Biking the Indianapolis Cultural Trail

The Canal Walk on the Indy Cultural Trail.

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.

There are other places to bike in Downtown Indianapolis besides the Cultural Trail.

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.

The White River Trail branches off from the Cultural Trail.

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.

The Canal Walk is very popular.

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.

There is a lot of public art and interpretive displays along the trail.

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)

Ken Avidor

About Ken Avidor

Ken Avidor is an illustrator, cartoonist and occasional courtroom sketch artist. Ken Avidor is an active urban sketcher and maintains a daily, illustrated journal. Ken is married to urban cartographer and talented sketch artist Roberta Avidor in the Union Depot in Lowertown, Saint Paul. Follow Ken and Roberta's sketching/bicycling adventures on their travel blog.

11 thoughts on “Biking the Indianapolis Cultural Trail

  1. Jon Hunt

    Why couldn’t we have something like this in the Nicollet Mall reconstruction plan? Also, what happened to the CCB? Every time I visit downtown Saint Paul the progress on Jackson is always the same.

    1. Dana DeMasterDanaD

      The part along Jackson will be completed this year. It has funding and is part of the larger reconstruction of Jackson that includes new utilities, sewer, and all the stuff under the street.

      Construction of the rest is unclear. There is no funding, no one really pushing for funding, and little will to complete some temporary solution.

      The current plans for the 4th Street Market District changed from no cars along most of it to a shared lane for bikes/peds/cars which basically means cars. I hope the new mayor can find the interest and will to complete it.

      1. Walker AngellWalker Angell

        So Jackson should be complete from Sam Morgan to 11th? With a good safe connection from Jackson & 11th to the Gateway we’d actually have a slight bit of useable network happening.

        1. Dana DeMasterDanaD

          Jackson will continue to University Ave to facilitate connections to the Gateway via the Cayuga area.

          Work is complete to Sam Morgan, although not much was done change how it is connected to Sam Morgan. Some ped ramps and beg buttons were updated and a new median and crosswalk with beg buttons at Jackson for southbound foot traffic. That’s not supposed to be for bikes headed to Sam Morgan – they are supposed to turn east on Kellogg and then use the Sibley crossing. I commute through there daily and most bikers use Jackson when heading south to Sam Morgan.

          I was hit in October 2015 at Sibley and Sam Morgan by someone turning right (north into downtown from westbound Shepherd. These changes do nothing to change the turn radius or slow traffic prior to making the turns. Jackson at Shepherd is better because before it was striped two lanes, but drivers would often make four lanes with two de facto turn lanes in each direction. It was really difficult to cross and predict people’s turns. Now the lanes under the railroad bridge are better and force people to stay in two lanes.

          1. Walker AngellWalker Angell

            Thanks. I had in my head that it would stop at 11th. University is much better. I still really wish it were one-way on each side though rather than two-way and having to deal with drivers not looking for people coming from their right.

            I’ve not ridden through to Sam Morgan yet. Doesn’t sound like it’s safe enough for a couple of 8-year-olds to be left to do alone.

            1. Dana DeMasterDanaD

              The bit from 11th to University is a separate project, but is still supposed to happen this year.

              Yeah, 8 year olds can’t do it alone. My 8 year old and I come through there often, but we get off our bikes and walk across Shepherd and then use the very wide sidewalk on Sibley to Kellogg, then on Kellogg to get to the trails behind CHS Field.

  2. Walker AngellWalker Angell

    I would love to see St Paul catch up. It is a great city that I think a lot of innovative start up type companies would love to locate in. But the employees they want to attract want to work where they can safely walk/bike/transit to work and where they and their families can do the same to work, school, grocery, and eateries. St Paul is just not inviting to these folks.

    Any thoughts on how many of the users of the Indy trail were recreational vs transportation?

    1. Ken AvidorKen Avidor Post author

      We saw lots of people using the trail for both purposes. We also saw parents with kids on bikes – for me, a sign of a successful design. We saw a lot of bike share use. All ages using the trail. The trail far surpassed my expectations.

      Indianapolis is a midwestern town like Saint Paul. It had many of the same problems we have, mainly it had a lot of cultural dots that needed connecting by something better than stroads and parking lots (they still have those). By making the connections awesome for bicyclists and pedestrians, the city was transformed. One shop owner said the Cultural Trail changed the culture of Indianapolis. There’s been something like a billion dollars of development along the trail since the trail was conceived. Lots of new construction.

      Don’t take my word for it, go there and experience it yourself.

      1. Walker AngellWalker Angell

        Thanks. Great to hear that it’s been so successful with a wide variety of users. I agree that kids on it is a good sign. Same for the paths in Shoreview.

        It’s been on my list to visit for some time. We pass through occasionally driving down south to see my kinfolk. We’ll have to make it a point to stop there one of these trips.

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