One of America’s Most Auto-Centric Cities Ditches the Car

Until five years ago, Indianapolis had less than one mile of bike lanes. Home of the Indianapolis 500, it was a city where cars reigned supreme.

“Cars have been such an essential part of the culture here, you might even say people viewed them as an extension of self,” said Scott Manning, communications director for Sustainable Indianapolis and the Indianapolis Department of Public Works. “Owning and driving a car was an absolute necessity, and that mind-set permeated city planning for decades.”

But visitors to Indianapolis today see a city that looks more like Portland, Oregon, than like Detroit, where traffic lanes have been replaced by broad, tree-lined pedestrian paths crowded with strollers, boats ply the Central Canal, bike lanes follow the curves of the White River, and greenways link the farthest-flung areas of the city.

It all began in 2010 when the city sold its water and sewer utility to a public trust, reaping a $500 million windfall. How did the city decide to spend it? Not, for a start, on freeway expansion and road repairs, as would have been the case a few years before, says Manning. Instead, Indianapolis set about asking its citizens what they wanted. (Really—city officials held more than 50 public meetings.) What they wanted was to walk.