After my five years in Ireland raising my son Cayo till he was four years old, the National Bicycle Greenway organization that I got nonprofit status for in 1993, was disarrayed and had lost a lot of its luster. I returned to America in 2015 to Davis, CA, thinking I could bring the burn back with a relaunch from what some people refer to as the “Bike Capital of America”. Well, in terms of bicycle facilities, on a per square mile (only 9) or per capita (65K) basis, Davis has no equal (HERE
are all the biking amenities) . However surrounded on all four sides by farmland, as I-80 (what the Lincoln Hwy that I will tall about later, yielded to) thunders through it, not only is its human power infrastructure built out, but almost like an island, even tiny bits of its example are extremely hard to replicate, even in the three tiny farm towns ten miles away. This while Sacramento, the state capital, at only 12 miles away, offers an inhospitable bike connection (much of it directly adjacent to the Interstate) only navigable by the most hardy of cyclists.
Nor was Davis an attractive destination for those who may have come from out of town to the national events I tried to stage there. In the summer, when most people do their bike rides, Davis, a college town/ bedroom community, rolls up the sidewalks of its small downtown well before noon. It just gets so hot there that locals defer to their air conditioned homes, cars, offices or classrooms. Unlike Indianapolis, the Greenway Capital of America, where in the summer, people outside are everywhere, Davis is like a ghost town quietly filled with the well manicured yards of an outsized preponderance of large-sized homes.
Well before I ended up in what I thought was America’s top bicycle heaven, in the 1990’s, while I was in the far more temperate San Francisco Bay Area, as I watched Ray Irvin, globally known as Mr Greenway, transform a dying Rust Belt City with Greenways, I also listened to him gush about the all new Indianapolis Greenway scene that was beginning to emerge. And when I saw it for myself last August, I knew this was where the NBG and I needed to be.
When I was in Ireland (2010-2015) doing research for my book, “How America Can Bike and Grow Rich, the National Bicycle Greenway in Action
” (HBGR), I acquired an in depth understanding of the road that built America, the Lincoln Highway. It was then that I became aware that Indianapolis is where the movement for it began. And the force who led the charge for it was a former bike shop owner named Carl Fisher, who in 1909 had already honored Mayor Bookwalter’s request for a speedway with the world famous Indy 500 car racing track. Also in 1909, the 5-story Fisher Automobile Company was completed. Not only would it give birth to Indianapolis Auto Row which, for many blocks, dominated its downtown, but it would serve as the office and braintrust for the national highway he foresaw.
In HBGR, in the chapter, “Lessons Learned from America’s First Coast to Coast Highway in Building the NBG”
, I talk about how Fisher established the Lincoln Highway Administration (LHA) to build will for his vision of a coast-to-coast car road with Indianapolis at its center. From here, once the home of 97 different car manufacturers, he promoted tirelessly and the red line he drew on a map connecting Indianapolis with San Francisco became a reality in July of 1913 when his Indianapolis based organization used 17 cars and two trucks as a part of the 1,700 mile Hoosier Tour (also called the Indiana–Pacific Indiana Automobile Manufacturers Association Tour) to blaze the exact route they would work to flesh out. From Washington, DC to the Mississippi River, the route was already known. They would rely on the National Road signed into law by Thomas Jefferson in 1806. West of the Mississippi, however, their alignment was forced to rely on old stage coach lines, some of the transcontinental railroad right of way and old Indian and wildlife trails, all lightly etched out in the dirt. The LHA then went on to rally America around the Lincoln with everything from encouraging church sermons and poetry about it to noteworthy national Boy Scout participation, a weekly radio show, even a World War I victory celebration on it that included a young Gen. Eisenhower, etc, etc, all as directed from Indianapolis.
The Lincoln reached from Times Square in New York City to the World’s Fair in San Francisco in 1915 as a smorgasbord of different roads, most all of them, as we just saw, dirt west of the Mississippi. As they continued to work to make their cost to coast highway real, Fisher and his group, also had the added financial support from his friends, Thomas Edison, former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt
as well as Woodrow Wilson
, the first U.S. President to make frequent use of an automobile for relaxation. By invoking the image of Abraham Lincoln, the LHA had succeeded at making it seem patriotic for people from all walks of life to drive, and as more and more motorists, in their newly minted automobiles, flocked to it every year, the Lincoln Hwy sparked a road building frenzy that continued unchecked all over the USA well into the 1970’s. Ultimately, as America’s love affair with the car and the highways built to accommodate it continued to explode, the Lincoln got swallowed up by the numbered highways of the Federal Highway Administration. And like many big cities in the USA, Indianapolis got run over by all the cars it’s Lincoln success had engendered before it then started to die as all forms of manufacturing began to leave the country in the 70’s and 80’s.
