2 wheels or 4? Leaders' desire to promote cycling at a crossroads in Indiana communities
CARMEL, Ind. (AP) — Hoosiers have fallen back in love with the bicycle.
The Monon Trail is more popular than ever. Twice as many workers ride their bikes to the office as did a decade ago, a census statistic propelled by cities such as Carmel and Indianapolis, which have pushed to provide amenities they see as critical to luring the young, educated workforce that businesses crave.
In less than a decade, the two cities added close to 200 miles of cycling infrastructure between them, garnering national accolades along the way. Now, surrounding cities are rushing to emulate them.
But recent policy clashes suggest that Indiana’s newfound love affair with cycling has come to an uneasy crossroads, facing off with at least three trademarks of Hoosier culture and values: our reverence for individual property rights, our frugality and our passion for the automobile.
As more bicycles hit the road, the councils in both Carmel and Indianapolis are beginning to push back against the two-wheeled ambitions of their mayors. They’re hearing from constituents who question spending priorities, from property owners who fear their front yards may be taken for bicycle lanes, and from motorists and cyclists frustrated by the tensions on the road.
“The whole issue is we’re all going to have to learn to cooperate and mingle and figure out how to treat each other,” said Carmel resident Oran Sands, who serves on the board of IndyCog, a cycling advocacy group. “We’ve got a steep learning curve here.”
The culture clash finds Carmel and Indianapolis — for the first time since the Monon was paved — grappling with how far government should go to promote an activity that has become one of the cities’ calling cards.
The recent influx of cyclists to Indy’s roadways has led to some tense clashes with motorists who aren’t used to sharing the pavement.
Doug Sears, who rides his bike from Fishers to his job on Indianapolis’ Southside, told The Indianapolis Star (http://indy.st/1kqhb8W ) that plastic bottles have been thrown at him on his daily commute.
Once, a pickup truck came so close to Sands that he could feel the rear-view mirror whoosh past his ear as he clung to his handlebars.
Countless others have been honked at, yelled at, tailgated and worse. And cyclists say the entrenched car culture bears much of the blame.
Advocates agree: Cyclist safety is often cultural. Jeff Miller, president and CEO of the Alliance for Biking and Walking, a coalition of over 200 groups throughout North America, said drivers behave markedly differently from city to city. Motorists in Washington, D.C., where 2.9 percent of commuters bike to work, rarely honk at him. In Indianapolis, where 0.5 percent of commuters ride their bikes, Sears says it happens twice a week.
Motorists, meanwhile, chafe at road cyclists who want to be treated as equals but don’t obey the rules.
Jamison Hutchins, bicycle and pedestrian coordinator for the Indy mayor’s office, says the most common law cyclists break is also the most dangerous — riding in the opposite direction of traffic.
“Anecdotally, a lot of times the person on the bicycle knows that they’re not doing the right thing, but it’s probably comparable to a pedestrian crossing the road at a crosswalk while they don’t have a pedestrian signal,” Hutchins said. “I imagine it’s that same kind of mindset: ‘I’m on a bicycle, I don’t necessarily have to follow the law.‘
“It’s not right,” he said. “And, it looks bad.”
The statistics don’t assign blame, but they do come to a clear conclusion: Indianapolis has a problem. The city’s fatality rate of 11.9 deaths per 10,000 cyclists is the 10th highest out of the 50 largest cities. The national average for these cities is 4.9 casualties.
Still, the case for cycling is almost unassailable.
The health benefits are indisputable. Cycling is better for the environment than a carbon dioxide-emitting car. And it reduces urban clutter — a rack of 10 bicycles takes up less space than a single parked car.
There’s an economic argument as well. Cities with strong cycling communities have reported business growth in areas connected by bike paths, according to an Alliance for Biking study. And Carmel Mayor Jim Brainard insists that these sorts of amenities are key to luring the next generation of worker — although this line of reasoning isn’t as easy to quantify in economic terms.
The policy problem with cycling has to do with the infrastructure itself. Indiana’s cities weren’t built with bicycles in mind, and the two city councils are increasingly wary of how quickly the two mayors are trying to change that.
For developed areas, adding an on-road bike lane or a bike path means shrinking the roadway available to cars or expanding the public right of way into someone’s yard. For a true Hoosier, it’s like asking if they’d rather lose an arm or a leg — they’d rather the government leave their properties and their roadways alone.
In this, Carmel had an advantage over larger cities. When Brainard took office in 1996, much of the city was undeveloped. So through strict planning rules, Carmel coaxed developers into creating a bike-friendly transportation grid as new neighborhoods and commercial centers were built.
The city’s earliest efforts focused on its trail system, following a countywide alternative transportation plan that was first laid out in the 1980s. A rail-to-trail project is in some ways more palatable than retrofitting a street, but it, too, was met with resistance. The city had to acquire right of way deeds for more than 240 lots, because in many cases, the old railroad bed had reverted back to its original land owners.
Brainard recalled one protester who drove around the city with a sign on his truck that kept a tally of how many properties the city had condemned.
“Rail trails were somewhat unproven at the time, so there weren’t a lot of examples that we could point to that people would believe made them really good to the community overall,” said Carmel City Council member Ron Carter, a longtime advocate of cycling. “It’s easier now to do it — and there’s much less opposition, certainly.”
