Let’s talk Indy walkability and public transit

The famed IndyGo bus, which I rode too many times as a first year. Photo by Katerina Anderson


To any visitor or resident of Indianapolis, it is evident that it was a city built for cars. To the modern person, this may not seem like an altogether bad thing. It allows middle-class citizens to have more room to live while decreasing population density. 

Many people work in the city of Indianapolis, but live out of the city in a suburb such as Fishers or Carmel. Indianapolis ranks 214th in the world in traffic and 15th in the United States, meaning you won’t have the rushes of New York, Washington, D.C. or Chicago. Indianapolis is a city you can easily live and work in — as long as you own a car. 

What happens if you don’t own a car? Well, Indy becomes a very different city, which I can personally attest to, seeing both sides of the coin in this instance. When I was a first year here at Butler, I owned a 1997 Lincoln Town Car that I bought for very little money. It was so old and so beat up that it literally could not make it to campus. 

Luckily, my parents had cars that could transport me to campus, but once I was here, I was on the island that is the Butler bubble. My only options for transportation: walking, a friend’s car or the bus. 

There was mention of the bus in orientation, but no information about where it stopped, how to get a pass or safety precautions once on the bus. But despite all of that, I used IndyGo’s website to figure out where it stopped on campus, and I became excited to finally exit the bubble. 

However, my excitement for IndyGo quickly turned into bewilderment at the sheer un-walkability of Indianapolis. Once my friends and I would get off the bus at the stop nearest to our destination, it was always an unpredictable and confusing experience to make it there. 

Junior sociology-psychology major McKenzie Call joined me on many of these journeys and shared in my bewilderment. 

“There were barely any sidewalks,” Call said. “So we were either walking on the street, or through someone’s front lawn.” 

She is not exaggerating. I remember one instance of trying to navigate back from downtown, the sun falling in the sky, snow covering the ground. It was so difficult to walk through the unplowed and uncared for sidewalks that we missed the bus! We ended up sprinting down the street to the next stop before the bus could get there. 

But how did we get here? How did cities become so car-centric, so unwalkable? Well, our answer lies in the past, with two inventions: streetcars and suburbs. Suburbs began in the late 19th century and early 20th century, as a response to the rapidly growing cities and economic boom post-war. The densely populated urban areas became too much for many people, and with increasingly easy modes of transportation, communities were built away from their place of work. So, the number of walking commutes decreased substantially. 

According to journalist Joseph Stromberg, “Some real estate developers built nearby suburbs around streetcars,” which is evident in many places from Cleveland to Detroit to, you guessed it, Indianapolis. Those who lived in the suburbs were able to ride streetcars into work in the city, not having to worry about walking or catching an elusive train ride. However, we don’t see streetcars around today. These efficient and carbon neutral transporters disappeared after the boom of the villain in this story: cars. 

Some say that the auto industry lobbied to have streetcars removed, which comes from General Motors buying all of the streetcar lines under a sister company, National City Lines. But the truth is the streetcar died because cars were allowed to drive on streetcar lines, significantly lowering their efficiency. 

After this phenomenon, the Great Depression struck, leaving many out of work and streetcars unfortunately out of use, with no private or public money having any interest in restoring them. The auto industry took over from there, filling the surge of need for jobs and transportation. This occurred all over the country, and Indianapolis shared in this fate. 

In the present day, we have our predicament. No streetcars and many suburbs led to noisy, dirty streets, with the hazard of cars and the neglect of sidewalks. 

In order to see a better future for Indianapolis, I believe we must look across the pond to our friends in Europe. It is no secret for anyone who has been there that huge swaths of Europe are wildly more walkable than the United States, for many obvious reasons, the first of which being that Europe in its current state is simply older. The streets simply had not been built with cars in mind. 

This of course doesn’t mean cars aren’t present in Europe. It just means they are used differently. Europe has 10% fewer suburbs than the U.S., leading to less of a commute to work. Additionally, practically half of people in the European Union ride public transportation to commute, whereas according to the U.S. census, just 13% of people in America ride public transportation to commute. 

In the U.S., 73% of people ride in their own individual cars to work. No wonder Europe is deemed more walkable and pedestrian friendly. 

However, don’t just take my word or the data’s word for it; take Andreas Geranios’, a junior biology major here at Butler. He recently traveled to Greece over the summer, and had this to say about the walkability: 

“We walked everywhere,” Geranios said. “The roads in pretty much all public places were designed with pedestrians first and cars a distant second. You didn’t have to worry about getting run over, and it was much more enjoyable and less stressful just walking from store to store, compared to having to suffer the horror of parking in downtown cities.” 

Doesn’t this seem better, more leisure-like, stress-free almost? It’s not just in Greece, but many parts of Europe. 

Sophomore computer science major Beck Chandler gave me his perspective on a study abroad trip he went on in Denmark. 

“Well, the cities are built with public spaces and large walkways in mind,” Chandler said. “The streets were split into two lanes for cars, a 6-foot-wide bike lane and an 8 to 14-foot-wide sidewalk. Those roads are the reason 50% of the people in Copenhagen just bike everywhere instead of owning a car. The only cars I really ever saw were either work vehicles or taxis.” 

This is unimaginable to an American living in a capital city, but in Denmark, it’s normal. They also have an awareness of density, and the need for walkability in the more dense parts of a city. Beck gave his perspective on this, too. 

“In the denser parts of the city, there weren’t too many lanes for cars, instead having cobblestone walkways going throughout the city’s districts,” Beck said. “All their sidewalks are at least twice as big as ours, and the bike lanes aren’t major safety hazards.” 

How many times, and be honest, have we, as American drivers, been angry at the biker in the lane in front of us? I know I have been frustrated with the slowness and the fact that I have to go around them. But biking is a more pleasant and, of course, more carbon neutral way to get to and fro. 

But overall, these facts and perspectives from Europe give us another look at our practices as Americans when it comes to commutes. While it is true that public transportation in America can be lackluster and under-advertised, it has a clear history of being quite effective if we supported it the way we support cars. 

So, I think Indy should take a few cues from Europe and lessen our use of cars. Without cars, all that tax money going to repair roads destroyed by cars can go to developing sidewalks, creating better, cleaner public transportation and making commutes safer for all, whether you are walking, biking or riding the bus. 

In this future, those of us stuck in the Butler bubble would be able to safely and effectively go off campus without the hassle of cars or the worry of safety on the streets of Indy.


Related posts