Last month, the US Census Bureau released new population estimates showing Columbus edging out Indianapolis to become the 14th largest city in the US and the second largest in the Midwest, just behind Chicago. We have seen continued growth and investment in Downtown, the Short North and surrounding neighborhoods. With new apartments and condos, more restaurants and bars, great public spaces and active street life at all hours of the day, Downtown Columbus is increasingly being recognized as a vibrant and livable urban center.
Yet, for everything Columbus has to offer, Indy still has the edge in one regard — it is way easier to get around downtown Indianapolis on a bike than it is here in Columbus.
Last weekend, my wife and I took an overnight trip to Indianapolis. We were planning to see a show in an historic theater downtown, but it was cancelled at the last minute. The silver lining was the extra time we spent just hanging out and enjoying downtown Indy, most of which we did on bicycle.
Within steps from our hotel lobby, we could jump on the Indianapolis Cultural Trail and explore what Indy had to offer. If you haven’t been to downtown Indianapolis in the past few years, you might not be familiar with the Cultural Trail, but if you’re at all interested in bike-friendly urban spaces, you should be.
The Cultural Trail is an 8-mile loop of pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure that runs throughout downtown Indianapolis. The trail is a shared use path, heavily promoted for use by cyclists, but also open for walkers, joggers, skaters and the like. It runs along major thoroughfares as well as less traveled side streets, usually behind the street curb and at sidewalk level, buffered from traffic by parking or landscape planters.
Some stretches are completely separated from the street, running along alleys, between buildings or through parks, and in a few places cars intermingle with trail users, but by and large, the Cultural Trail is a stand-alone path dedicated solely to non-motorists.
The trail itself is designed with a brick paver surface, distinct in color and pattern from adjacent sidewalks that provide pedestrian access to buildings. Combined with a coordinated system of way-finding signage, specialized street crossings, and landscape treatments, the entire system is consistently branded, making it easy for newcomers to know when they’re on the trail and where to turn to stay on it.
The trail route is interspersed with public art, as well as historic markers and interpretative signage, including the Glick Peace Walk, a stretch of sculptural figures and landscaped seating areas named for the Cultural Trail’s founding philanthropists. The Glicks donated $15 million as seed funding to construct the $57 million project through a public/private partnership. Today, an independent non-profit manages the trail and raises funding for maintenance and improvements.
On Saturday night, we hooked up with a colleague of mine who lives in Indianapolis, and he and his wife showed us around by bike. We bought day passes on the Pacer Bikeshare system, the Indy equivalent of CoGo. With stations every few blocks along the trail, we docked our bikes within half a block of every destination we went to.
We took the trail down a spur on Virginia Avenue, docked our bikes and had dinner on a trailside patio. There are plenty of opportunities to do this along the Cultural Trail, which has become a desirable front door location for businesses and restaurants. After dinner we rode back north to a bar on Massachusetts Avenue and listened to live music while sitting on a sidewalk patio.
We found the Cultural Trail to be a democratic space. There were plenty like us, day-trippers on rental bikes or Pacer Bikes, and a multitude of regular users as well. People on the trail spanned age groups and mobility levels, from young families out walking with strollers or pulling kid trailers on bikes, to active young adults out for a run, to senior couples on a leisurely ride.
There was the occasional spandex rider going a little faster, but mostly regular people in regular clothes, usually without helmets — an indicator of how comfortable people feel riding in the space. Joggers and dog-walkers abound, adding a level of activity and mix of users comparable to the busier sections of the Olentangy Trail here in Columbus.
As my wife and I rode around downtown Indy on the Cultural Trail, it occurred to me that this was an experience we don’t have together in Columbus. We occasionally take the Olentangy Trail from Clintonville to Downtown, and now Indianola and Summit offer much improved on-street connections. But upon arrival, traveling around Downtown on bike is less appealing, especially for an intermediate rider like my wife.
While I’m comfortable sharing space on the street with cars and buses, she isn’t, and neither are most casual cyclists. While the recent addition of bike lanes on some streets Downtown is a welcome improvement, we haven’t yet created a system that truly serves the casual rider.
My wife’s assessment from our visit was that downtown Indianapolis is far more bike-friendly than Downtown Columbus. Despite our phenomenal regional trail network and continued improvements in on-street bicycle infrastructure, I can’t disagree with her. And I can’t help but have the feeling that Columbus is being surpassed by other cities that are implementing the next generation of pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure, and creating great places to live in doing so.
Without well-designed, safe, convenient and appealing urban pathways for would-be cyclists and other non-motorists, we are missing out as a city. The ability to hop on a bike for a quick ride to a restaurant or a park on the other side of Downtown would be an incredible value-add to somebody considering a move to Downtown living, and for those of us who work Downtown or visit on the weekends.
I hesitate to say, after a single weekend experience, that Columbus should replicate the Cultural Trail, and it certainly wouldn’t be a quick or simple undertaking. But I do think Indy has created something special that’s worth our attention and inspiration. As we continue to retrofit our streets with bicycle facilities, we should be exploring opportunities to create the next generation of high-quality, multi-modal public space in Columbus — both in Downtown and in our many neighborhoods.
As Columbus continues to grow, we know we will need to invest in transit and smart mobility technology to mitigate the impact on our transportation system. But, we also need to make sure we are investing in the hard infrastructure that will get people moving by foot and bike. If we do that, we will create the type of spaces that will make this city a great place to live, with mobility options that are truly accessible to everyone.