban wear”) or cell phone retailers, a few local stores catered to the large Indian and Pakistani population in the area:

The outparcels—detached buildings within the perimeter of the mall property—were particularly desolate, with a vacancy rate well over 50%. Among the outparcels is a former movie theater that is now being used as a church:

This isn’t the only church within Lafayette Square’s premises: another one is attached to the mall, with a predominant exterior entrance, housed in a particularly large in-line space that undoubtedly had a particularly large tenant specialty store in the past, perhaps even a Lazarus department store, as one person on Labelscar claims. Storefront churches such as this deserve a special mention: alas, they are almost always the telltale sign of plunging rental rates. Churches are not typically looking for expensive real estate; to see one in a mall’s department store space is evidence of how cheap it must be to rent at Lafayette Square. Property managers would also prefer anything else because churches generate little to no additional foot traffic; they are typically only busy on Sunday mornings when the rest of the mall is closed. Apparently one municipality in Virginia recently tried to ban them altogether from their Main Street in an attempt to encourage quality retail that would actually pay property tax and bring revenue to the city. However, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) of 2000 forbids a government from applying land use restrictions that disadvantage religious institutions. One blogger noted that such an effort may have prejudicial undertones: storefront churches tend to have predominantly minority congregations, or at least they target groups that may not have enough equity for new church construction and instead must rent.

The conclusions one can easily draw from visiting both the inside and periphery of Lafayette Square Mall is that it is the archetypal inner ring mall in a postwar suburban setting. Though part of Indianapolis city limits, Lafayette Square and the Eagledale neighborhood clearly came of age in a time of automobile dominance, specifically in the 1950s and 60s. The area’s decline from a mostly white, lower middle-class neighborhood to a largely minority area that is working class with pockets of poverty reflects areas all across the country that are similarly positioned in relation to their downtown. The deterioration of Lafayette Square precisely parallels the ascension of the booming suburb of Plainfield (mentioned earlier) and Avon, both further to the west outside of Indianapolis city limits. I have chronicled as much of this as possible with my own observations from over the years, though I still owe a great deal to Labelscar for the dates and precise details, as well as Deadmalls for empirical observations during its more prosperous years.

Washington Square Mall is built almost entirely on my own observations; it has not yet been profiled in any of the websites on dying malls, though several people have mentioned it. It lies close to the eastern boundary of Indianapolis and neighboring Hancock county, at the intersections of Washington Street (Highway 40) and Mitthoefer Road, approximately five miles to the east of the now completely defunct Eastgate Mall. Perhaps chroniclers of struggling malls have failed to include it because its downfall has occurred much more recently, and the majority of attention in recent years was on the closure and subsequent redevelopment of the Eastgate Mall site. Washington Square bears fewer of the signs of a dying mall on paper: only one of its five anchors is vacant, it has still attracted some new tenants in recent years (including a new Kerasotes movie theatre in an outparcel), and it is still owned by Simon, the most successful mall property managers in the business. Many local bloggers seem to think the mall has successfully fended off death through Simon’s effective recruitment of anchors, after department stores like J.C. Penney, Lazarus, L.S. Ayres, and Montgomery Wards either moved, consolidated, or went out of business. However, a quick trip to the mall suggests that is most definitely is ailing.

I visited the Washington Square again on a summer weekday in the mid-afternoon, and it was noticeably less crowded than Lafayette Square. The inline vacancy seemed higher as well—most likely around 60% vacant. This view near the southern entrance shows the central spine of the mall in the far background, where most of the remaining major chains are concentrated.

As of this posting, Washington Square has a Victoria’s Secret, Bath and Body Works, Radio Shack, Claire’s Boutique, Vitamin World, Hallmark Store, Kay/Zales Jewelers, and several mainstream shoe stores. And yes, it still has Aeropostale, clustered around most of the other aforementioned national brands:

The mall’s food court is relatively full, and the mall still has a few sit-down restaurants not associated with the food court, including the Indianapolis based institution, MCL Cafeteria, which has long been popular with seniors. The senior community, in fact, was quite visible at various sites throughout the mall, lounging in groups or reading in solitude:

As mentioned earlier, the anchor space is predominantly full. Burlington Coat Factory (seen above) tends to feast on struggling malls and is usually not seen as a bellwether for prolonged retail prosperity. Macy’s departure left the one major vacancy, but Sears remains. The other two anchors are major brands with solidly middle-class reputations: Target and Dick’s Sporting Goods. However, these anchors tend to thrive on their own and depend less on proximity to a mall; they fail to harmonize with the specialty retail of in-line stores in the same way a department store would. Thus, people often go simply to Dick’s or Target (or even Burlington Coat Factory) without venturing into the common area. The result is that the hallways of Washington Square often seem far more deserted than an 80% anchor store occupancy rate would suggest.

