Will Ballard’s Cycling Agenda Leave Office When He Does?
Mayor Greg Ballard leads one of his last public bike excursions this month. As he pedals off into the sunset, some worry cycling in Indy will, too.
Hundreds of sinewy athletes swathed in Lycra gathered downtown at the Indy Criterium race last July, but the cyclist generating the most applause was a stocky former Marine in basketball shorts and sneakers. Leading a motley crew of celebrities, CEOs, and cycling advocates for a few laps of what has become one of the biggest local bike events of the year, Mayor Greg Ballard soft-pedaled around the course, offering encouragement to some of the less-experienced participants. Ballard didn’t attempt to win the race, content with finishing and soaking in the applause like Greg LeMond on Paris’s Champs-Elysees.
Ballard’s adoration at the Indy Crit isn’t unique. Raucous cheering greets him at several other public rides he hosts throughout the year, including the Polar Bear Pedal, which routinely brings in as many as 1,000 riders each January. If you can’t get an appointment with the mayor the conventional way, you can pedal alongside him at the April Spring Fever Ride or the Mayor’s Ride in June.
A Republican who rode a wave of discontent over high property taxes to one of the biggest mayoral upsets in local history, Ballard might seem like an unlikely candidate for the role of the city’s most passionate advocate for bicycles. But during his term, the culture has grown exponentially throughout Marion County. Miles of bike lanes and greenways have been added, as well as a bikeshare. Indy’s first ordinance requiring cycling to be considered when planning infrastructure passed. “In just eight years, Mayor Ballard accomplished decades’ worth of work for Indianapolis,” says Kevin Whited, executive director of the IndyCog biking group. “The impact will be felt long after he moves on to the next chapter of his life.”
Unfortunately, not everyone shares his optimism. With Ballard not seeking reelection this November, many local cyclists are holding their collective breath, wondering what the future holds. Might the city backpedal?
In the early 20th century, cycling thrived in Indianapolis. The place was home to hundreds of bicycle clubs. Native son Marshall “Major” Taylor, the first African-American world champion in any athletic event, would win his first bike races on the dirt roads around town. But the automobile soon began to take over. With cars more affordable and gas costing less than 25 cents a gallon, city planners began laying out streets and suburbs for automobile traffic in the 1930s. As a mode of transportation, bicycles were no longer considered practical.
Indy wasn’t alone. Cities across the country abandoned the two-wheeled commute for decades. But Portland, Oregon, was the first to re-embrace it in the early 1990s by building a massive system of trails throughout the city. Slowly, major Midwestern municipalities such as Madison and Minneapolis began following suit—adding bike lanes and greenways, organizing bicycle routes around mass-transit options, and starting bikesharing programs.
Unfortunately, Hoosiers were slow to adapt. Ballard’s Democratic predecessor Bart Peterson did help shepherd the 10-mile Monon Trail to completion in 2003, and he approved the idea of the Cultural Trail (paid for mostly with private money). But when Peterson lost the race for a third term in 2007, just a mile of dedicated bike lanes could be found in the entire city.
Even before he took office, Ballard and his team identified bicycling as a way to attract young talent to the city, improve the quality of life, and help ease traffic congestion. As an amateur cyclist himself, the new mayor fully realized how bad Indy’s infrastructure for two-wheelers was. “Coming into office, I knew we were way behind many other cities,” Ballard says. “But we had a plan that had been sitting on a shelf for 10 or 12 years that we updated. We were lucky in that we had some Rebuild Indy money to work with. I wanted to leave something behind when I left office, and that was connectivity.”
The administration hit the ground running, with road crews painting nearly 64 miles of bike lanes during Ballard’s first term. During his second term, the city continued striping new lanes, completed the nationally acclaimed Cultural Trail, and created both the Bike Hub in City Market and the first local sections of segregated cycle track, along New York and Michigan streets. He began his city-sponsored bike rides and approved the Complete Streets ordinance that came through the City-County Council, requiring transportation engineers to design new and remodeled roads with all forms of transit—pedestrians, bicycles, cars, and buses—in mind.
