Cultural Trails and Bicycle Culture

Indy’s Cultural Trail has been a media darling in the two years or so since it has been completed and why not?  It’s a great concept, linking arts and cultural districts by active transportation.  It’s also a beautiful place to hang out on warm, sunny summer days.  The Cultural Trail has touched a national nerve, and now a blogger in St. Louis has suggested that the Gateway to the West “steal” it.

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Kudos.  I wish them well.  St. Louis is the home of Trailnet, one of the best active transportation organizations in the United States.  If they’re involved in planning and building a St. Louis version of the ICT, they should end up with something pretty special.  The Indianapolis Cultural Trail is a civic asset.  It’s a beautiful urban space.  It is an improvement to the urban core…no doubt about it.

Unfortunately, it’s not a transportation resource.  It could be, but it isn’t…at least not yet.  I’m on the trail daily and it’s my business to observe and process what I see.   Some local folks will take offense with this, but my job is not to spin Indy or any other city as a progressive place.   I couldn’t care less about such things.   My job is to get people out of their cars and onto bicycles, and in this regard the Cultural Trail has underperformed relative to what it could and should be.  Here’s what it has taught me.

Infrastructure Alone Is Not Enough

Many people claim that they will never cycle until there are protected bikeways running the width and breadth of their city.  In essence, that’s what the Indy Cultural Trail is.  Has it led to more bicyclists here in Indianapolis?  Probably.  Significantly more?  Probably not.  In spite of what people say, having a world class piece of infrastructure is not enough to change deeply rooted habits.  More is required.

Infrastructure Should Be About Mobility

Far too often, the principal justification for projects like the ICT is not mobility, but urban renewal or development.  Critics will argue that infrastructure can move people AND help redevelop areas, but what about when competing needs conflict?  Who wins then?  What message is sent, for example, when a corporate interest is allowed to circumvent the rules and, in the process, inconvenience those who wish to use the resource for mobility as is the case in front of the Conrad Hotel on Washington Street?

Culture is Much Harder to Change

Changing culture takes a concerted effort over a very long period of time.  It takes commitment, a scarce commodity among politicians and others who will support sexy infrastructure projects because they lead to immediate personal benefits.  Changing people’s minds takes years, and that’s if everything goes as planned.  Infrastructure needs to be maintained.  It needs to be improved. If it is neglected, it sends the wrong message.  Governments that embark down this road need to understand that without this commitment, their project is likely to fail in the long run.

A Closing Thought

It is clear to me as an advocate for active transportation that cultural change trumps investment in infrastructure.  Change the culture and the infrastructure will follow.  This is how it was in Holland and Denmark and this is how it must be here as well.  We can pretend that it is possible to shortcut this process, but I no longer believe it is.  We have to do the heavy lifting now.

So how do we make that happen?  Well, we start by enforcing existing traffic laws, cultivating an environment where roads are viewed as a shared resource, and training adults to cycle effectively.  We start with Safe Routes to School, mix in a little Vision Zero and add a pinch of Cicolvia to the roux.  We explain to people that they don’t have to give up their cars, but instead just take one or two short trips a week by bicycle rather than car…to Bike Five.  We sell the benefits of bicycling and how it leads to cleaner, healthier, safer and more vibrant places.  That is how we change the culture…one short bicycle trip at a time.

More on all of this soon…

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