Sunday, October 2, 2011

Ballard, Cycling and our Shared Environment

On November 8, 2011, citizens in Indianapolis will vote for mayor in a contest between Greg Ballard, the incumbent Republican, and Melina Kennedy, his Democratic challenger.  This is my commentary on the election from a cyclist's point of view.

            In general, I hold the position that friends don’t let friends vote Republican.
            I myself once voted for Dick Lugar when he had an especially weak opponent, but soon regretted my vote when he played an unsavory role in prolonging the impeachment of Bill Clinton.  Lugar’s reputation for independence and courage has long been exaggerated.  But that’s a topic for another day.
            As I look ahead to the upcoming mayoral race, however, I think I may very well vote Republican, and I may do so without regret.
            The main reason that I would vote to re-elect Mayor Ballard is that I am an avid and devoted cyclist.  I commute to work by bicycle, and I use a bicycle for nearly all of my day-to-day transportation.  And during my twenty-plus years of riding in Indianapolis, more progress has been made to improve cycling under Mayor Ballard than under all of the previous mayors combined.
            When Ballard became mayor, three years ago, Indianapolis had only a single decrepit and out-of-the-way bicycle lane along Lafayette Road in the northwest corner of the city.  Now, we have over thirty miles of bicycle lanes, and we will have another thirty by the end of this year.  These lanes are actually useful, and get cyclists to places they might want to go along New York, Michigan and Illinois streets downtown, and along Madison on the southeast side and Lafayette Road on the northwest side.
            Yes, I know that these lanes have been criticized by motorists and cyclists alike.  Some motorists believe that they own our streets, and are unwilling to give up a square inch to anyone not burning gasoline.  Moreover, they resent the vast sums of city funds being wasted on cycling.
            Some cyclists, for their part, complain that the lanes are too narrow and are poorly designed.  A few go so far as to say that the lanes should be shunned altogether, and that cyclists should “claim the [entire] lane” for their own safety.
            Both criticisms are, in my opinion, wrong-headed.   Our bicycle lanes have come at a very modest cost to taxpayers, and cyclists deserve a place on our roads.  One could always wish for wider and better designed lanes, but I have found our lanes to be adequate.  And the occasions when a cyclist should “claim the lane” for safety are rare; in general, cyclists, like other slower-moving traffic, should stay to the right.  It is much easier to stay to the right if one has the protection of a bike lane.
            As an intrepid and determined cyclist, I rode along Allisonville Road long before it had a dedicated bike lane.  The lane that went in there last year makes me more comfortable riding along this busy thoroughfare, and it gives me the feeling that I have a place in the road.  More importantly, the bike lane makes it more likely that others will use their bicycles for commuting and shopping.
            When I mentioned to a friend that I was thinking about voting for Ballard because of his cycling record, she accused me of being a “single-issue” voter. 
            That’s a fair enough criticism, but for me this single issue is a very big one.  Moreover, it is connected to a number of other areas where Mayor Ballard has been doing good work.  He has established an office of sustainability, and, in a variety of ways, has worked quietly to make Indianapolis a more environmentally responsible city. 
In addition to bike lanes, I am seeing new sidewalks and facilities for pedestrians go into parts of the city that have never had them before.  For Ballard, bike lanes seem to fit into a broader plan about improving the environment of Indianapolis for everyone.
            I keep waiting for Melina Kennedy to announce her own ambitious plans to build upon and enhance the city’s plans for pedestrians and cyclists.  So far, I have been sorely disappointed.
            If Kennedy’s main claim to the mayorship is that she was a protégé of Bart Peterson’s, then she has little credibility in this area.   Peterson inherited the Monon Trail and a far-reaching plan for greenways development from Stephen Goldsmith and Ray Irvin, and he let the momentum die.  In fact, I could not point to a single thing that Bart Peterson did to improve the environment of our city.
            On a national level, voting for Republicans seems, increasingly, to mean voting against evolution, against the rights of women, against a sensible response to global warming, and, ultimately, against the common good.
            In Indianapolis, by contrast, voting for a Republican might mean voting for a more humane and liveable city.