When Ballard leaves office at the end of this year, Indy will have about 200 miles of trails, greenways, and bike lanes, allowing commuter and recreational cyclists to travel extensively throughout the city via the bike network. Indy has made up so much ground that the League of American Bicyclists named it an official Bicycle Friendly Community in 2009, albeit at its lowest Bronze level. “Other major Bicycle Friendly Communities like Chicago, San Francisco, and Minneapolis have added a lot of infrastructure over this period as well, but most of these places weren’t starting from virtually nothing eight years ago,” says Bill Nesper, vice president of the League. “Since Ballard has been mayor, we have reports of bicycle commuting there going up by more than 100 percent.”
Just how savvy of an investment have the greenways and lanes been? A Partnership for Sustainable Communities study found the Indianapolis Cultural Trail has been directly or indirectly responsible for the creation of 11,000 jobs and more than $860 million in economic benefits.
A similar study conducted by the city revealed the Monon Trail added more than 11 percent to the value of homes near it. Soon, Ballard may find that out firsthand. If he and his wife, Winnie, move from their current house near Eagle Creek, she has made it clear that she wants to live next to a bike-friendly trail.
“We just can’t build enough trails and greenways,” Ballard says. “They add so much to the quality of life.”
Local cycling advocates are understandably nervous about their biggest champion vacating the City-County building this year. Most of the groups have disparate agendas. The Hoosier Mountain Bike Association pushes for more trails throughout the state. The Central Indiana Bicycling Association focuses on recreational bike rides and safety education. Freewheelin’ Community Bikes teaches kids how to work on bicycles and gives them an opportunity to earn their own. But knowing there is strength in numbers, several of them have been meeting to discuss ways they can present a unified voice.
“I personally hope whoever is in the mayor’s office in 2016 and beyond understands the importance of including bicycling in the transportation and recreation planning,” says Whited at IndyCog, one of the largest of the organizations. “It has played a key part in transforming Indianapolis into a great city.”
According to advocates, plenty of work remains. They’re clamoring for more mountain-bike trails, especially in Eagle Creek Park. Ballard regrets that cycling infrastructure didn’t make it to Decatur Township, where the topography and neighborhood layouts make bike lanes more difficult. And he still hopes that “bike boulevards”—neighborhood greenways with speed bumps and other traffic-calming elements—will find their way to less-busy neighborhood streets, not just the major commuting thoroughfares.
IndyCog might be able to take over the various rides Ballard started, assuming the mayor’s eventual successor—likely Republican Chuck Brewer or Democrat Joe Hogsett—isn’t interested in continuing them. Neither considers himself a serious cyclist. Brewer occasionally takes a ride with his 9-year-old son on the weekends; Hogsett, a runner, rarely throws his leg over a bike. Although neither will likely make cycling as much of a priority as Ballard, both express admiration for the current mayor’s efforts and promise to try to build (in their own way) upon the foundation he laid.
As far as cycling is concerned, filling in greenway gaps and expanding them into all the townships is Hogsett’s goal. Brewer might be a little more aggressive about adding bike lanes. “If we can take the plans for adding priority routes over the next few years and do them all in one year, we should,” he says. He seemed reluctant to go beyond lanes, citing the high construction costs of new greenways and segregated cycle tracks.
Ballard will likely hand his successor a list of leftover projects he hopes will see fruition, including a classified one that could lead to some big changes near the Indy Cycloplex at Marian University, a collegiate-cycling powerhouse. Despite all that his administration achieved, Indy has a long way to go. According to recent studies, only about one half of one percent of locals commute by bike—less than a third of Chicago’s number and a tenth of Madison’s. “We’ve seen a dramatic increase in the number of riders, but we’re still not where we need to be per capita,” Ballard says. “I’m really proud that we’ve changed the culture, though. People are now riding bikes who wouldn’t have eight years ago. People are realizing how important these trails and lanes are.”
As he prepares for what may be his final public ride at the Indy Crit on July 11, Ballard knows that his days of agenda-setting are dwindling. He’s willing to stay involved in cycling advocacy, but the impact won’t be the same. He isn’t even sure there will be much interest. “I don’t know if anyone wants to do a ‘Race with the Ex-Mayor,’” he says, laughing. “But we’ll see.”