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The Beauty of Bikes is in the Parking

Indianapolis has been pushing hard to catch up with leading bicycle cities such as Portland and San Francisco. Seeing all that two-wheeled traffic in downtown and surrounding neighborhoods has been a blessing in so many ways – less pollution from cars, less vehicle congestion, better public health outcomes, and especially watching people get outside and reconnect with their city.  But I wanted to share what I consider the key benefit to bringing back bicycles:  the opportunity for dense downtown development without parking lots or subsidized garages!

Bicycles and Cities, together again!

Bicycles and Cities, together again!

Bicycles seem to be sprouting everywhere in Indy

Bicycles seem to be sprouting everywhere in Indy

Our current renaissance of downtown required some big bites of that dreaded sandwich of compromise. While many of us at Urban Indy have taken a stand against subsidized vehicle parking, seeing it as a continuation of the old “highways first” policy that doomed many downtown areas to begin with, it is true that city leaders and business developers have a hard time seeing how any modern city could function without adequate parking. Finding a place to park is the most important concern for many commuters and shoppers, especially since densities have been creeping ever lower and people have to travel further for their jobs. But bicycle infrastructure gives us that magical silver bullet to end this concern, and reverse the trend in our cities.

Bicycle parking is radically more efficient than car parking

Bicycle parking is radically more efficient than car parking

Bicycle infrastructure generates beautiful cities!

Bicycle infrastructure generates beautiful cities!

I certainly don’t want to imply that everyone should be riding bicycles, but it is clear that bicycle infrastructure does benefit everyone. Every dollar not spent on gasoline (or expensive cars, insurance, and vehicle maintenance) is a dollar that is likely spent on local goods and services. The economic benefits are huge! Every bit of mode share (the percentage of people using a particular type of transportation) that bikes can capture means that Indianapolis sees real job growth, real increases in quality of life, and real improvements in household savings.

And never forget that bicycle infrastructure can serve double-duty for accessible routes - Vastly improving Quality of Life for some citizens

And never forget that bicycle infrastructure can serve double-duty for accessible routes – vastly improving Quality of Life for our citizens

Coming back to the issue of parking, this is where bicycles really deliver their benefits to Urban Design. Building a city to mimic the old streets of Paris or Brooklyn is impossible when everyone must drive. Instead, we end up with a “stroad” and collector system, typically with a design life of 20 years before the cancer of dead mall syndrome takes over.

Car lots don't leave room for the cities they serve

Car lots don’t leave room for the cities they serve

Filling car lots requires this kind of infrastructure

Filling car lots requires this kind of infrastructure

But a city with intensive bicycle infrastructure means that beautiful cityscapes don’t have to remain a fantasy. Because bicycles require so little space for their parking needs, they encourage well-designed traditional urban landscapes. Old-style city blocks become feasible, and in fact become more economical than the sprawling parking lots of suburbia; houses can once again use narrow lots when they don’t need a driveway and triple garage door; and streets can once again use names like “lane” or “avenue” without sounding like a cruel joke.

This clever addition to the old meter means I never look for parking near the Circle anymore

This clever addition to the old meter means I never look for parking near the Circle anymore

Bike parking can pull in new customers no matter the location

Bike parking can pull in new customers no matter the location

So here are some examples of great bicycle infrastructure that I’ve collected in the past few years. We may never “catch up” with the great cycling initiatives of the West Coast or Copenhagen, but trust me when I tell you that in the case of bicycle infrastructure The Deed is its Own Reward.

A new kind of garage, fit for a modern city (image credit: unknown)

A new kind of residential garage, fit for a modern city (image credit: unknown)

Portland's bike lockers remind us that some bicyclists demand higher levels of protection (image credit: H. Simmons)

Portland’s bike lockers remind us that some bicyclists demand higher levels of protection (image credit: H. Simmons)

New York's bike lanes next to the Flatiron remind us that bicyclists are part of the city too and deserve space on main routes

New York’s bike lanes next to the Flatiron remind us that bicyclists are part of the city too and deserve space on main routes

Munich reminds us that multi-modal commuters need a place to store bikes, or people will make their own

Munich reminds us that multi-modal commuters need a place to store bikes, or people will create their own