This is where Ray Irvin began to make a difference. In the early 90’s he started building the internationally recognized Indy Greenways network. And by the end of the millennium, as more and more Greenways got added, more and more jobs and young people began to flock to Indianapolis. How could they not? In addition to the 18-mile long Monon Trail, the downtown canal towpath Ray helped turn into a place of magic and the world renowned, 8-mile Indianapolis Cultural Trail that reenergized many of the sidewalks Indy merchants do their business from, these and other greenway trophies continue to make Indianapolis central look like one giant college campus. In this podcast, Ray Irvin prophecized this in 2006 when I did an interview with him. To the green and the play that is everywhere, add the fact that as the Crossroads of America that 50% of the USA is all within an 8-hour car drive, and you will see why Indianapolis has become such a powerful magnet to workers who bring innovation and exciting youthful energy to this city.
As for myself, a few months ago, in keeping faith with aligning our National BicycleGreenway effort with the power of the Lincoln Highway that built the America we know today, because homes are still so surprisingly affordable here, I was able to buy a 1920 Victorian farmhouse just a few blocks from Washington Street, aka, US 40, the original Lincoln Highway! Surrounded by history, I am, for example, seven or so blocks from the old
Desusenberg Factory of 1919
Duesenberg Motorworks factory. Legendary as a regular winner in the early days of the Indy 500 speedway, their luxury automobiles selling for as much as a quarter million dollars in 2018 value, were the finest money could buy. In fact, from 1919 to 1937 the Deusenberg was the Rolls Royce of its day and was the source of the saying, “it’s a Deusy!” used to describe the best of the best.
Old Washington St Bridge Promenade
I am also less than a mile away from the Lincoln Hwy bridge that has now become a center of play for Indianapolis locals. In crossing the majestic White River, the old Washington St Bridge, once stood out as the gateway to the downtown Indianapolis Auto Row we talked about earlier. Now, however, under Ray Irvin’s direction, the bridge has become a tastefully designed promenade that is always filled with people and activity as it connects the Indianapolis Zoo to White River State Park (WRSP) that Ray also helped to bring about. Situated at the foot of downtown and the widely popular Indianapolis Cultural Trail, WRSP, besides a summer concert series also features 3 and 4-wheel bike rentals, a community garden, sprawling lawns and direct access to the beginning of the world class Central Canal Towpath that is complete with gondolas, paddle boats, world class museums and a myriad of fountains, etc.
As for the Indianapolis Cultural Trail (ICT) that I touched on above, as a piece of bicycle infrastructure unlike any, anywhere else in the world, I could not keep the National Bicycle Greenway in California after I rode it. On specially groomed sidewalks, as business was being done several yards away, the way the curbs were cut and the lights were timed, etc, I felt like, as a cyclist, I was wanted here. Or, as Ray Irvin says, the ICT is a showcase of how the businesses of the future will all operate – car visits will not be encouraged, but human powered ones will. As the genuine prophet that Ray is, he says that to be successful in the imminent future, your storefront will have to be on a people powered throughway – it will have to be bike friendly.
On the ICT, the smooth surface of a handsome, red brick has replaced the concrete
sidewalks that pass ten or so feet away from the front doors of a myriad of eateries, hotels, drinking establishments, coffee and thrift shops, fitness facilities and etc. Add beautiful landscaping and tastefully designed interpretive signage that call out everything from Civil War battles to historical events that took place at the locations they herald and you will begin to feel the time warp this path inserts you into. You will also sense what I would like to see become a nationwide reality.
In all 19 of our other NBG Anchor cities
that form the dots that connect San Francisco with Washington, DC, Cultural Trails need to be established in each of them so, as I will show you, the bicycle visitor becomes a desired part of the business and transportation mix. With such a way of moving people about, not only will tourism explode as the unique character of each of our cities will be placed on display, but new trails will be launched from them as people powered users yearn for ways to reach to and from them from north, south, east and west further and further away.
In knowing how to turn all of its human powered play play into an economic engine, while all the businesses throughout the immediate area flourish, a sign on a state office building high above all of this, like Ray Irvin, sounds prophetic. It reads:
Indiana a State that Works
As its tax coffers are enriched with all the dollars all this greenway activity generates, the State expertly supports it with jobs that maintain and administer it. Toward that end, during the warmer 3/4 of the year, Indianapolis is a hub bub of government as well as private sponsored liveliness! Lawn cutters and trail sweepers and maintainers of street furniture, etc, all busy about as tents for events are constructed, temporary fencing and wiring are deployed and vendors add more and more two, three and four wheel bikes to all the ones that all happily scurry about.
In honoring such fun, because Indianapolis residents know their own personal income streams are directly or indirectly affected by play, with greenways setting the lead, they make allowance for the slower moving inconvenience cyclists may cause them. Motorists in Indianapolis downtown slow for cyclists and tend to take greater care when passing us. They seem to know to look for us entering the roadway in unexpected places.
