From my fifth floor balcony and writing table, I watch a vibrant neighborhood in downtown Indianapolis: one block of North Street, from Alabama to New Jersey Streets, and two blocks of Alabama Street, from North, past Michigan Street, to the intersection with Massachusetts Avenue, a street that transverses a northeasterly diagonal through the old city.
The Indianapolis cultural trail runs along these streets. It is a broad, ornate sidewalk that winds for eight miles around and through neighborhoods close to downtown. All day long these streets are alive with human activity: walkers, joggers, runners, moms and dads pushing strollers, steady but not pushy car and truck traffic, and bicyclists.
Many of the evenings are especially active because of frequent shows at the New National Theatre, part of the Murat Shriners Temple across the ccorner. In contrast with Portland, Oregon, my home for many years, this part of Indianapolis abounds with paved parking lots: at the English Foundation Building directly across from my window, the Old National, another lot on the corner of North and New Jersey, and still another adjacent to a century-old church on the other side of New Jersey.
Early in the mornings these lots are empty but they fill up during the day, empty out around dinner time, and then fill up again most evenings.
I pay special attention to the cyclists. At the Starbucks two blocks away on Mass Ave, some people dressed in high style office attire arrive by bike, and others commute downtown in grubbies and change to business dress before coming in for coffee.
Portland commuters whom I have closely observed for more than a decade, mostly by riding along with them on the streets and across the bridges, and downtown, are usually dressed in casual, non-bike-specific attire. A single pannier fastened on a rear rack or a back pack carries fancier clothes to wear at work, and probably notebook and tablet computer.
The riders I see in my Mass Ave neighborhood appear to have cycled shorter distances, and they seem to prefer back packs. They use all kinds of bikes from old street bikes fixed up for city riding, to fancy comfort bikes that they ride without raising a sweat even on a humid Indianapolis day.
The most obvious difference is helmet culture. In Portland, most people on city streets wear them, whereas in this part of Indianapolis helmets seem optional. From 6:10 to 6:20 one evening, I watched twenty-five cyclists travel through my three-block field of vision: twelve with helmets, thirteen without. On my drives through the downtown and into adjacent neighborhoods I get the impression that this pattern is largely replicated elsewhere in the older neighborhoods of the city. It also appears that everywhere in Indianapolis, again in contrast with Portland, pedestrians are on their own, with little attention given them by motorists.
Whether they are wearing helmets or only a cap (often with an Indy Colts logo), Indianapolis cyclists feel free to travel wherever they like: on bike trails (with or against the flow), on sidewalks, on either side of streets (especially in the mornings before the motorists are out), on the sidewalk one minute and on the street the next. They dart quickly from one route to another, facing cars or going the same direction, with a studied indifference toward traffic signals.
During my earlier life in Indianapolis (which ended in 1995), I lived in a traditional neighborhood about six miles north of downtown, and there I encountered a different breed of cyclists. Many of them were members, as was I, of CIBA, the Central Indiana Bicycling Association. They wore helmets, dressed in bicycle-specific clothing, and for the most part rode the streets in a highly disciplined way.
Riding with them socialized me into a mature, adult way of cycling, and it’s the mode I continue to use even though it seems so old-school down here in the hip Mass Ave culture.
Despite my puzzlement over the cycling patterns I see in this vibrant downtown neighborhood, I am grateful that so many people in my readopted home have taken to two-wheel transportation.
It gives me a sense of comradeship even though there is little likelihood that I will get acquainted with them, unless it be when we fall into conversation at Starbucks. Although we use our bicycles in significantly different ways, together we add color and a humane dimension to a world that otherwise is filled with the noises and smells of the motorized world.