Milwaukee's "Marsupial" bridge reminds us that there is always room for innovation in bicycle infrastructure

Milwaukee’s “Marsupial” bridge reminds us that there is always room for innovation in bicycle infrastructure

Just because Milwaukee is known for gas-fired two-wheel monsters, there is always room for new technology

Just because Milwaukee is known for gas-fired, two-wheeled monsters, there is always room for new technology

Black Rock City reminds us that bicycling can be a joyful shared experience

Black Rock City reminds us that bicycling can be a joyful shared experience

Bicycles, and their smaller parking requirements, allow us to create the cities that people like to inhabit. Bicycle parking holds the power to invigorate our local economies and unleash the power of our local architects.
Support for bicycle infrastructure is support for a city of humans, rather than a city of vehicles.

Option #1: Cede the city to parking spaces, Detroit style (image credit: Sean Doerr/WNET.org)

Option #1: Cede the city to parking spaces, Detroit style (image credit: Sean Doerr/WNET.org)

Option #2: Help people build a better city with bicycle parking, as in Amsterdam (image credit: Airbete/Wikimedia)

Option #2: Help people build a better city with bicycle parking, as in Amsterdam (image credit: Airbete/Wikimedia)

Better Blocks (recap)

Thanks again to everyone who arranged, volunteered, or attended the Better Blocks event on East Washington last weekend.  It was great fun to see so many people there and even more fun to see the result – Indianapolis’ Main Street full of life, activity, and happy citizens.

I was only a spectator myself, but was happy to see so many friends actively engaged with the event.  That afternoon I met up with Kevin and we explored, chatted with friends, and had a good time imagining what Indianapolis could become if we embraced policies that prioritized healthy communities instead of merely traffic flow.

I took a short video if anyone wants to see how these small changes can completely change the streetscape and traffic dynamics.

Watch how the cars treat pedestrians.  Listen to how the festive atmosphere encourages community and conversations between neighbors.  Notice how the street acted as a single address instead of a strict division between the North and South sides.  This was just one afternoon, but it was truly a great event and a testament to Indy’s untapped urban potential.

Better Blocks - East Washington Street A fine day for a promenade Taking in the sights A temporary but well-respected crosswalk Traffic was slow and steady, and curious Streetside dining next to Washington Street?  Only after traffic calming Tlaolli opened, and served some great Tamales A restored storefront building hosted URBN DSGN and other community groups I wish every median in Indy could host a party Once again, only possible with traffic calming Calm traffic makes a safer street for everyone Hanging at the Indy Connect bus stop Dedicated transit lanes? A new member of the community The old Carnegie Library received many new visitors A planted median with balloon trees Plentiful bike parking and well-used

UI Archive – Cover Photos

We were updating our social media and produced some of our favorite images in wide format.  Find the whole collection on this Flickr set or see some favorites in the gallery below.  I wanted to share these photos because I thought they showed many sides of the city, its people and its places.

It will be fun to see how the city continues to change over the next few years.  Indianapolis did not always have a canal district, a cultural trail, or even Monument Circle.  What big thing will Indianapolis take on next?

These images are free for any personal or non-commercial, unmodified use (some rights reserved, so please contact us if you need permission to use them for something else).

 

Downtown from the West Bank of White River (image:  Art Malito) Cultural Trail Lighting Exhibit (image:  Curt Ailes) Construction of JW Marriott Hotel (image:  Curt Ailes) Jogging along Canal (image:  Curt Ailes) Indiana State Capitol at Night (image:  Curt Ailes) Cultural Trail Iconography Pressed into Crosswalk (image:  Curt Ailes) Snowing in Broadripple (image:  Curt Ailes) Duckpin Bowling signage in Fountain Square (image:  Graeme Sharpe) Metallic Script Lettering on Historic Coca-Cola Bottling Plant (image:  Graeme Sharpe) The Pyramid Buildings on Indy's Northwest Side (image:  Graeme Sharpe) View of Downtown Indy from the Nature Conservancy Greenroof (image:  Graeme Sharpe) Warming Up for Cataracts Festival (image:  Graeme Sharpe)

What does a Complete Bridge look like?

