My wife, Roberta, and I have been reading about the Indianapolis Cultural Trail since it was completed in 2013. Last week, we rode Amtrak down to the capital of The Hoosier State to see for ourselves what all the excitement was about. After two days riding and walking the trail, we are happy to report The Cultural Trail is an amazing, successful urban design project. This report is about the observations we had as we biked the trail. For a history of the trail including before and after photos, I recommend this article in the Indianapolis Monthly.
The Cultural Trail is an 8-mile urban bike and pedestrian path in downtown Indianapolis. Besides serving as a connector for neighborhoods, museums, parks, and greenways, the Cultural Trail is designed to be an attraction itself with gardens, public art, and public places. The Indy Cultural Trail serves as an example of what could be done to revitalize our own capital city. Saint Paul has started work on the Capital City Bikeway (CCB), but it has stalled for lack of funding and political will. The Indy Cultural Trail is an example of what the CCB could be.
We began our trip by riding our folding bikes from our hotel three blocks south to the Cultural Trail. The trail has a distinctive surface made of interlocking pavers and is easy to follow without having to read lots of signs. Well-tended gardens line the trail providing beauty, as well as a green buffer to multi-lane stroads. Both pedestrians and bicyclists share this segment. We did not see any conflict between bicyclists and pedestrians. There are other bike lanes on other streets for bicyclists who may want to bike faster than is possible on the trail. Unlike Saint Paul, Indianapolis does not worry about bikeway “redundancy”.
The trees and gardens on the trail act as a “beauty strip” hiding ugly stuff (a construction site). We took a left turn on Capitol Avenue to the city’s convention center. There were several public spaces along the trail and in one of these was a group of people line dancing. We saw three organized events along the trail during the two weekdays we were in Indianapolis. The Cultural Trail is designed as a welcoming space for creative and fun activities.
A few blocks west of the convention center, the Cultural Trail turns north. We left the trail at this point and biked west onto the White River Park trail.
The old Washington Street Bridge, converted into a parkway for pedestrian and bike use, took us to the other side of the White River. We biked a short distance along the shady White River trail. The Cultural Trail serves as a hub for previously existing walking and bicycling trails like the White River, the Monon, and the Pleasant Run trails. The hub and spokes aspect of the Indy Cultural Trail is a sad reminder that the wonderful trails in Saint Paul like the Sam Morgan Trail and the Bruce Vento Trail could be connected in a similar way by a completed downtown loop.
We biked back over the bridge and continued north on the trail along Blackford Street through Indiana University – Purdue campus. This is a dull stretch of the trail that looked a lot like many places blighted by misguided urban renewal in Saint Paul. The abundant greenery on the trail, however, acted as a “beauty strip” for the parking lots, ramps, and institutional buildings. A more scenic, interesting part of The Cultural Trail, the Canal Walk, runs two blocks east. The Canal Walk is a popular part of the Cultural Trail. There is a lot to do there – museums, concerts, and a bike and boat rental. There are a lot of recent developments on the Canal walk including residential buildings and a couple of restaurants.
We biked east on a segment of the Cultural Trail that ran along Massachusetts Avenue. This part of the trail goes through the very quaint Chatham Arch neighborhood with restored historic buildings. There were a many new apartment buildings going up along the trail. We also saw a lot of new businesses, particularly restaurants on this part of the Cultural Trail. It was very exciting to see how much economic development was generated by the trail on the trail. This too is a benefit we would see in downtown Saint Paul if we would finish the Capital City Bikeway.
Another spur off the Cultural Trail follows Virginia Avenue to Fountain Square, an older historic district that reminded me and Roberta of the West Bank in Minneapolis. This stretch of the trail begins in a tunnel under a parking ramp and a railroad bridge and crosses an interstate highway. Even with these challenges, we saw new apartment buildings and businesses and lots of people using the trail.
We saw many people using the yellow Pacers Bikeshare bikes. It was very apparent to us that the Pacers Bikeshare system is successful because people are able to bike on safe, pleasant bikeways that go where people want to go. That is not the case in Downtown Saint Paul where Nice Ride bikes sit unused much of the time.
We also saw parents bicycling with kids on The Cultural Trail. I never see that in Downtown Saint Paul.
There is a lot Saint Paul can learn from the Indy Cultural Trail. The funding Cultural Trail came from foundations, not the taxpayers. The Cultural Trail is not a bike-only path, but a comprehensive streetscape design that creates a safe space for all people who choose not to be in a car. I always see pedestrians in the one completed section of Saint Paul’s Capital City Bikeway on Jackson Street. I see people walking on bike lanes in every city. A well-designed space attracts people. A similar trail in Saint Paul would perhaps not have as much opposition from businesses if there was not a separate space for pedestrians and bicyclists.
(Roberta Avidor and Dana DeMaster contributed to this article)