Today, the Monon Trail stretches from Downtown Indianapolis to Westfield and hosts more than 1 million visitors each year.
But now both cities face a new challenge — how to connect older areas to new bicycle infrastructure.
Carmel’s transportation plan maps out the design specs for every road in the city, though not necessarily the way forward.
Theoretically, as roads come up on the city’s maintenance schedule, they would be reconstructed with either on-road bike lanes or multiuse paths on either side of the road. But some council members are worried that if the plan is followed to the letter, residents will be forced to give up huge chunks of property for bike facilities they may not want.
“I can see a bureaucrat some point down in the future saying, ‘No, we need to have 120 feet of right of way’ — and in doing so, I put the multiuse path five feet off of your front porch,” said Carmel City Councilman Rick Sharp.
The council’s Land Use Committee for two years has been debating a proposal that would limit the city’s right of way for roads. Some streets would have multiuse paths for pedestrians and cyclists in lieu of a sidewalk and an on-road bike lane. Others would require a bike path on just one side of the street instead of both.
But Brainard says the changes could have dire consequences, and his planning staff agrees. Far from adding flexibility, they say that without writing their ideal roadway into the plan, with all the bells and whistles, they won’t be able to require them from developers on new construction, or upgrade existing neighborhoods where it makes sense. And, depending on the finished product, Brainard said he may veto it.
“If you lack the standards, you never get the bike path in,” Brainard said. “It is hard to retrofit sometimes, and we have made exceptions. (But) by getting rid of the requirement, it’ll never happen.”
The proposal sparked a mini-revolt among the city’s cycling community, which took to social media to protest. Council members said the outrage took them aback.
“I think this whole discussion has been deliberately mischaracterized,” said Sharp, who recently took over as chairman of the Land Use Committee. “This is neither anti-bike nor pro-bike. It’s pro-common sense.”
Councilwoman Carol Schleif, the proposal’s architect, says the case-by-case evaluations that take place now aren’t working. Many of her constituents are still bitter about past experiences where their property concerns were ignored.
“This is not about eliminating bike paths, as some might like you to believe,” she wrote in an email. “This is about how we get sidewalks and paths for our city, not if we get sidewalks and paths.”
Indianapolis faces different challenges. Mayor Greg Ballard’s goal for 200 miles of trails and bike lanes has come under fire both from motorists who prefer their roads bike-free and from council members who argue the money would be better spent fixing the city’s crumbling infrastructure.
“The bicycle lanes can’t be a high priority when you’re a billion dollars underfunded for streets and sidewalks,” said City-Council Council member Vernon Brown, chairman of the Public Works Committee.
It’s a particularly tough sell at a time when Ballard is seeking a $350 million influx in infrastructure spending with few attractive options to raise the revenue to pay for it.
“Most councilors don’t like to spend city money on that,” said Brown, a Democrat. “We prefer to spend federal transportation dollars (on cycling).”
Indianapolis City-County Council members say they routinely hear complaints about the proliferation of bike lanes.
Councilman Zach Adamson, a Democrat, supports Ballard’s push for alternative transportation, but says “he’s gone about it the wrong way.”
“The public education component should’ve come first,” he said. “I think people are just inherently resistant to change in general. You have to really sell them on the idea rather than force it on them.”
Ultimately, Hoosiers will have to adjust to the idea of sharing their roads with cyclists to some degree. The policy debates in Indianapolis, Carmel and elsewhere are not about if government should support cycling - but how much.
And state law has already settled the matter of sharing the road. Along with 40 other states, Indiana considers bicycles to be vehicles, granting them the same rights as cars on the road.
But whatever role city leaders decide the government should have in promoting cycling could have a direct impact on how safe it is for cyclists to exercise those rights.
Studies show that the more cyclists there are in an area, the safer the road gets for them, as motorists grow more comfortable with sharing the road.
And cyclists say they can already see this effect in Downtown Indianapolis. That’s where Sands feels safest, saying, “I think that’s simply because there are enough people riding Downtown that everyone knows how to deal with that. ...”
Carmel has long promoted policies that tell developers and city planners that more of everything is better. For the first time since Brainard took office, the council could squeeze the brakes on that philosophy.
“I would venture to say that the climate is such right now, politically speaking in Carmel, that if we tried to get the Monon today, we would find it almost impossible to get that through this City Council,” Carter said.
Elsewhere in the country, revolts over bike lanes have done little to stem the tide. In Alexandria, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, D.C., affected residents collected hundreds of signatures opposing a plan to convert on-street parking to bike lanes. The Washington Post published letters to the editor complaining that bike lines were fine for the heart of urbanized Washington but had no place in a suburb built for the car.
Their complaints, however, fell on deaf ears. The council voted unanimously for the bike lanes, explaining that to achieve the goal of safety for cyclists, motorist attitudes toward them would simply have to adapt.
In Indiana, it remains unclear which side is more likely to yield.
“We’re not going to go backward on this issue,” Brainard said. “I think I have (public) support not to lower the standards.”
Information from: The Indianapolis Star, http://www.indystar.com