What is a Complete Bridge?  Well, if you are familiar with transportation issues, you have probably heard of the phrase “Complete Street.”  A Complete Bridge takes this concept of a Complete Street and applies the same standards of safe accessibility for non-motorized transportation.

Complete Streets policies are an excellent way to ensure that our streetscapes reflect our social values, by giving designers a mandate for roadway user inclusion but not tying their hands with any mandated geometries.  It is also a satisfying vindication of basic rights for anyone who gets honked at or has snow plowed into their path just because they use the public right-of-way without an accelerator pedal.

This is 38th Street - a good example of why Complete Streets are a necessary policy

This is 38th Street in Indianapolis where it joins I-65 – a design for only 1 type of user, and a good example of why Complete Streets are a necessary policy (image:  Graeme Sharpe)

People should be able to use a street safely whether they decide to walk, ride a bike, or drive a car. After all, we call it a “public right-of-way” instead of “private automobile right-of-way” for good reason.  This concept is the essence of public owned space in a democracy.  Our streets are “city property” as a legal convenience, but in reality they are public space – everyone has a right to safely access it using whatever travel modes we can accommodate.

When a Complete Streets bill came to a vote in the Indianapolis City Council, it was a slam dunk.  A policy can’t get more popular than unanimous. Our representatives agreed with public opinion that designing a road for automotive users should never be done at the expense of vulnerable road users like bicyclists and pedestrians.

But that policy has a loophole – if the costs are considered excessive then the policy could be ignored.  This is often an issue when it comes to bridges, because they are such expensive pieces of infrastructure.  While a complete street can usually be designed for a similar price, a Complete Bridge will always be much more expensive than one carrying a single type of traffic.

But bridges are where safe access is needed more than anywhere else, because there aren’t side streets or scenic alternatives.

The Ravenel Bridge is exercise path, nature trail, bike lane, and community link - but the design could have been more than merely functional

The Ravenel Bridge in Charleston, SC functions as exercise path, nature trail, bike path, and community link – but the design did not address future growth of non-automobile use (image: Graeme Sharpe)

Fifth Street Bridge in Atlanta spans 16 lanes of interstate traffic with a very complete street (image:  National Transportation Alternatives Clearinghouse / www.ta-clearinghouse.info)

Fifth Street Bridge in Atlanta spans 16 lanes of interstate traffic with a very complete street that includes bike/ped access and park space – if we want to actually link communities together, this is what our bridges should look like (image: National Transportation Alternatives Clearinghouse / www.ta-clearinghouse.info)

I find it interesting that even though we recognize our need for Complete Streets in spite of higher costs, we fail to apply the same principles for new bridges.  It seems like current practice for bridge planning is plan a bridge with forecasted traffic conditions of 25 years into the future but plan for ped/bike access with data from 25 years ago.  This is a false economy, because we already know that active transportation is growing by huge amounts every year, and bad bridge plans could restrict this growth and its beneficial consequences.

The Kessler bridge on Meridian St at Fall Creek

The renovated Kessler bridge in Indianapolis clearly prioritizes rush hour commuting over the comfort of vulnerable road users (image: Graeme Sharpe)

But we can choose to build better bridges.  If we did, what would a Complete Bridge look like?

  1. Follows Complete Street principles
  2. Meets current and anticipated long-range uses by alternative transportation modes
  3. Uses low-impact design and accounts for mitigation of harmful effects on local residents
  4. Provides for public engagement whenever appropriate with scenic viewpoint stations, history centers, or public parks

Our awareness of these issues will force us to redefine what makes a revolutionary bridge, just as the Brooklyn Bridge or Golden Gate did for their eras.  But what about the smaller bridges – the ones that don’t demand special treatment or receive special funding?  These are bridges that people cross over every day without much notice, but it is the ones that carry people to local jobs and kids to local schools that might deserve our closest attention.

Portland is currently building a bridge that might be a good model for planning a bridge of this type, with their Sellwood Bridge project. They are addressing each of the issues listed above in appropriate ways for their community.

