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A Connected Future: Indianapolis Leveraging Investments in Transit Through Policy & Regional Context

Striving for Sustainability

The first buses on the City of Indianapolis’ Red Line Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) began on September 1, 2019. Despite a bumpy start and the ridership and labor market impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic, the Red Line BRT currently carries 15-20% of passenger traffic on the IndyGo network while only comprising 1.6% of total system mileage. Indianapolis Public Transportation Corporation (IndyGo, Indiana’s largest public transit agency and primarys transit provider for Indianapolis-Marion County) will break ground on the Purple Line BRT in the coming months and the Blue Line in 2023 while also launching a re-designed local bus system to improve frequency and reliability. These investments mark critical milestones for Indianapolis, a city and region that continuously struggles with accessibility and economic opportunity.

IndyGo 46th Street Red Line Station (Credit: Austin Gibble)

However, like many others in the United States, Indianapolis has continued to host the relics of mid-20th Century planning and zoning. These included large parking minimum requirements, minimal design standards, automobile-oriented land use typologies, and density recommendations not conducive to supporting organically active neighborhoods and transit accessibility. Additionally, like many other Midwest/Rust Belt cities, Indianapolis has lost almost half of its core population (Center Township). This trend did not begin to reverse until 2014.

Recognizing these challenges, the City of Indianapolis and IndyGo applied to the Bloomberg American Climate Challenge for funding to address the mismatch between land use and transportation. It was granted funding, with additional support from the Federal Transit Administration. The funds were used to craft several new pieces of local legislation designed to reduce carbon emissions city-wide and bring Indianapolis steps closer to becoming net-zero by 2050. Among the most transformative of these policies were Transit-Oriented Development and Zoning Changes made to the Indianapolis Municipal Code.

Analyzing Strengths and Weaknesses

IndyGo and the City of Indianapolis teamed up with Urban3/Joe Minicozzi, Gould-Evans, and Toole Design Group to critically analyze Marion County’s land uses, demand pressures, and taxable value per acre throughout the county and along current and future Bus Rapid Transit corridors. The analysis found efficiencies and inefficiencies in Marion County’s current land-use patterns. At a high level, the analysis found that Indianapolis-Marion County’s most efficient land uses, and land uses with the highest return on taxable value per acre, were in the densest and most transit-accessible neighborhoods. This is particularly true for Downtown Indianapolis, which produces the greatest proportion of tax revenue for Marion County.

Figure 1: Marion County Taxable Value per Acre with BRT Corridor Overlay (Credit: Joe Minicozzi/Urban3)

Further analysis, however, determined that Indianapolis-Marion County was not using its current and future bus rapid transit lines to their fullest capabilities. For example, 16% of properties within ½ mile of the Blue Line (estimated completion 2026) are either financially upside-down or vacant; another 35% are comprised of low-rise, single-story structures. The remaining 48% are over one story or civic in use.

Additional analysis of Indy's zoning codes and land development ordinances found mismatches between codified language, geometric realities (height limits vs. density) and direct conflicts with the stated goals and objectives of adopted Strategic Transit-Oriented Development Plan documents. Knowing this, it was decided that the City of Indianapolis and IndyGo needed to take action to correct these mismatches and ensure that the small amount of land area which could be leveraged for transit-oriented development is protected.

Multiple Birds with One Stone

While the grant's focus was on the Blue Line BRT corridor, staff and strategic planners with the City of Indianapolis and IndyGo sought to develop an over-arching policy not only applicable to the Blue Line BRT but to all bus rapid transit corridors and to address the general zoning code that is applicable city-wide. Indianapolis needed zoning and land-use changes to position itself for a sustainable future, and the grant dollars provided the opportunity to cast the widest net of changes to achieve the city’s sustainability objectives.

Fountain Square, Indianapolis (Credit: Austin Gibble)

The results have established new zoning codes and design standards that set Indianapolis and Marion County up for success. Throughout most of the "Compact Zone" (city areas built before WWII) apartment homes up to fourplexes are now permitted by-right. A new transit-oriented development (TOD) overlay has been introduced, extending 1,000 feet from both sides of the corridor. This new overlay makes higher density developments easier to construct without jumping through numerous hoops. It introduces new design standards for developments to ensure that any development is oriented to the pedestrian. Additionally, within the overlay, many automobile-oriented uses are strongly regulated or outright prohibited. This includes car sales lots, car washes, gas stations, self-storage facilities, and so on.

Long-Term Impacts

This is just a high-level sliver of Indianapolis's massive improvements to its overall zoning code, but the benefits and changes will not be seen overnight. Center Township has lost half of its 350,000 person population from its peak in 1950 – a devastation on par with that of Cleveland, St. Louis, and Detroit. More than half a century of redlining, systemic disinvestment, and racial covenants have decimated urban neighborhoods throughout the United States. This was compounded by imposing suburban development standards on urban areas, forcing housing types on land that could not sustain them in a manner accessible to middle and lower socioeconomic classes. Only since 2014 has Center Township begun to grow again, and Indianapolis has determined that this growth is not to be squandered with suburban zoning typologies.

This significant restructuring of Indianapolis's zoning code will not usher in a resurgence of neglected neighborhoods overnight, nor does it solve all of the challenges around equitable development and access to affordable housing. However, what it does do is lay the foundation for more housing types, such as apartment homes, rowhouses, and larger apartment buildings with pedestrian orientation along BRT corridors, in locations where it was not permitted previously. This makes the process for introducing a broader range of housing options less time-consuming and less expensive. It is one step towards achieving the goal of a denser, more accessible Indianapolis that is not car-dependent.

Neighborhoods with a mix of socioeconomic classes can facilitate random interactions and foster populations with a greater sense of sympathy and empathy, fostering places with populations that have an understanding of significant community needs and building a supportive network. Additionally, the new zoning will enable the re-development of the density required to sustain local businesses that can effectively serve people who walk, bike, or use public transit by rebuilding the long-lost population base. These land development ordinances and design standards are much more than code in a book; they are a way of rebuilding community.

AUTHOR: Austin Gibble

Austin Gibble is a Board Member of the Congress for New Urbanism – Midwest and the Administrator for Long-Range Transportation Planning with the City of Indianapolis – Marion County. Previously, Austin worked as a Project Development Planner with the Indianapolis Public Transportation Corporation (IndyGo).

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