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.
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.
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.
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.