The existing 2-lane bridge is being moved to allow construction of a new bridge (image H. Simmons)

The existing 2-lane bridge is moved onto temporary piers to allow continued use until construction of the new bridge is finished (image H. Simmons)

Rendering of steel arch bridge that will replace the existing multispan truss (image:  Multnomah County)

Rendering of steel arch bridge that will replace the existing multispan truss (image: Multnomah County)

The existing bridge is narrow and makes little accommodation for alternate modes compared to the new lane configuration on the new bridge (image: left - H. Simmons, right - Multnomah County)

The existing bridge is narrow and makes little accommodation for alternate modes compared to the lane configuration on the new bridge (image: left – H. Simmons, right – Multnomah County)

The public engagement process is critical, but often overlooked for small bridges.  The new bridge features a pretty good public website too.  Bridges are important in ways that streets aren’t, as they represent the physical location of a mental transition.  Communities rally around bridges and they can become powerful symbols.  Engaging the public early and often means that people begin to care about the bridge and understand the importance of tax money spent on its construction and maintenance.

Portland’s strategy was to create a festival celebrating the bridge closing and the start of new bridge construction.  This 1-time expense helps the local community learn to accept and take  ownership of the bridge building process.

Community involvement included an outreach program featuring music and an event booth (image H. Simmons)

Community involvement included an outreach program featuring music and an event booth (image H. Simmons)

People in a community are naturally interested in their nearby bridges and transportation agencies - we must learn to take advantage of this interest (image:  H. Simmons)

People in a community are naturally interested in their nearby bridges – transportation agencies must learn to take advantage of this interest (image: H. Simmons)

The Sellwood Bridge project is notable because it used the principles of Complete Streets during the planning stage, and also because it planned ahead for the growth of alternative modes.  At the same time, it did not expand the number of automotive lanes because increasing traffic would have negative effects on the local communities that this bridge was meant to serve.  Finally, the planning agency worked hard to engage stakeholders and communicate the reasons for these decisions.

Here in Indianapolis, the citizens are making progress in their quest for Complete Streets.  But we shouldn’t forget that Complete Streets need Complete Bridges.

The Genius of Traditional Buildings

Have you ever been to an old downtown and marveled at the historic buildings? Have you ever wondered how they could create such beautiful buildings on such small budgets, compared to the placeless architecture we are told is barely affordable today?

Graeme Street in Pittsburgh

Graeme Street (Pittsburgh, PA)

The truth is that those multi-story, mixed-use buildings lining the street were built by a different culture.  We are a different people now, and we demand different things from our built environment.

Buildings along Washington Street in Downtown Indianapolis

Buildings along Washington Street in Downtown Indianapolis

Take a few steps back to remember what changed

Take a few steps back to remember what changed

But that old American culture was a very clever one, and we can profit from studying what they did right, and how they did it.  So here is their basic recipe:

1.  Leverage small investments

The typical traditional urban building is between 20 to 40 feet wide, and between 60 to 200 feet deep.  This small width was a product of structural engineering limitations.  A traditional building with masonry walls and wooden floors could not span further without significant cost increases, and tax policies often charged by street frontage instead of square footage.  The result was small frontages and deep buildings.

Traditional Buildings start small (Indianapolis, IN)

Traditional Buildings start small (Indianapolis, IN)

The overall effect of a traditional streetscape is like walking through a well-curated art exhibit, where people can admire the buildings or the products in the glass storefronts.  The density of different buildings and stores satisfies the pedestrian’s need for visual interest.  It is a key part of what we call “walkability”.

Perhaps even more importantly, the small sizes encouraged ordinary citizens to become developers.  Many buildings were financed directly by business owners or residents, who would offset building costs with lease income from unused spaces.  These self-developing streetscapes ensured that no single developer or architect controlled the evolution of the city.  It would reflect a social, shared history instead.

A plain street can be more important to people than a capitol building

A plain street can be more important to people than a capitol building (Derby, UK)

This is what made historic downtowns beautiful in a way that no government or philanthropist could recreate today, and why historic preservationists nurse a broken heart with every lost structure.

2.  Share with your neighbors

The party wall style of building, where adjacent buildings used the same structural wall to support their floors, was a very important money saving technique in traditional buildings.  From the dawn of human civilization we have been building cities by slowly adding onto the existing structures.  However, new construction codes that strictly regulate fire safety have eliminated this technique, and for all intents and purposes party walls are no longer in common use.  Every building is now an independent structure.