There is a consciousness for not just cyclists here but also greenways. Locals have come to learn the value we bring to a community, so the pathways and their users are taken seriously. Where they cross roads, added caution is conferred upon these areas. All along the Monon Trail for example, there are intersections. Almost as if it is built into their conditioning, car drivers all tend to slow and exercise greater care once they reach them.
Despite the fact that the economic turndown of 2009 pushed Ray off to Florida where he is making a living off of his second passion, sailing, a lot of the greenway infrastructure he built is still in place. While Indy Greenways is not as active in building new Indianapolis greenways, the Greenways Foundation is still rock solid. What that means is that there is still a funding mechanism that keeps an active dialogue with potential funders of large projects. This as Indy Greenways still has its database of on the ground greenway construction firms. And because of its work with the many Indianapolis universities, it also knows where to look for the studies these schools have done about how to overcome NIMBY objections as well as document the increase in property values for those in close proximity to greenways, etc. What all this means, as our National Bicycle Greenway looks to nationalize their success, is that a lot of the tools we will be in need of are already here waiting to be dusted off!
Some final words about Indianapolis are in order here. I am riding more here than I ever did in California as I join all ages and fitness levels of cyclists here. Nor is a fixed gear bike or lycra wear required to establish oneself as a legitimate user of the local roads and paths. Nor do enthusiasts only ride in groups on back roads on “training rides”. Cyclists here don’t seem to be in competition with one another. The transportation cyclist, racer, commuter or recreational cyclist don’t seem to stand apart from one another because it is just so big here. There are not coffee shops that collect a certain kind of cyclist because the greenways encourage everyone here to try their hand at bike riding and as their roles switch back and forth, motorists and bike riders don’t seem so committed to differentiating themselves from one another..
What also seems to help is that it is not congested here, Users of the road are not fighting each other over who gets to use what parts of it. Here there are as many roads to choose from as there is open space. If you don’t like the pace on one, a few turns will find you on another. Nor is everyone here rushing to get to a freeway. This is so, because with the exception of the one that rings its perimeter about ten miles away, most of the city is free of freeways.
From the perspective of my life as a native of the San Francisco East Bay area, imagine an area from the base of the Hayward hills, across the Bay to the base of the San Mateo hills south to the base of the Mountain View hills back across the Bay to the base of the Milpitas hills with only one freeway fed by a tiny feeder and that is Indianapolis. Contrast that with at least five freeway arterials in the Bay Area segment I outlined and you will see what I mean by cars and their noise forming the dominant role in an area. One would think that with the Indy 500 Speedway, cars would be king here, but they are not!
The ease with which people from all walks of life relate to each other here also has to do with population density:
In San Francisco, there are 18,580 people per square mile, or 870,887 people spread out over 49 square miles.
In Indianapolis, there are 2,328 people per square mile or 855,164 people spread out over 366 square miles.
Another thing that calms people down here is the very active arts scene. Unlike California, where people are afraid to expend their time making things that won’t help them pay their exorbitant rents or mortgages, galleries and artists and organizations formed to supports the arts abound here. As a proven therapy, not only does art soothe one’s nerves, but it helps to keep people off the streets as it adds to the open space and nature’s green that have a prolific presence here.
Nor can one ignore the impact of the Major Taylor Velodrome. As a venue managed by Marian University, the top college bike racing team in the nation, the bicycle speedway, just like the Indy 500 did for cars, is more and more establishing Indianapolis as the bicycle center of America. With a track to help them showcase their wares, national bike component manufacturers such as SRAM, Zipp, TruTrainer, Blue Rub and Silca have all brought their operations here. And as this world class raceway also brings in top bike racing teams from all over America and the world, not only is the city jumping in to support it, but greater and greater numbers of bike riders from far and wide are getting the chance to see first hand the bicycle heaven that can be found here.
With Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett
If I would have stayed in California, I would have achieved great NBG success if I would have reached the state line at South Lake Tahoe. Nevada. And since the preponderance of cyclists west of the Mississippi were either south of me in the San Francisco Bay area, Santa Cruz, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles and San Diego or north of me in Sacramento , Chico, Arcata, Eugene, Portland and Seattle, I was often tempted to devote NBG energy to calling for a West Coast Greenway. Being in Indianapolis, now however, I am a little over a hundred miles from the powerful bicycle beacon of Chicago. This while our next NBG Anchor City, Cincinnati, is one hundred miles to the east, Columbus another 100 miles and Pittsburgh, the bicycle gateway to Washington DC, 300 Car Free miles away, also a little over a hundred. miles from Columbus. Instead of being a pipe dream a continent away from making the National Bicycle Greenway real, the goalpost, Washington DC, is now within reach as we work to connect it to San Francisco!
Thank you Indianapolis.
Your example will help make the National Bicycle Greenway real!!