The remaining retail in the area is, like Lafayette Square, mostly local but also highly idiosyncratic. When rental rates are low, an anything-goes attitude among the property management allows for some surprising tenants:

Property managers are unlikely to crave these more service-based tenants because they generate a fragment of the foot-traffic that goods-based retail does. Meanwhile, some vendors just sold a variety of knickknacks with no discernible theme—or, in this case, not even an identifiable name to the store:

And it’s not usually a good sign if a police reserve takes over as an in-line tenant:

Like Lafayette Square, Washington Square has acquired the reputation of being unsafe. A neighboring apartment complex apparently entered into a Section 8 agreement with the local housing authority a few years ago, and many major chains (Gap, Waldenbooks, B. Dalton’s) left shortly thereafter. Like the area around Lafayette Square, the demographics have changed here over the years: the mall’s racial make-up appeared about 45% black/African American, 30% white, 20% Hispanic/Latino, and 5% Asian. Over half of the white visitors at the mall were senior citizens, which tends to be undesirable for vendors because they are often very conservative with their money; many of them, of course, are mallwalkers or simply use the mall as a livelier place to read. Retail vacancies in the surrounding area outside Washington Square are lower than Lafayette, but not by much: nearly 40% of the surrounding outparcels and strip mall space appeared vacant. However, I was never approached by security while taking pictures here, though I still was very apprehensive and thus was conservative with my photography.

As I conclude this post, I feel less comfortable with the analysis because so much is based on hearsay and a few shallow visits to something which I am trying to chronicle. If I had been a regular patron of either of these malls growing up, I’m sure this would have been a more compelling comparison. Nonetheless, despite having access to very few of the numbers (showing mall traffic, average leasing rates, or revenue per square foot) I am going to take my observations of the malls (as well as the neighborhoods that surround them) and draw several conclusions:

1) Both malls are at almost identical levels of fiscal health. While Washington Square has a larger and more robust array of anchor tenants, it does not seem to be offering much to help activate the common space for in-line tenants. The common space at Lafayette Square appears much livelier, more appealing to children and families (thanks largely to the Xscape game room), and fewer vacancies, even if the tenants often target the low end of the market. Wikipedia claims that Simon renovated Washington Square in 1999, but the appearance—vaulted ceilings at intersections, terrazzo flooring, and faded signage—suggests the renovation was modest at best. Lafayette Square’s 1996 renovation is visibly dated and even cheaper looking, but it seemed like a more significant overhaul and allowed more natural sunlight. Both malls are on life support and are unlikely to attract any major new investment any time soon; any other major changes in the future will likely involve demolition of all or part of the structures.

2) The prognosis for both malls is inauspicious. My suspicion is that, if they survive the current economic downturn, both malls will remain at the current level of occupancy for the next few years, largely because the anchor tenants will remain comparatively stable. Mall management at each—Ashkenazy and Simon—have found the right mix for their target demographics. In-line tenants will fare far worse in Washington Square, where pedestrian traffic is particularly low. Aeropostale will be the next to go, then one of the national jewelers, and quirky mom-and-pop tenants or community services will replace them at a slower pace than the big names are vacating; not promising for the mall. Target, Burlington and Dick’s will survive unless the interior of the mall closes completely. Sears is the only anchor that seems likely to depart at this point. At Lafayette, in-line tenants are faring better, though any new vendors are likely to remain local businesses with a strong focus on the multi-national ethnic mix of the area. Ashkenazy claims to know what it’s doing for Lafayette Square: when I first heard of an arcade/go-kart center opening there I was apprehensive because it would tend to attract roving bands of teenagers, which are the exact group that scare away paying customers. Xscape at Lafayette Square, however, appears to draw mostly children under 10, so it may not pose such a problem. Simon has drawn a lot of negative attention among people on Indianapolis’ east side for seemingly abandoning Washington Square Mall; however, the economics and demographics around it are such a mixed bag that it is only due to Simon’s formidable efforts in alliance with the City that they were able to cajole Target and Dick’s to the mall. If Washington Square declines past the point of no return, however, and the interior reaches an 80% vacancy, Simon will probably divest itself of the property; the company is not in the habit or resuscitating dead malls.

3) Long-term prospects for the Lafayette Square area are better than Washington Square. Here’s where I admit I’m cheating a bit; I’m basing this conclusion largely on my knowledge of the overall fiscal health of these two parts of town. However, it does tie sharply to what is transpiring at both malls. The west side has experienced some white flight, but that population has simply moved outside the city limits to Plainfield. The west side is consistently being replenished through new immigrant arrivals; it may be the single highest concentration of foreign-born population in the metro area. Despite the high vacancy, resulting strip malls reveal the strong ethnic mix: halal meet markets, musica Latina, Desi video stores, Somali tea houses, a mega international grocer in a former K-Mart, and restaurants from Vietnam, Cuba, Peru, Ethiopia, Eritrea, South India, and so forth. Thus, the demographic shift and high retail vacancy around Lafayette has more to do with the area absorbing the shock of rapid racial and ethnic change. The opening of Metropolis in Plainfield couldn’t have helped, but Lafayette has had more than a competing mall to contend with. The nature of business in the near west and northwest side of Indianapolis has changed, but the level of commerce and overall numbers of people living there have not declined greatly. The same cannot be said about the east side, where Washington Square is located. A fashionable part of town through the seventies and early 1980s, the east side was hit hard by major factory closures that employed a sizable portion of the population. Warren Township, the jurisdiction in which Washington Square is located, is the only township beside Center Township (downtown Indianapolis) that lost population from 1980 to 1990. In general, the east side of Indianapolis is the only side where the suburbs are not growing rapidly. The white middle class of Warren Township didn’t just leave for the suburbs; many left the region altogether. Those that remain are often aging in their homes, and it is unlikely that a family of the same socioeconomic level will replace them. The sudden closure of Western Electric in 1984 sent a shock wave to many neighborhoods north of Washington Square Mall; entire neighborhoods from 25th Street north to 46th Street found their families out of work, with no buyers of a similar income level when they were forced to put homes for sale. Those neighborhoods, filled with homes built in the 1960s, are struggling with a much lower-income population than in the past. The east side has also already witnessed Eastgate Mall close its doors a few years ago, and immigrants are not replenishing the area at nearly the capacity as on the west side. Thus, Lafayette Square, for all its challenges, seems better equipped demographically to handle changes than the east side and Washington Square.