Traditional Buildings share walls (Derby, UK)

Traditional Buildings with shared walls (Derby, UK)

Party Wall vs Fire Wall

Party Wall vs Fire Wall

The change has been beneficial in terms of life safety, but the effect on older buildings has been onerous as owners were left with a complicated legal situation just when downtowns were under fierce competition from the suburbs.  The results are plain to see in downtown Indy, where adjacent buildings were torn down for new parking lots and the old walls still bear the marks of beam pockets.

A scarred party wall (Indianapolis, IN)

A scarred party wall (Indianapolis, IN)

When we lost party walls, we didn’t just lose an inexpensive way to build.  We lost an inexpensive way to live.  A traditional building with party walls on either side will only have exposed facades on the back alley and the front elevation.  There are two benefits:  reduced heating costs and reduced facade costs.

Street versus Alley materials, but it blends so well (Indianapolis, IN)

Street versus Alley materials, but it blends well (Indianapolis, IN)

The heating and cooling issues are simple enough to explain, because there are fewer pathways for heat transfer (assuming your neighbor is also climate controlled).  This results in a significant savings compared to independent buildings with 4 exposed walls.

The construction costs are also lower, because only 2 facades must be weather-proof.  The owners typically used the savings to invest in attractive architecture with architectural flourishes, since it made business sense.  The corner buildings, with a higher burden of exposed facade costs, would naturally attract more profitable tenants.  The loss of a corner building is the ultimate way to devastate historic districts, because there will never be a profitable way to replace what has been lost.  The economic conditions that created those buildings is gone.

3.  Build up, not out

Traditional buildings, and traditional streetscapes by extension, never happened overnight. They evolved over time, as each small plot was filled in and then raised upwards.  The neat thing about masonry walls is that they can support an incredible amount of weight if they are braced at each floor level, so adding a new floor on top was usually a simple process.  This gave owners the ability to start small and incrementally expand their property as needed.

A nucleating commercial strip

A nucleating commercial center

Here in Indianapolis you can see this evolutionary process frozen in time.  The old streetcar stops were the commercial areas for each neighborhood, and as you travel towards downtown you will be traveling in time.  On the outskirts of the old city limits, you will find buildings that look like 1-story general stores, but maybe just a solitary one or one that was converted from a residence.  A bit closer in and you will find a healthier pocket of commercial buildings, some with 2 stories.  Look closer, you can usually find where the first buildings were upgraded from 1 to 2 stories.  A change of masonry, architectural style, or apparent age will show.  Sometimes it’s easiest to spot in the rain when the masonry takes in water at different rates.

Irvington Terrace historic district (Indianapolis, IN)

Irvington Terrace historic businesses (Indianapolis, IN)

The closest neighborhoods will have fully formed commercial streets with 4 or 5 story buildings, which were the final stage of traditional building evolution until the invention of the safety elevator.  This incremental development paradigm was a very cost-effective way to establish a business district, and also very different from our current style of development.  The “build at once” streetscape phenomenon is a recent invention, and only necessary because of the presence of parking requirements.

A block of traditional buildings wastes no space and can be built up extensively

A block of traditional buildings wastes no space and can be built up extensively

A block of contemporary buildings is a scattered mess that is commonly abandoned rather than upgraded

A block of contemporary buildings is a scattered mess that is commonly abandoned rather than upgraded

Minimum Parking Requirements, whether for permitting compliance or loan approval, have been the single greatest enemy of the traditional building technique.  The need for parking spaces based on square footage means that adding an additional level to a building requires more parking.  And in an urban area, land is a limited resource.  Building a parking garage is far too costly and complex a process when considering the needs of so many varied businesses on a single street, and so the only solution is to close the business and relocate where land is plentiful.

The modern method of placemaking

The modern method of placemaking (Columbus, IN)

No way to expand?  Relocate!

No way to expand? Relocate! (Carmel, IN)

Lessons to Learn

As you can see, traditional building developers used their limitations as advantages, making the most out of known technology and social behavior. It is up to us to figure out how to apply these concepts to our modern urban areas.  But the key lessons here are to create a development environment where buildings can start small, expand gradually, and create mutually beneficial relationships with their neighbors.