Thursday, February 21, 2008

Urban Arterial Street Corridor Seeking Increased Activity - Pedestrians Need Not Apply.

Work has finally cranked up on the project to remove the Market Street ramps to/from I-65/70 while building new ramps at Washington Street. The ramp from westbound Ohio Street to the southbound Interstate has been removed. INDOT and the City had long indicated that none of the existing ramps would be removed until the new ramps were completed. Hmmm. The response from the Mayor's Neighborhood Liaison was that INDOT had studied that ramp, determined that there was low amount of traffic using it, and thus, decided that there was no good reason not to remove it first. I'm not aware of anyone in the neighborhoods having been contacted when that decision was made. It's a good thing they held public meetings to inform neighbors about the how the project was planned to proceed.

In my opinion, while this is illustrative of INDOT being out of touch with the communities they serve let alone being inept at designing safe freeways and at providing helpful information to drivers, it is merely a minor inconvenience to the neighborhoods east of the Interstate to whom this project was sold as a bill of goods. All along it was indicated that the intent was to reconnect the neighborhoods to downtown, and to give credit where it's due, the removal of the superstructure along Market Street can only help make the corridor from East Street to Pine Street more inviting as the light of day will actually shine upon the street occasionally. Of course, there are other imposing impediments to pedestrian traffic most notably Correctional Facility Canyon just west of the Interstate. (I do however, like the new paint job on the old car factory that now lives as Jail II.)

The major problem with the project is the exit and entrance ramps at Washington Street. They are way too wide and will be a death trap for pedestrians to try to cross as the intersections are widely curved to accommodate fast-moving traffic. I'm sure I might be called anti-automobile and unrealistic by some people, but you really can't design an intersection to better accommodate more convenient vehicle movement without compromising safety and convenience for pedestrians. I like to say that you can make a design pedestrian-friendly and still accommodate automobiles well, but it depends on your definition of accommodating automobiles.

If your goal is to always prevent any traffic congestion regardless of the number of vehicles using a roadway, and to keep those vehicles moving as quickly as is safely possible for drivers alone, then you can't reasonably accommodate both drivers and pedestrians, and you get the interchange design that INDOT is proposing. But if you want to do the two things that contribute most to making an intersection safe and inviting for pedestrians, which are keeping vehicle speed relatively slow at intersections and crossing distances short, and you are willing to accept that at peak traffic times, drivers may encounter some level of congestion, then you can safely accommodate both peds and vehicles, and we would be looking forward to a drastically different design for the entrance and exit intersections. I think the only thing that might have been worse is if they had chosen a design (I forget the name) like the one at I-465 & Emerson, and frankly, I bet they probably would have if the available space would have permitted it.

The Urbanophile did excellent writing on this issue last year, but it is still definitely worth a read if you still aren't quite sure what we're about to get. The pieces go into greater detail about the design deficiencies and possible solutions, which appear to have not been taken into consideration. I e-mailed the project managers listed on the City's website last summer with my concern about the intersection design and never received a response.

On a somewhat related note, I see a parallel of sorts between the decision to create a dead zone for pedestrians at the interchange, and the decision of the Metropolitan Development Commission yesterday to approve a rezoning at the southwest corner of Washington and State (just about a half-mile to the east) for retail development without any requirement that a building(s) be constructed up close to the street. The MDC summarily dismissed the requests of its planning staff, a local neighborhood organization, and the umbrella organization representing all neighborhood groups on the Near Eastside who advocated strongly for some commitment to a site design that would be pedestrian-friendly and at least modestly sensitive to the context of its urban location.

Of course, the most appropriate method for requiring good urban design would be through wholesale changes to the City-County's one-size-fits-all zoning ordinances which are designed to crank out auto-oriented, pedestrian-hostile, suburban-style development. While I'm not holding my breath just yet, I would strongly encourage citizens to contact their City-County Councilors and voice their opinions. I am hopeful that there are many inner-city residents out there who are tired of seeing what's left of the fabric of our urban neighborhoods being further deteriorated by improperly designed urban development, and who might come to realize that ours is not a city who's government will lead on such an issue, rather one who will only react to the problem if the perceive it to be a crisis.