I do not think either mall is at a point where closure appears inevitable: the current economy is undoubtedly putting them under even greater strain, but they may emerge as generally successful discount malls if their respective management remains committed to routine maintenance, strict security, and vigorous tenant recruitment, regardless of whether or not the tenants are national chains. The Iverson Mall outside of Washington DC almost exclusively consists of local businesses and discounters, targeting a working class minority population, and the occupancy rate when I visited last summer was over 90%. For both Lafayette and Washington Square, trying to return them to their golden days is a counterproductive pipe dream: malls will never have the same allure that they did, and the new population clearly has demands for different goods and services.

In a nation with the highest retail square footage per capita in the world (further referenced in my dead strip mall blog), the overbuilding of shopping centers becomes much more obvious when the surrounding neighborhood loses much of its spending capacity through a change in residents. Many of the strip malls around Lafayette Square and Washington Square should clearly go; they are superfluous and the land could be put to better use as a grassy lawn without all the impervious concrete, until an enterprising developer has a new idea for the land. The management of the two malls themselves, I believe, should work to keep them alive as something that represents a node for the community: the mallwalkers might not add a value that accountants recognize, but the open space of these malls clearly operates as a psychosocial center that gives them an embedded value. This ineffable “centeredness” to your average suburban mall is manifest through the nostalgic anecdotes on, and it eludes most developers who find it far easier to build something new on the greenfields in the exurbs. Finding the right link between 1) the idiosyncratic, multiethnic local retailers; 2) the improvised use of quasi-public space; and 3) the exogenous conditions that can make shopping a pleasant experience for both recreational and utilitarian shoppers will best determine the future appearance and operations for both of these down-but-not-out malls.

Monday, July 27, 2009

The essence of the cultural divide on both sides of the pond?

Several years ago I couldn’t resist snapping a picture of this sign outside a restaurant in Portsmouth, New Hampshire:

Does this ironically (or at least unintentionally) reinforce snobbish European stereotypes of uncouth Americans? More planners than I can count always reference European cities when trying to find a model for the look and feel to which American cities should aspire. But one thing the US can always claim—which most European countries cannot—is quantity: an abundance of land, natural resources, and so forth. Perhaps there is an inverse relationship between ambiance and abundance, so that, when there is an almost endless supply of land, the users have far less incentive in articulating it. Does America, the birthplace of mass production and fordism, get the settlement patterns that urbanists condemn because it has so rarely confronted scarcity? Obviously this comes into play, even if it is largely unconscious. But to say that America’s cultural contribution is quantity at the expense of quality or ambiance is an assertion that depends on a hierarchy of taste: i.e., what constitutes “culture” or “character”. Taste culture is an obsession of mine, which will likely find its way into multiple later postings.

And here’s another charmer of a strip mall in New Hampshire, only a few hundred feet from the Massachusetts border, which apparently embodies all of the negative stereotypes Massachusetts residents have of New Hampshire:

Yes, that means porn, pawnshops, lowbrow reading (comics), and do-it-yourself fireworks. And there was a gun shop just down the street. Essentially they are selling everything that is highly restricted or taxed—if not outright forbidden—in Massachusetts. I guess this demonstrates what vulgarians the folks in the Granite State are compared to their smug Bostonian friends to the south. Frankly, the fact that they can consolidate such smutty hedonism in one shopping plaza makes me like the folks in New Hampshire that much more. (No doubt the reason these stores are so close to the border is that their biggest client base are the poor deprived folks in Massachusetts.) This photo also demonstrates yet again how a hierarchy of taste can creep into seemingly innocent stereotypes of various US states. Personally I found Portsmouth one of the most picturesque small cities I’d seen. My only regret in regards to this post is that I didn’t pop my head into the Metro restaurant—no doubt I would not have left hungry.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Democratizing the streets.

It is obvious to the untrained eye that, in recent years, municipal and county governments are paying increasing attention to the capacity for streets to accommodate entities other than vehicles, most specifically for pedestrians and bicycles. In most parts of the country, sidewalks in new subdivisions are no longer a bonus feature to lend prestige; they are an amenity that consumers in newer developments have come to expect.

AARP and a local advocacy organization, Health by Design, recently sponsored a lecture and workshop in Indianapolis on “complete streets”—the notion that a street should serve a broader role than simply a thoroughfare for motorized vehicles. For a street to be complete, it should allow pedestrians, bicyclists, in-line skaters, wheelchairs and strollers to walk safely along that same trajectory. While most high density urban centers are far better at accommodating these other users than rural and suburban areas (often by virtue of the fact that heavy traffic forces cars to travel more slowly), few streets in most downtowns reveal a conscious effort to include infrastructure that puts non-motorized travelers on an equal level with automobiles. Perhaps the best—and one of the few—examples in Indianapolis is the incipient Cultural Trail (, a private initiative that, when complete, will connect many of the prominent sites and urban neighborhoods in and surrounding the downtown. It operates as a landscaped buffer that separates bicycles from cars at an elevated grade, as well as a second buffer separating pedestrians from bicycles (as seen in the photos).

