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The Materiality of Complete Streets

Few cities could be more friendly to cars than Indianapolis, which long had few pedestrian-friendly streets and sidewalks, only a few isolated bike lanes, and a terribly under-supported mass transit system.  Much of that has not changed significantly, but it is still a little surprising that city administrators and now the normally conservative Indianapolis Star are championing the Complete Streets initiative, which aspires to design new streets and renovate existing roadways to accommodate various modes of transportation in addition to cars.  Hoosiers are apt to champion fiscally conservative strategies, including Star columnist Andrea Neal, who argued in March, 2012 that mass transit “doesn’t work” anywhere, because “Urban mass transit is the most expensive form of travel in the United States at 72 cents per passenger mile. That compares to 23 cents per passenger mile for auto travel, 15 cents for air travel and 60 cents for Amtrak.”  Neal somewhat condescendingly argued against letting the issue even reach voters, concluding that “Letting voters weigh in on a bad idea doesn’t make it better. In terms of ridership and revenues, mass transit is a losing proposition. Wishful thinking will not change that.”

Neal seemed willing to ignore that the state funds many services that are not “profitable,” including the highway system itself : in 2011 an ambitious US Public Interest Groups report found that “Since 1947, the amount of money spent on highways, roads and streets has exceeded the amount raised through gasoline taxes and other so-called `user fees’ by $600 billion.”  The state is compelled to subsidize highway construction and maintenance because user fees cover only 51% of their cost and are not even remotely close to being “profitable” in Andrea Neal’s terms.  The federal gas tax has not been raised since 1993, and even Ronald Reagan acknowledged that failing to raise the tax (which he did in 1982) would gut any capacity to maintain the highway system.  Mass transit is a vastly less painful subsidy.

Speaker of the House John Boehner has launched similarly self-serving attacks on mass transit and bike paths, audaciously suggesting in February, 2012 that 25% of Highway Trust Funds were “being siphoned off for non-economic projects—such as beautification and bike paths.”

Boehner is among a wave of conservatives who wield the specter of bike paths as a rhetorical mechanism invoking the fear of urban yuppies, but this debate really revolves around the materiality of mass transit.  The move to embrace a breadth of transportation options is routinely rhetoricized as yet another intrusion of the state into everyday freedoms that threatens to strip us of cigarettes, high-fat foods, cheap gas, and variety of other consumer acts, but the threat posed by bike lanes and mass transit are slightly different than that posed by smoking codes or “twinkie taxes.”  Bike lanes, sidewalks, bus and train routes, pedestrians, and cyclists and buses are part of public space shoulder-to-shoulder with cars, so their appearance is often viewed as symbols of the state.  Cars have become oddly invisible: despite having colonized urban space, drivers in cars are paradoxically invisible to themselves until they are actually illuminated by alternatives like bikes and buses.

In Indianapolis the privately funded Cultural Trail was the first indication of a shift in the unquestioned primacy of cars, and the funding of the Cultural Trail entirely based on the generosity of Eugene and Marilyn Glick has muted some of the criticism of the Trail.  Indianapolis has a rich tradition of private philanthropy addressing community social challenges, and the Glicks represent the best of that tradition.  In October 2011 The Corresponder was a little skeptical of the economic impact of the Trail but admitted that it seemed like a “wonderful new addition” to the city.  Construction inconveniences in places like Fountain Square have led to some grumbling, albeit less about the Trail than about its short-term impact on businesses and access.  American Dirt reported optimistically on the Cultural Trail in 2009 while recognizing that it was but a small strip of Indianapolis pavement (compare A Place of Sense and Complete Streets flick’r page).

The road is at least symbolically shared with this “sharrow” marker.

Now bike lanes and multi-use roadways are extending outside downtown alone (e.g., Meridian and Westfield) and into postwar suburbs (Urban Indy follows the growth of bike lanes very closely).  Even my closest thoroughfare has a “sharrow” marking leading to a bike lane and a series of very rideable streets, all of which seem to inspire quite overwrought and impressionistic tirades against cycling and the primacy of cars (compare the comments linked in my piece on the politics of bike lanes).   Yet in Indianapolis—a bastion of fiscal conservatism zealously committed to protecting personal freedoms—the increasing acceptability of bike lanes and urban redesign can only reflect a sea-change in how the community views bikes, pedestrians, and mass transit.