In the ongoing pursuit of urban renaissance, a bipartisan group of city leaders is pushing a public policy with multigenerational and multifaceted implications: a so-called complete-streets ordinance.
"Having complete streets positively impacts all of what I think the general public and leadership would consider the top issues," said Kim Irwin, who is promoting the ordinance in her capacity as executive director of the Alliance for Health Promotion and coordinator of Health By Design and the Indiana Citizens' Alliance for Transit.
"Complete streets impacts crime; complete streets impacts education; complete streets impacts economic development; complete streets impacts job mobility; complete streets impacts environmental and health concerns. It's not an end-all-be-all solution in and of itself, but it gets at so many things."
Indianapolis and Marion County City-County Council President Maggie Lewis, a Democrat, sponsored the ordinance, which has already garnered bipartisan support.
"It's been on my heart and mind for several years," Lewis said, noting long-standing conversations among neighborhood groups about the benefits to be gained by greater connectivity.
Republican Councilman Jeff Miller, who represents several older neighborhoods along the city's Southside, said he had been advocating for decent sidewalks and infrastructure for years, even before joining the council. Listening to groups such as AARP and Health By Design discuss a holistic approach to infrastructure convinced him the measure represented a positive evolution in the city's approach to connectivity.
"I really like complete streets because it lays out a design mentality that takes all users into account," Miller said.
Mayor Greg Ballard's administration has also been involved from the early stages with the Department of Public Works (DPW) helping to craft a rule that offers the flexibility the department needs to remain as efficient and flexible as possible while still accomplishing the continued cultural evolution the complete-streets approach seeks.
"The Department of Public Works is already doing a lot of these things," said Marc Lotter, a spokesman for the mayor, noting checklists the city uses to determine the feasibility of green infrastructure and bike lanes as it proceeds with new building projects.
The mayor will need to read the language of the final ordinance before committing to sign it, Lotter said, making sure, for instance that "it does not put restrictions on DPW in being able to operate in the most efficient way."But, given the efforts of the ordinance's authors and the DPW to work on such concerns at the start of the drafting process, Lotter added, there's a "good chance that it's something that the mayor is generally supportive of."
The ordinance defines "complete streets" to mean "streets that are designed and operated to enable safe access for all users, in that pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists and public transportation users of all ages and abilities are able to safely move along and across a street."
Sidewalks and bike lanes are examples of amenities that a complete street might offer. The ordinance would not require such features, but it would require the DPW to document the rationale used for exceptions. Ordinance supporters argue that institutionalizing such a process will result in better accountability and a continued shift toward a more comprehensive approach to infrastructure design.
"It doesn't mean every street will be built with these things like we'd like them to, but at least it means we'll have a reason if it's not (and) that reason will be publically given — there will be some accountability for that," Irwin said.
Neighborhood groups and community development corporations have signed up by the dozen to support the measure.
Indianapolis resident George Wright, who works with Binford Redevelopment and Growth, Inc., for instance, would like to see a sidewalk installed in front of Cathedral High School where it is common to see athletes running along 56th Street near the intersection of Kessler Boulevard and Emerson Avenue.
"In that case, they're rebuilding the bridge that goes over Fall Creek," Wright said. "They did one lane last year and they're going to do the other lane this summer and nobody's thought of putting a walk in there and we still have kids running in traffic for conditioning."
Efforts to install sidewalks in front of a couple of elementary schools in his neighborhood (which he said took eight years to move from concept to construction) also steeled Wright's resolve to join the coalition of partners advocating for a citywide ordinance.
"The whole thing with complete streets made sense; instead of getting our particular segment of walk put it, it would change the way the city would look at some of these things," he said.
A complete-streets policy is also essential to assisting senior residents in the quest to maintain independence, advocates said.
"If you don't have friends or neighbors or family close by, you don't have a lot of options in terms of aging in place," said Paul Chase, state director of public policy for AARP.
"The 65 and older population is growing at a much more rapid rate than young people coming up. ... It's just becoming more of an issue. It's very inexpensive to put in a sidewalk. From our perspective, it's a paradigm shift; it's looking at design in a whole new way."
It may seem counterintuitive that a street plan that accomplishes more could cost less. Among the ordinance's opening series of justifications, it states that it " reduces infrastructure costs by requiring far less pavement per user compared to increasing road capacity for vehicles alone; this saves money at the onset of the project and reduces maintenance costs over the long-term ... ."
Advocates also cite several examples and case studies where greater connectivity for cyclists and walkers leads to economic benefits of higher property values and attractiveness to prospective businesses and residents.
"We, the city of Indianapolis, have to be competitive to the suburbs, otherwise those tax dollars move out there and (school funding issues) becomes a bigger problem," Wright said. "Or you have businesses or individuals trying to move here and they're deciding, 'Do I like this opportunity or do I like another community better?' If you're looking at young, upward, mobile professionals, they want a city that's vibrant."
Even with all the possible ancillary benefits, the basic safety issues remain an important area in which Indianapolis could improve.
In a ranking of cities on the frequency of pedestrian fatalities, which led with Honolulu as the nation's safest city, Indianapolis ranked 33rd, said Kevin Whited, executive director of IndyCog, citing the 2012 Benchmarking Report produced by the Alliance for Biking and Walking. At No. 51, Charlotte, NC, placed last.
"The Complete Streets Ordinance will certainly help Indianapolis to continue to move forward, providing a livable community with a connected transportation system that allows for safe access for everyone," Kara Brooks, a DPW spokeswoman, said in an email.
"The Indianapolis Department of Public Works recognizes the relevance of building safe, reliable and efficient infrastructure and that's why it was so important for DPW to work with the City-County Council to craft an ordinance that will help to make Indianapolis one of the most livable cities in the Midwest."
The proposal currently awaits a hearing in the council's public works committee. The committee could hear the proposal as early as its August meeting, which leaves room for a possible vote by the full council later in the month.
In 2011, more than 140 jurisdictions nationwide adopted complete-streets policies, up from 80 in 2010, according to the National Complete Streets Coalition. The group estimated that 352 regional and local jurisdictions, 26 states, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia now have complete-streets policies or made official commitments to adopt them. In Indiana, Bloomington and the Madison County Council of Governments have adopted complete-street ordinances, while other municipalities, including Columbus and Richmond, have advanced aspects of the policy.
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