Every road crossing is signalized, with the audible, chirping Accessible Pedestrian Signals (APS) for the visually impaired. Bicyclists and pedestrians get separate signals, as indicated in the pictures above. In addition, every crossing has a clear ramp for wheelchairs (long a necessity since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990). Resting on every ramp are Tactile Walking Surface Indicators, better known as “dot tiles” or detectable warnings to inform the visually impaired of an approaching vehicular right of way by the knobbed dots will feel on a person’s feet. Regular lighting, bicycle parking, public art installations, and historic markers intend to broaden the utility and appeal of the Cultural Trail. At this point, less than one-fifth has been constructed, though by the end of this year it should be about one-third complete, while the entire eight-mile loop should achieve completion by the end of 2011. The Alabama Street corridor is the only section currently finished, but one can see the sophistication and level of investment:

More impressive was the City’s willingness to cut rights-of-way on Alabama Street from three to two. No doubt the ADT (Average Daily Traffic) measurements showed that three lanes was generally unnecessary on this street; it will be interesting to see how it fares for potential narrowing of some of the more heavily trafficked roads used in the Cultural Trail, or for those streets in which it will be impossible to reduce the lanes any further. Some have questioned the effectiveness of complete separation of bicycles from automobile traffic, and others believe the signalization could cause confusion at crosswalks and intersections. And, of course, the cost of this far surpasses what any city could hope to apply to the majority of its streets to make them complete.

Nonetheless, this remains one of the only areas in Indianapolis that demonstrates cognizance of the need for complete streets. For good examples of initiatives aimed at achieving Complete Streets infrastructure in other locations, this Flickr page provides good before/after images. (Credit to Graeme at A Place of Sense for pointing this out to me.) The insufficiencies of most other streets in Indianapolis become obvious when one examines the lower standard for paved surfaces, road markings, signage, lighting, and signals. Bike lanes are still fairly uncommon. Sidewalks become inconsistent within about three miles from the center, uncommon four miles from the center, and rare just five miles away. Many of the roads five miles from the city center were set and paved long before the city of Indianapolis stretched out to these limits; the momentous passage of Unigov in 1970 merged the city of Indianapolis’ city limits with the boundaries of Marion County. Thus, the section of the city that formerly rested outside the limits shows evidence of its rural, low-density origins and minimal service by a county government: narrow streets, fewer curbs and storm drains, infrequent streetlights. To a visitor arriving in downtown Indianapolis and then driving outward, the road infrastructure begins to look suburban and sometimes almost rural quite quickly, particularly on the south side of town, which was the last to develop. Complete streets are non-existent seven miles south of downtown; this would be the norm for an arterial road:

This is the norm for a collector:

And this is the typical appearance of a local road developed before 1970:\

Clearly the Marion County Public Works Department of this time had only one concern: to clear enough space so that cars can traverse efficiently. Density in formerly unincorporated Marion County was often almost rural at this point. While the City of Indianapolis still has a relatively low density in comparison to most other Midwestern cities (huge tracts in the southeast and southwest remain farmland), steady development over the past few years has bolstered the residential and commercial activity in the purlieus of the old city limits. However, the City of Indianapolis/Marion County suffers the concomitant concerns of a significantly heterogeneous population, many of which live in poverty, with a greater need for social services, housing subsidies, law enforcement, bilingual education. Thus, it should come as no surprise that the city budget must be spread over a variety of needs, and pedestrian/bicycle improvements along the streets are not a top priority.

The suburbs of Indianapolis, most of which rest in the eight adjacent counties (Marion county rests in the middle, almost like the center square in a tic-tac-toe puzzle) generally enjoy a robust tax base of middle- and upper-income residents, with notably low poverty levels. This understandably allows municipal governments to devote more time on amenities and quality of life considerations, with far less money devoted to rectifying perceived social ills. The suburbs have, in many regards, surpassed Indianapolis in their attention to details necessary in achieving Complete Streets.

The wealthy northern suburb of Carmel, in Hamilton County, has achieved national attention for its radical reworking of its road network to improve traffic flow through the strategic incorporation of roundabouts, which in turn create an improved pedestrian environment because all cars are forced to slow through the convergence of two roads (as opposed to a stop light, where cars with the green can simply speed through the intersection during optimal traffic conditions). Carmel has achieved bronze status as a Bicycle Friendly Community from the League of American Bicyclists for helping to transform what had long been a predominantly disconnected patchwork of subdivisions terminating in cul-de-sacs into a community in which most major collector roads have some level of pedestrian or bicycle accommodation. This extensive upgrade has culminated in a significantly refurbished downtown, the Arts and Design District , which has significantly enhanced the credentials of Carmel’s downtown as a leisure destination. This link from the city’s International Arts Festival has some of the better photographs I can find.

Completing Streets in an Indianapolis Suburb

Perhaps I’m caving in to convenience, but Carmel is quite a drive from where I live in Indianapolis, so it is difficult for me to capture it in photos as of yet, though I do plan to include some Carmel’s achievements in a later blog entry. Carmel, while still developing, has matured much more in its infrastructural improvements than Greenwood, the equivalent suburb on the south side of the city, in Johnson County. Greenwood is nowhere near as affluent as Carmel, so the tax base may never allow for the widespread public investment that helped stimulate the renaissance of the former city’s downtown. Greenwood nonetheless is a bedroom community with a solid middle and upper-middle class—a population likely to demand evidence of sound government spending in infrastructural needs. The east side of Greenwood in particular has benefited from an emergent network of pedestrian paths along formerly automobile-only streets. Here, at last, is where this text-heavy blog entry introduces a bona fide photo montage.

