Why Michigan Road matters For the thousands of motorists streaming down Michigan Road to and from work each day, the signs have little significance. Indeed, from the high perch of an SUV, it may not be easy to read the bright orange signs that proclaim, “Pedestrians and Bicycles

For pedestrians and bicyclists who need to cross the White River on Michigan Road, these signs are all too visible, and their meaning all too clear. These signs speak volumes about our city’s commitment to the environment, to alternative transportation and to public health. In short, these signs declare, “Cars matter; people don’t.”

The signs first appeared at either end of the bridge on about March 12, with the beginning of an 18-month project to widen Michigan Road between 38th Street and Cold Spring Road and rebuild the bridge over the White River. This is a heavily traveled stretch, which provides access to the Indianapolis Museum of Art, the Christian Theological Seminary, Butler University and other cultural institutions, in addition to serving as a gateway to the city for commuters who live in Zionsville and the northwestern suburbs.

I was shocked to see the signs because they marked a sudden and unannounced shift in the Department of Public Works’ management of the project. I spoke to a DPW official in charge of the project about a week before it began, and he assured me that pedestrians and bicyclists would be able to cross the bridge during the construction project.

When I spoke to this same official a week later, after the signs went up, he sang a very different tune, telling me, “The DPW has no obligation to provide pedestrians and bicyclists access to city facilities.”

This position is bad public policy, and it also contradicts state and municipal laws. Indiana State Code, section 9-21-11-2, states that “A person riding a bicycle upon a roadway has all the rights and duties under this article that are applicable to a person who drives a vehicle.” There is nothing in city or state code that would justify discriminating against bicyclists and pedestrians.

Over a six-week period, I have spoken and written to more than a dozen city and state officials, and I have appeared before City Council’s Public Works Committee to make my case for taking down the signs. After leading me to believe for nearly a month that DPW would take steps to accommodate bicyclists and pedestrians on the bridge, Jeffrey Simnick, a lawyer for the city, finally wrote me a letter explaining that the signs must remain in place “for the safety of all citizens traveling on the bridges as well as the safety of the construction workers.”

The reasoning behind this explanation is ludicrous. Even at top speed, a Trek road bike poses little threat to construction workers; they have much more to fear from Ford Expeditions barrelling down the road. If the city’s top priority is the protection of all citizens, they would be much better off banning the automobiles and reserving the bridge for walkers and bikers.

As a measure to protect bicyclists themselves, the rationale is also spurious. City and state planners should have provided for the safety of bicyclists and pedestrians before the project began, rather than ban them after the fact. Instead, they are saying to bicyclists and pedestrians: We forgot to provide for your safety, so we will do you the very great favor of banishing you from the bridge altogether.

The closure of the bridge represents a great loss for my family. My son is a freshman at the International School, and had a beautiful off-road bicycle route to the school along the Canal Towpath. But if he can’t get over the river, he can’t ride his bicycle to and from school. And when I have to drive him, I cannot commute by bicycle. The city is forcing both of us off of our bikes and into cars.

But more is at stake here than my family’s daily commute. The city’s decision to close the bridge is indicative of a habit of mind that has been destructive to our environment and to our community. Despite a thriving Greenways program, Indianapolis is still a city full of disjointed sidewalks that go nowhere. Because few people walk or ride, we do not plan streets for pedestrians; because we do not plan streets for bicyclists and pedestrians, few people ride or walk. It is a circular problem that will continue until we make fundamental adjustments in our thinking.

Ironically, the week that the DPW closed the Michigan Road bridge was the same week in which the U.S. Public Interest Research Group released its study that showed that Indianapolis is the fifth most polluted city in the country in terms of vehicle emissions. Surely, poor public transportation and poor facilities for pedestrians and bicyclists contribute to this problem. Indianapolis, unfortunately, is a city where very few people go by foot or bicycle even to buy a quart of milk — the problem is evident in both our waistlines and our polluted air. The city’s decision to make walking illegal on Michigan Road only makes a bad problem worse.

We need to begin planning our city for people, not cars. And we need to begin now.

Bill Watts is head of the English Department at Butler University and vice president of the Greenways Foundation.


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