Let's bring you up to speed: Two weeks ago, a police officer patrolling the Monon Greenway handed out dozens of tickets to commuting cyclists for being on the trail before sunrise. This occurred over the span of a few days.
Michael Armbruster, a teacher at Arsenal Tech High School, received a ticket two mornings in a row along the same stretch of the trail. Each ticket cost $50. Armbruster says he's been commuting from his home above 38th Street and taking the Monon for almost five years and has never had a problem until the recent incident.
With his principles digging a little deeper into his pocket than he cared for, he took to the streets on the third day. It wasn't bad, he said, though getting across Fall Creek Parkway at rush hour can be sketchy.
"The Monon is clearly safer, easier, and more convenient," he said.
Commuting cyclists in Indianapolis must get from point A to point B. Regardless of where the sun is in relation to the horizon, many of them still judge the various Indy Parks trails across Indianapolis to be the safest routes to and from their destination. The city's official policy doesn't agree.
It's a problem the city has been aware of for some time. "This is something that's been on our minds for a long time, and the ticketing wasn't the catalyst that got these discussions going," says Stuart Lowry, Director of Indy Parks. "We want the cycling community to know that we hear them; we're thinking through this, but we don't want to make a quick decision, we want to make the right decisions."
Upon hearing about the recent ticketing spree, Randy Clark of Bicycle Garage Indy moved to find a resolution. He referred to the incident as an aberration from a long-standing IMPD policy, which viewed morning use of the Monon by bicycle commuters as acceptable.
With the help of Andy Lutz, the Cycling and Pedestrian Coordinator at the Department of Public Works, Clark worked with Indy Parks and the city to have the tickets forgiven.
In the meantime, Clark encourages cyclists to continue using the trails, and asks that anyone who received a ticket contact Paula Freund at (317) 327-7035 to have the ticket rescinded.
When asked whether cyclists still have to worry about receiving tickets, Indy Parks' Lowry responded, "I think what we've shown through the city's response to the ticketing is that we're trying to work through the issue. We set a precedent there saying 'yes, we're trying to see what we can do to solve this'."
But, as with most simple problems, the solution is a bit more complicated.
News stories about muggings and crime along the Monon may have inspired the recent crackdown.
But Armbruster said, "There certainly is lots of perception about the Monon being unsafe, and I think it's nonsense - this suburban mentality that's so fearful of urban areas. I've never felt threatened, I've never felt unsafe."
For the record, Armbruster rides the Monon from 38th Street to the trailhead at 10th Street, generally perceived as the most dangerous stretch of trail.
But crime prevention isn't the only factor, according to Lowry. "A lot of it is common sense," he said, "the street crossings, tree branches on the trail from a storm overnight."
These are valid points, said Jeremy Albert who, deciding to ride the Monon to avoid flooded streets one night after a storm, almost collided with another cyclist riding without lights and then managed to stop before slamming into a downed tree across the path.
"We want to make sure that incidents on the trail are reduced," Lowry said. "That's our focus. Our goal is to make sure it's safe, and also to make sure the community has access."
Safety isn't the only concern.
"We just don't have the funding to sustain the model for our parks," said Lowry. "We're trying to find different ways to engage the public more, to find different ways to put a funding stream together to tackle issues like this."
A long conversation
One of the ideas on the table is the creation of commuter passes allowing access to the trails after dark. This could generate some revenue for maintaining the 59 miles of trails already in place around Indianapolis, as well as the completion of the final, 200-mile trail system the city has planned.
According to Lowry: "We're not trying to set up a system where you don't have access to the trails without the pass. The question is, if there's a group that wants to use the trails as a commuting byway, then how are we going to fund that, because there might be some things we need to add to make sure it's safe.
That's the question we're always coming back to: Is this a safe, sustainable concept, and is this going to be something that's used appropriately once it's put into place? As a parks department, you have to design something that's sustainable and safe from the very beginning because you're trying to do something that embraces the community's needs. That's where the conversation is now."
It might be a long conversation.
"Part of why it takes so much diligence is that all of these trails have unique aspects to be considered," Lowry said. "We want to create the right model. It's something we're trying to do correctly the first time, so it may take a little time to plan."
What is important is that the issue remains a discussion that doesn't devolve into a monologue or a donnybrook. The resolution will take efforts on both the city's part and the cycling community. Cyclists are encouraged to contact Indy Parks to weigh in on the issue, and to take an active role in the various cycling advocacy groups who are in direct discussion with the city - CIBA (Central Indiana Bicycling Association), Bicycle Indiana, theindycog.com, the BGI (Bicycle Garage Indy) advocacy group and the HMBA (Hoosier Mountain Bike Association).
"Both parties must ask some real questions of themselves," said Lowry. "Where do we want to go with this as a city and a trail system over the next 3-5 years? What kind of things would we as a community be willing to do to make this happen?"
As for Armbruster: "I appreciate that the city has entered into a discussion. I think Indianapolis wants younger people who are creative, who bring energy and something of value to the city - there's something of a movement towards that way of thinking in the city. Maybe it's not as fast as some people want, but I think it's moving in that direction and I'm encouraged by it. I think the more discussions there are like this, the more Indy adopts policies that are friendly to cyclists and people who are more creative, the more Indy will become a place that attracts good jobs and intelligent people who want to live in and revitalize our city."
Editors note: Christopher Newgent is a co-founder of theindycog.com.