Greenwood, like many suburbs across the Midwest, has a small, concentrated downtown in close proximity to the original railroad depot, with several blocks of strictly gridded residential streets surrounding it, followed by a broader swath of more recent, heavily auto-oriented development. The oldest part of Greenwood has always been comparatively walkable, with adequate sidewalks, narrow streets, and speed limits that promote an awareness of pedestrians. The remainder of the city boomed after the proliferation of the automobile, when Greenwood asserted itself as a suburb of Indianapolis. The goal among city officials appears to be to expand the walkability of the city beyond its old historic core. The path featured in the photo below is a recently constructed trail adjacent to the Main Street, attempting to instill some degree of completeness to the portion of Greenwood’s Main Street that extends beyond old Greenwood into the newer, more typically suburban, auto-oriented part. The Main Street trail is wider than your typical sidewalk, apparently attempting to accommodate both pedestrians and bicycles in lieu of altering the striping of the street for bike lanes; I saw both bikes and pedestrians using this portion of the trail.

As the photos indicate, the Main Street Trail has labels on occasion to identify it and to deter motorized vehicles (golf carts or ATVs perhaps?) from using it, and it appears to be paved with asphalt, rather than the conventional concrete squares of uniform size seen in most older city sidewalks, including the older parts of Greenwood. I’m no expert on paving surfaces, but I know enough to be aware that few public works departments would argue that, between concrete and asphalt, one is better than the other—they each have their disadvantages. But the shift from the old, narrower concrete sidewalk to the broader, newer asphalt is indicative of a trend I’ve seen in other cities that try to improve pedestrianism.

Now regarding the design: the Complete Streets lecture sponsored by AARP and Health by Design focused predominantly on policy, arguing that design strategies can vary greatly and become more complicated. I prefer to use my observations to comment on the general planning and layout because pedestrian planning as a policy initiative appears to be well-tilled ground. In Greenwood, one can see the gaps in the trail where the city has yet to complete its work. The discontinuity where the new Main Street Trail ends prematurely leaves a “goat trail,” where frequent pedestrian travel has worn bare the grassy turf:

The older, concrete portion of the Greenwood sidewalk connects about 150 further down. This is probably not a problem to the average able-bodied pedestrian (or mountain bicyclist). But it renders the trail along Main Street difficult or unusable for persons with strollers or in wheelchairs. It appears a simple mistake, easy for the planners to rectify, but the same gaps appear elsewhere in the trail as well. Notice this spot close to a major juncture with heavy commercial activity:

The user is forced to cut through parking lots and service lanes to the shopping areas nearby to pick up the rest of the trail on Emerson Avenue, where the path continues southward. This portion on Emerson Avenue is more contiguous, but reveals some interesting planning decisions where an older piece of sidewalk was apparently laid as concrete squares and the newer portion in asphalt joins it.

This is a minor complaint, of course, but this could create bottlenecking if a bicyclist and pedestrian were to pass one another. Such a fusion of two different widths would be unthinkable on a conventional road without warning signage and a gradual attenuation.

Interestingly, upon returning to Main Street and continuing eastward, the asphalt trail continues intermittently even as the population density thins, including one of the few sections where there appeared to be signalized pedestrian crossings, right as the trail continues under Interstate 65.

However, as the trail emerges to the east side of the interstate, it approaches a handsome wooden bridge over a large ditch and then terminates again. This eastern side of I-65 still ostensibly falls under Greenwood’s city limits but only comprises a few nascent housing developments, a number of smaller farms/cornfields, and some large trucking logistical centers. Yet many of the streets here have trails and sidewalks, sometimes parallel to both sides. While this suggests the city’s anticipation of future residential growth (further supported by the widening of one the narrow country lanes), it does appear far fetched to think that there will be a great demand for running and bicycling alongside these sprawling warehouses:

My speculation was at least supported by the fact that I saw no walkers around here, while there were quite a few on the other side of I-65, where the bulk of the population lives—and where there were noticeable gaps in the sidewalks and trails. This seemingly arbitrary placement of pedestrian amenities reminds of me of an observation I made several years ago when I was testing bike lanes in Philadelphia. The city of Philadelphia has one of the strongest networks of bike lanes in the country—of all the large cities (population over one million) I’ve visited in recent years, in may be the best, in terms of thoroughness, contiguity, and visibility. However, one place with particularly thorough bike lane presence was along the service roads leading to the international airport, and frontage roads near the interstate in this same area. I had to bike along these lanes, and I didn’t see another soul—even with the lanes I felt somewhat unsafe because cars were traveling at high speeds (over 50 mph) and clearly did not anticipate seeing any bicyclists in the area. Aside from the bike lanes, the built environment in this section of Philadelphia in no other way accommodated pedestrians, and there was no indication that there were plans to make it pedestrian friendly. There would be no reason. All the area had were a cluster of hotels and restaurants one would typically see at an interstate exit ramp, corporate offices, and trucking centers; it was fundamentally an auto-oriented zone, and it is also unlikely to appeal to bicyclists seeking scenic views.

