National organization ranks Indy as one of the top safest cities for walking and biking

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — Indianapolis is one of the safest cities for biking, walking, driving and taking public transit, according to a new report.

The report was a joint effort between The National Complete Streets Coalition and CityHealth. The coalition is a non-profit organization committed to designing policies that keep streets across cities in the U.S. safe. CityHealth is dedicated to evaluating and implementing evidence-based public health policies that enable communities to be safe, healthy and prosperous. 

News 8 spoke with Dr. Shelley Hearne, President of CityHealth about the report, why Indianapolis ranks at the top and the policies needed at the state level to ensure rural areas are just as safe.   

Gillis: So, give us a little information about the report. What types of transportation are we talking about? Is it bikes or buses? And what metrics were used to rank Indianapolis? 

Hearne:  We look at the 40 largest cities in the country to see what kind of policy is on their books that really contend with changing the way transportation is today. Our streets are being designed for walkers, for bikers, for scooters in addition to mass transit. In the old days it was just about getting from one side of the city to another fast and efficiently, but we’re really using streets differently, especially during COVID-19. So we looked at those 40 cities and it’s about sidewalks. It’s about walkability. It’s about safety. It’s about making sure there are street lights and intersections are safe. It’s really about the designs and how you go forward in Indianapolis and the other 39 major cities can contend in the future. Are you keeping an eye on all ways from ages to abilities on how you’re using those streets? 

Gillis:  We’ve been awarded a gold medal in terms of our city’s policies. What policies did Indianapolis implement that puts us at the top?

Hearne: We’ve given a gold medal to Indianapolis because it’s really important to see that the city has made a commitment to making sure city streets as they are now are designed in a way we hope the future look. So, any new building, any new construction…those streets have to be smarter for all of us. It can’t just be car lanes and bus lanes. It has to be all lanes for everybody. We paid attention to what was happening in Indianapolis because that commitment is now there.

Gillis: I spoke with a prominent researcher from the American College of Sports Medicine a few weeks back. She is a public health researcher and talked about active transportation, walkability and bikeability in Indianapolis. We do very well here. But the state as a whole ranks very poorly in that sense. Do you have any thoughts on that? I understand this is about cities, but what about states and rural areas that are not walkable and that are not bikeable?

Hearne:  Well–and this is especially true during COVID-19–we’re all getting out more. We’re exercising in the outdoors because the gyms have been closed. The basketball courts aren’t open and everything is much more limited. We are anticipating the change because we’re seeing so much more active living, but there are indications that it’s going to grow.

And you’re right. Streets, regardless if in the cities or out in rural areas…we’re always in the “car” mindset. Now we really need to be in a community mindset. And it’s a challenge that we’re facing everywhere, but I’m going to go back to focusing on cities because we’ve seen a huge rise in pedestrian fatalities. We’re at an all-time high in the past 30 years and cars are safer, but streets have not been safer for pedestrians and that’s across the board. Most pedestrian deaths are taking place across cities and they are mostly taking place in lower income neighborhoods. And that gets back to what we’re seeing. A lot less safe sidewalks, a lot less lighting. The kind of investment and safe streets is not taken as seriously there as in wealthier neighborhoods. So regardless of what zip code you’re in Indiana, it’s something we really have to make sure the streets are safer for everybody, everywhere. 

Gillis: And what are your plans to keep improving?

Hearne: We do an annual score on the policies of these safe streets. We also look at a number of different health factors because we are really encouraging cities all across the country to put in place the policies that give all of us the best chance for a healthy, thriving life. It’s things like smoke-free indoor air…there are a number of things that we can do so that everyone has the best shot at a good, healthy life. We’ll be back next year. We’ll have scores for you to report on how well Indianapolis is doing. We would really like to keep giving you some medals, but there are some areas for improvement. 

Gillis:  You had talked about the rise in pedestrian deaths…in the meantime…we don’t have those city lights in all places yet and we don’t have those walkable sidewalks. What can pedestrians do to stay safe?

Hearne: One always has to be careful and vigilant, but what we really have to focus on is we can’t put all the onus on that it is the responsibility of the pedestrian when they are hit. What we have to really do is say “There’s no such thing as an accident. No one should be hit by a car.” We have to have our streets designed safely so you can send your kid out on a bicycle. You can let them walk to school because it’s safe and you know it is. That’s just got to be a standard operating practice. We see that in so many different places. I think that is job number one. We need to make sure we are creating a safe space. For our kids, for our elderly. To keep our community safe. 

Gillis: Final thoughts?

Hearne:  What we’ve really recognized during COVID-19 is where we’ve been most at risk in this country because of our underlying health conditions and there are so many things we can be doing to be a healthier nation. Having safe streets is one of those ways to do it and we want to make sure people keep walking and biking and that this is the trend of the future. So let’s make sure we build our streets to support that active living. 

News 8’s medical reporter, Dr. Mary Elizabeth Gillis, D.Ed., is a classically trained medical physiologist and biobehavioral science researcher. She has been a health, medical and science reporter for over five years. Her work has been featured in national media outlets.