Indy’s Pennsylvania St. Bike Lane

Indianapolis just opened a new protected bike lane along Pennsylvania Street from St. Clair to Washington Street.  It’s approximately eight blocks long and uses parking to protect cyclists from traffic.  This is a pretty standard configuration around the world now, and it has proven effective other places.  I have no doubt it will do so here as well.

That said, I’m not a big fan of this bike lane. That’s mostly because I don’t know who it is supposed to serve.  I suspect that it was built for people who are already cycling to work, but most of them can be found on nearby Alabama Street, which is a low traffic, low speed street that is perfect for cycling.  I doubt they’re going to abandon that route for eight short protected blocks on Pennsylvania.

Nor do I think that this slice of infrastructure is right for the casual cyclist who feels more at home on the city’s Cultural Trail.  Automobile speeds are too high on Pennsylvania.  There’s too much traffic.  There are already bike lanes on similar high speed streets like Illinois and Capitol, and I routinely see cyclists riding on the sidewalks there.  Why city officials here insist on putting bicycle lanes on high speed thoroughfares is beyond me.

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Penn Avenue is a four lane, one way, high speed thoroughfare that funnels commuter traffic from the northeast side via Fall Creek Parkway.

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The traffic lanes are virtually dry, but the bike lane is partially blocked by standing water.  Debris is already collecting next to the curb.  I can only imagine what this will look like come spring.

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The lone cyclist I saw using this lane was riding as far from the curb as possible.  He’s on the line separating the lane from the buffer.

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One block north of the new lanes there is no accommodation for cyclists at all, not even sharrows.  This section of road is labeled “Least Bikeable” on IndyCog’s official city bike map and with good reason.

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The speed limit on Capitol Avenue is too high and routinely ignored. As a result, many cyclists here eschew the bike lane for the sidewalk.

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Alabama Street is two blocks east of Pennsylvania.  This is the preferred route for NE side bicyclists.  There are sharrows.  There’s also plenty of room for a cycletrack as there is very little traffic on this street.  It’s also identified as “Most Bikeable” on the IndyCog map.  Photo:  Google

I also think the lane is too narrow.  It’s clearly narrower than the parking lane and that’s a problem because it’s right against the curb and it fills with water and debris.  Motorists have to walk across the bike lane to feed the parking meters.  That’s also problematic, as is the fact that there is no protected bike lane heading north.  This is strictly a southbound deal.

It’s not continuous, either.  Just to the north there’s no bicycle accommodation at all.  In fact, Pennsylvania north of St. Clair is considered least bikeable” on IndyCog’s “official” Indy Ride Guide map of bicycle routes.  In effect, you have to traverse a dangerous section of road simply to access the new protected bike lane.  This makes no sense to me at all.

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Similarly configured bike lane in Salt Lake City.  It’s slightly wider…as wide as the parking lane.  Parking is free here, so motorists don’t have to immediately cross the bike lane.  There’s also another protected lane heading the other direction on the other side of the street…

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More importantly, there’s only one traffic lane here. There’s also light rail, lower speed limits and connectivity. When the protected lane ends, a striped lane takes its place.  It’s nice and wide, too…so wide that door zones are not an issue.  This feels very safe, even without protection.

So what would I do?  For starters, I’d stop building bike lanes, protected or otherwise, on high speed arterials.  There are plenty of other roads into downtown that would better serve cyclists and motorists.  I once thought Meridian Street would be perfect, but have since come to realize that’s a form of blasphemy in a city best known for fast driving.

My preference would be for an east-west cycletrack on Vermont Street and a north-south cycletrack on either Senate, Alabama or both.  Make it look like the existing cycletracks on Shelby Street and 30th Street.  If money is an obstacle, skip the cycletrack.  Instead, drop the speed limit on these streets to 20 mph and convert them to shared streets.  Motorists who don’t need to use them will find other routes. Cyclists and pedestrians would have priority just like on the Cultural Trail.  It could be done. There’s plenty of underutilized road capacity into downtown.

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Red lines represent existing bike lanes on high speed arterials.  The navy blue line is the Pennsylvania Street bike lane.  The green lines represent my proposed cycletracks/shared streets .  This doesn’t have to be difficult.

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The Shelby Street cycletrack shows that Indy already knows how to build great protected bike lanes.  Shelby Street is a low speed, low traffic street even though it serves as an arterial. The cycletrack is bidirectional.  It connects  south side neighborhoods to the Cultural Trail.  It’s very easy and pleasant to ride.

No bicycle infrastructure at all is better than bad bicycle infrastructure.  By bad, I mean infrastructure that doesn’t get used and sends the message to motorists that their tax dollars are being squandered.  I fear that’s what Pennsylvania Street does.  It’s the right design, but it was put in the wrong place.

Indianapolis has already shown that it can build world class trails and cycletracks.  It’s unfortunate that the city and those advising it stubbornly cling to a model that builds designer bike lanes along high speed corridors where those who wish to become vehicular cyclists simply do not feel safe enough to do so.

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4 thoughts on “Indy’s Pennsylvania St. Bike Lane

  1. Excellent analysis. I almost felt you were overly cynical in blasting this piece of infrastructure. And while I still don’t think it’s as awful as you claim, I certainly see its weaknesses, particularly in its lack of connectivity with other bicycle provisions north of where it begins at Pennsylvania and St. Clair.

    But you also make the critical argument that bad bicycle infrastructure only “sends the message to motorists that their tax dollars are being squandered”. That’s a critical consideration, since the well-designed Shelby Street cycletrack has received less pushback in its approximately 3-4 years of existence than the Pennsylvania Street buffered lane has in six weeks.

    Of course, this begs the question: what to do when an area needs bicycle provisions but it’s fundamentally impossible to design it in a way that won’t get pushback? My experience is the most negativity toward bike lanes remains the stretch on Broad Ripple Avenue, but, given the narrowness of the street/sidewalks, I’m not sure what other solution might have worked. Perhaps it really didn’t need lanes at all, since traffic prevents vehicular speeds from getting too high.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi American, Thanks for your comment. I didn’t really mean to slam the lane. The engineering is fine for the most part…it’s just the location. What I hope to do is challenge those who make these decisions to see it from the cyclists’ perspective. As a vehicular cyclist, I’ll ride in a traffic lane but I would ride on Alabama, not Pennsylvania. My wife, who is a novice, wouldn’t be caught dead in this lane. We talked about it this weekend. I agree with your comment about Broad Ripple Avenue. As a cyclist, I think that’s a good application. From my perspective, the grumbling has sort of stopped. Is that not the case? Shelby Street absolutely rocks. I also am a big fan of the New York Street changes through IUPUI, both as a cyclist and an urbanist. Cheers!

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  2. I have found the high speed traffic makes the intersection of Pennsylvania and Michigan to be particularly frightening. Cars are not slowing or looking for bicycles in the bike line. Same with the parking garage just south of Ohio.

    The only advantage I have found over using Alabama is that the lights on Pennsylvania are timed so I am able to ride from St. Clair to Market without hitting a red light.

    Liked by 1 person

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