In the cases of both Philadelphia and Greenwood, installation of lanes/sidewalks seemed motivated by convenience and expediency than by a demand among the constituents. These sparsely settled areas require less intervention and less earth-moving or potential disruption of utility provision than dense neighborhoods and commercial zones, so it is no doubt cheaper to build bike lanes and greenways around there, and the city can still boast of its achievement in marketing campaigns that claim a certain number of miles worth of marked lanes or paved trails. I can also respect that it is wise to consider the appeal of rural bikeways as well. But these districts in Philadelphia and Greenwood are logistical hubs for motorized vehicles—planes and cars—and among the last places most bicyclists will seek for recreation or utilitarian purposes (i.e., few people will ever commute to work at an airport or trucking distribution center by bicycle). My observations of the ill-conceived application of Complete Streets principles at these locations only further disaffirms the famed Daniel Burnham maxim of “build it and they will come”: my observations suggest that it has been built in an area where there is no “they”, and nothing is coming. Decisions like this from the planning and public works departments from these two respective cities erode their credibility among taxpayers who demand accountability for their transportation improvement plans. Perhaps someday a demand for trails next to these trucking centers will manifest itself, but couldn’t that money have been used to upgrade sidewalks and trails where they are missing in older, more densely populated parts of Greenwood?

Nonetheless, Greenwood seems to be getting in right in many accounts. I have gone jogging on some of these trails, and the continuity in many cases is quite strong and only likely to improve over time. The City’s website provides a trail map which shows how comprehensive it already is.

The City’s efforts stretch across the entirety of the municipal limits and do not dwell on a single part of town. It does, however, appear that the City has no intention of improving the intersection of Main Street and Emerson Avenue, based on the absence of any overlay red or dashed yellow lines on the pedestrian plan. This intersection with high traffic volume will most likely always remain auto-oriented, but pedestrian provisions on the north side of Emerson Avenue fail to connect with Main Street, resulting in a complete absence of safe crosswalks on any of the four major street crossings. They also do not appear interested in any improvements on US 31, which is particularly lacking around the perimeter of Greenwood Park Mall, a pedestrian unfriendly area by nature but one with such concentration of activity that it behooves the city to allow some safe maneuvering for walkers or bicyclists along the verge or at major intersections. At this point only the Madison Avenue side has sidewalks (on one side of the street) and County Line Avenue has a proposed sidewalk. I would encourage the planners to evaluate improvements on the Fry Road and US 31 sides as well, if not for the entire length of these streets than at least for the portions that abut the Mall.

My final quibble with this Greenwood Pedestrian Plan is its conflation of sidewalks and trails, as manifested on the key to the City’s map. The very fact that the pathways marked with red lines on the Trail Map use a variety of paving surfaces, widths, signage, and trajectories suggests that the planners have a duality of systems in operation here, which they are not communicating the public. The Random House dictionary’s definition of sidewalk ( is “a walk, esp. a paved one, at the side of a street or road”. This matches the general public perception of a sidewalk: that it runs parallel to a street or at least a right of way. Conversely, trails, towpaths, or greenways are almost completely fungible, mostly because none of them adhere to a single definition. Trails could essentially comprise anything that is not a sidewalk. In the case of Greenwood’s classification system, a sidewalk would be anything paralleling a street that is most likely composed of concrete slabs of uniform size—most important, however, is the fact that it hugs a street by either directly abutting the curb or allowing a small grassy buffer (the verge) between the curb and the paved walk. Sidewalks most likely to serve a utilitarian purpose of aiding a pedestrian of getting from one point to another using the right-of-way formed by roads without the suffering the danger of walking in the road. Trails, by Greenwood’s standards, tend to be wider than sidewalks, use an interrupted strip of asphalt, and may inscribe property lines. They have signs with a “yield” warning of an upcoming intersection, as well as disruptive posts (almost the equivalent of bollards but nowhere near as durable) to prohibit vehicles—particularly golf carts—from using them. Trails are fundamentally recreational instead of utilitarian: their width and smoothness should allow them to accommodate pedestrians, bicyclists, or inline skaters; sidewalks are typically engineered only to accommodate the former. However, these stipulations are a moot point: I would give the City of Greenwood the complete freedom to make distinctions as it sees fit, and to adhere to those established definitions.

No doubt my obsession with trails and sidewalks seems like hairsplitting. But the main problem is that, as it currently stands, Greenwood is apparently using its trail system as a means of shirking the responsibility of building sidewalks where they are clearly lacking and could benefit the neighborhood. Building a trail system is by most measurements a wonderful endeavor for a municipality of Greenwood’s size with real bedroom community aspirations, especially if they are wide enough for bikes to use in lieu of adding bike lanes, but it would be prudent for the City to avoid thinking of them as a compensatory gesture for the vast swaths of town that have no sidewalks. The collision of these two entities—trail and sidewalk—and the lack of distinction between the two only serves to dissipate the identity of either one, and it results in physical design shortcomings like the bottlenecking trail photograph I posted earlier.

Revisiting Indianapolis and its Overdue Efforts

Regardless of its weaknesses, the Greenwood trail/sidewalk system comes far closer to demonstrating a citywide awareness of the need Complete Streets than Indianapolis can even hope for at this point. So much of the transportation network in Indianapolis remains unchanged from pre-Unigov periods that it is high time the city start designing its roads like it really is a city. Mayor Greg Ballard’s recent establishment of the Infrastructure Advisory Committee is a much-needed step in the right direction, though its scope is vast: the committee must also address concerns of sewage treatment (combined sewer outflow), storm sewer drainage, water treatment, and a variety of other public works-related improvements that have long been postponed or ignored. The focus of this committee is spread across a variety of formidable needs, and the fact that, outside of the older urban core, many of Indianapolis’ streets are dark, narrow, and lacking in curbs, sidewalks, or bike lanes means that prioritization will be essential.

The Complete Streets lecture recognized that it would be unreasonable to expect every street in America to come fully equipped with sidewalks, bike lanes, lights, cross walks, Accessible Pedestrian Signals, or traffic calming devices. Many streets, lecturer Randy Neufeld acknowledged, are “complete” even though they lack all of the aforementioned. A rural street with a strict speed limit for cars will be generally safe for pedestrians, if the density of the built environment around it (homes, businesses) is particularly low. Indianapolis has plenty of these, and it would be unwise to prioritize the upgrading of these streets at the expense of neighborhood streets that are currently much more unsafe for pedestrians, bicyclists, or wheelchairs. A perfect example would be the street included in the photo below, just a little over four miles south of downtown. The originally developers of the street clearly subdivided and platted a long and narrow parcel long before the street was ever part of the Indianapolis city limits, resulting in a road which has an almost rural feel: no sidewalks, no curbs, intermittent streetlights, no storm sewers, and houses built some distance off the street. No one could conceive that the City of Indianapolis would someday absorb the much more urbanized character of everything else around it.

Obviously it doesn’t look like a standard urban road. It is a dead-end street without even a cul-de-sac for quick turnarounds in vehicles. The layout and rural infrastructure would most likely not receive a permit by today’s standards; it would have to seek a variance to omit sidewalks, storm sewers, or a cul-de-sac from its plan, and the permitting department would probably reject the application for such a variance. But it was acceptable in unincorporated Marion County at the time, long before the 1970 passage of Unigov. Such a street, rarely traveled by mere passers-by, assumes the quality of a private road, and the absence of strict zoning regulations at the time it was platted allows for an unlikely mix of uses, with large-lot homes next to structures such as this, a holding facility for vehicles of the local school district:

The private nature of this street is reinforced by some winsome eccentricities among the landowners who live there:

My suspicion is that a street such as this is perfectly suitable for the people who live there, posing little danger to pedestrians who must walk along the street. It is likely that the people who live here prefer the almost rural character, even if, when returning to the main artery from which this street ramifies, one can cross the street of the principal artery and see a much newer subdivision adhering to more contemporary permitting standards:

Clearly streets such as this should rank quite low in any upgrade embarked upon by the Infrastructure Advisory Committee. Plenty of arterial and collector streets lack sidewalks; many of those that do have sidewalks fail to meet current standards of suitable safety for wheelchairs, vision-impaired users, or those who need more time to cross the street. Generally speaking, the city has been fairly diligent at including electronic pedestrian crossing signals at most intersections (sometimes even those that don’t have real sidewalks). Compare this to cities such as Philadelphia and New Orleans, where even the downtowns often lack electronic signals: pedestrians in these cities typically have to look at the stoplights to know when to walk, and the only warning they get that a light is about to change is the same four-second-long, amber caution light that drivers receive.

To conclude this lengthy post, I commend the leadership of AARP and Health by Design for integrating Complete Streets into the dialogue, so quickly after the formation of the Infrastructural Advisory Committee. Whatever the current leadership’s shortcomings, it has demonstrated far more of an interest in upgrading transportation to accommodate non-motorized users in Indianapolis than any mayoral administration in the past. It is high time the city improve its lamentable standing for pedestrian friendliness of its streets: not only does any further negligence hamper the city’s competitiveness with other, more walkable cities of comparable size, the City of Indianapolis is failing even to compete with many of its suburbs. Recognizing that the city has a needier population and a far less robust tax base than its almost poverty-free suburbs, the challenge will be to articulate a plan that maximizes the return on investment. My own recommendations for how Indianapolis can proceed with its vision of Complete Streets include the following:

1) Prioritize streets based on existing traffic patterns, connectivity, and density of residents/workers. Arterial and collector streets that service those portions of the city that meet the US Census Bureau’s definition of Urbanized Areas should be top priority for sidewalks, crosswalks, bike lanes, and ASPs. [Note: an Urbanized Area (UA) includes core census blocks groups of at least 1,000 people per square mile or more, and their surrounding census blocks with a minimum density of 500 people per square mile. Check the website for more.] This would involve most of Center Township, where the original city limits of Indianapolis lie and the areas that were platted long before the automobile. Obviously, much of this area already has sidewalks, though there are some that are still lacking. Many of the existing sidewalks haven’t been repaired in decades; in some cases, it’s hard to make out any sidewalk at all because nature has devoured so much of the paving surfaces. These same areas are likely home to a higher concentration of bicyclists who depend upon them for basic transportation (utilitarian biking rather than recreational biking). The higher population density already forces automobiles to stop more often and travel at slower speeds, so the environment is more amenable to a bike-friendly infrastructure already. Striping and signage will enhance its visibility to motorists. Hierarchically organizing the improvements plan based on allotted time periods that link directly to the funding stream will allow a mapped vision: i.e., a 2-year, 4-year, 8-year, and 15-year plan. The variables, as mentioned above, should be based chiefly on the following: a) population density; b) mixture of uses: residential, commercial/retail, civic or public; c) existing levels of danger posed to pedestrians/bicyclists; d) evidence of heavy pedestrian bike activity through goat trails or other improvised rights-of-way; e) connectivity of the street network, where ecumenical, gridded streets take priority over hierarchical (cul-de-sacs) for the abetment of multidirectional pedestrian movement; and f) topographic and other natural features do not pose an undue burden. Such a plan will no doubt favor increased upgrades to Center Township at the expense of the surrounding, more suburban portions of Indianapolis (the collar townships), but parts b) through d) in particular will allow suburban roads with a high mixture of uses—homes in close proximity to jobs or shopping—to still warrant high priority improvement.

2) Distinguish the different types of improvements—sidewalks, bike lanes, trails, greenways, towpaths, streetlights, crosswalks, etc—during the research and information gathering process, but consolidate the research findings during master planning. This will help avoid some of the problems posed by Greenwood’s process, in which conflation of ideals has resulted in an unclear distinction between trails and greenways, amenities for bikes and pedestrians versus those for pedestrians alone. By the same token, the Central Indiana Community Foundation, Indy Parks and Recreation, and Indy Greenways have seemingly concentrated all their efforts in recent years on the Cultural Trail, which, while admirable, has caused the once nationally recognized Indianapolis Greenway system to lag. Indy Parks have forged some trails that are developed without record in the greenway system, others have been built as greenways when sidewalks are preferred given the location, and some greenways have stalled and languished when goat trails indicate a significant demand for their continuation. The research should look at sidewalks on their own terms and not how a greenway on one side of the street will preclude the need for a sidewalk on the other side; otherwise the planners are conflating recreational path use from utilitarian path use, which is again a problem I have witnessed in Greenwood. Only when fusing the results of the findings for each of these improvements as separate entities should the various agents engaged in research put their findings together to devise a comprehensive Complete Streets Plan.

3) Before refining a Complete Streets Plan, engage in extensive public outreach to reveal the results of the findings. This is a no-brainer, but it will put the preponderance of the city’s support in favor of these improvements when the city demonstrates how carefully researched the tentative plan is. Research would have likely stalled the development of sophisticated trails in the truck warehousing section of Greenwood; if it failed to stall it, a public hearing showing the trails built in an area intrinsically hostile to bikes and pedestrians could easily have killed it. A city such as Indianapolis, with far less discretionary spending available for amenities, would need to be held to a higher degree of accountability. Many citizens, particularly those living on local residential streets in high density areas that would clearly benefit from sidewalks, may still wonder if the disruption and noise caused by the construction is worth it. They in particular could need convincing of how these improvements will boost the desirability of their neighborhoods. And, like the Complete Streets lecture, persuading the citizenry by raising awareness of how vulnerable certain pedestrians are enhances the cause: senior citizens trapped by dangerous streets are among those likely to elicit the most sympathy.

4) Integrate the Complete Streets Plan to a broader capital improvements initiative. Indianapolis is hardly the only city suffering from aging or inadequate infrastructure; this is a national problem, a result of deferred maintenance and steady technological advancements rendering the older system obsolete. Remember that at one point engineers clearly thought that Combined Sewer Overflow was not a particular problem. Not only will complete streets necessitate a new budgetary component for their eventual maintenance, but they will require the ability (or at least the financial resources) to anticipate further advancements that can be integrated to the system, to make streets even more pedestrian friendly that we can currently even imagine. This does not require prescience as much as flexibility and lack of complacency among civic leaders; even if Indianapolis meets its goal of achieving X percent complete streets in X years, it is inevitable that by that point, superior engineering should supplant the materials we are using right now. The budget for the Cultural Trail is accounting for the eventual need for improvements and rehabilitation as a specialized project with a definitive end date; transportation improvements for a city of 800,000 people and over 300 square miles will never be able to articulate a definitive end date. Yet this is not so much a problem as it is a concern that planners must account for, both in terms of labor (planning brains and construction brawn) and in terms of budgetary allotments.

No doubt most of these points have already been considered by people far more informed than I am, and I scarcely want to insult anyone’s intelligence by including them. But my casual observations suggest that, at least in places like Greenwood and Indianapolis, the right hand and the left hand aren’t always operating in sync. Sidewalks end abruptly, bike striping disappears with the application of a new layer of asphalt, utility poles get installed in the middle of a sidewalk (blocking passage for wheelchairs), and street signs suggest prioritization of pedestrians or motorized vehicles at crosswalks, without the accompanying changes to the road to reinforce—or simply to enforce—them. See these final photos in Greenwood for other examples of elements overlooked in their trail/sidewalk/greenway network.

Here in south Greenwood, an otherwise perfectly acceptable sidewalk lacks a wheelchair ramp:

Here, also in south Greenwood, a sidewalk fails to traverse a railroad crossing. See how it ends near the utility pole (by the sunbeam):

Taken from a different angle:

And then the sidewalk continues, on the other side of the tracks, but on the other side of the street:

Perhaps these photos imply that I am critical of the City of Greenwood's efforts--definitely not my intent. I believe the City has already made tremendous strides and is likely to rectify many of the problems I have identified. I hope that, as a growing portion of citizens see Complete Streets as an important component to urban or suburban livability (particularly the aging Baby Boomers!), the evidence will be obvious. Seeing people walking and riding along streets will be normal, instead of a curiosity. An increase in both recreational and utilitarian use of streets by bicycles and pedestrians might also be reflected in the shrinking waistlines of the American populace…but I’ll reserve that for another posting.