How the Indianapolis Cultural Trail Has Transformed Transportation Accessibility and Arts Visibility

Cutting through Indianapolis’ landmarks, local businesses and green spaces, the Indianapolis Cultural trail takes trekkers on a journey through historic neighborhoods. The two-way trail connects citizens across districts while offering a treat for the eyes with public art projects and soothing the ears with tunes from local musicians. Cover graphic by Taylor Vanek for Midstory.

Stretching across eight miles and connecting six distinct cultural districts, the Indianapolis Cultural Trail has served its city for a decade. 

The trail enables residents to explore the city on a two-way track with trail-unique amenities, and its transportation infrastructure allows residents who are not commuting in cars to have a safe passage for travel.

At 70 years old, longtime Indianapolis resident Kathleen Kindred roams the length of the city on her bike. The trail’s extensive route, protected border and wide path has facilitated easy travel for Kindred, who said she rides the trail four to five times a week.

“I can go down to the White River. I can go down to the downtown canal. Pretty soon I’ll be able to ride up to 16th Street,” Kindred said. “It enables me to do so much.”

In 1999, the city demarcated six cultural districts with distinct personalities: Massachusetts Avenue, Fountain Square, The Canal & White River State Park, Indiana Avenue, the Wholesale District and Broad Ripple. Fourteen years later, in 2013, the separate districts were finally connected after the grand opening of the trail. 

The cultural trail was established with the philanthropic support of Gene and Marilyn Glick, part of the trail’s official namesake, who gave the initial funding to break ground. Now, the trail is managed by a nonprofit organization, the Indianapolis Cultural Trail.

Although it is not governmentally funded, the trail works closely with the City of Indianapolis, and has facilitated significant public returns.

Kären Haley, executive director of the Indianapolis Cultural Trail, said the trail has made the Indianapolis community more receptive to public transportation and aware of the accessibility needs of pedestrians.

“People are supportive of public transportation here now in a way that they didn’t used to be,” Haley said. “[The trail] allowed people to say ‘yes’ to a huge investment in our bus rapid transit system and [is] encouraging people to advocate for more bike lanes, more sidewalks, more lights, more accessibility in the winter.”

The fact that the trail is not elevated is one of the key reasons it is accessible, Haley added. This allows accessible mobility devices like wheelchairs to pass through.

Haley said the trail has changed the culture of the city by making it a place where people encourage and value walking and biking. The various Pacers Bikeshare stations offered through the “Everybody Rides” program are another way the trail tries to encourage participation.

Image courtesy of the Indianapolis Cultural Trail.

In addition to the bikeshare program, the linear park has more than 80 bike racks for visitors to park their own bikes. 

The $63 million dollar project has also focused on beautification, including gardens that cover five acres, 10 public art projects — although much more public art decorates the trail — and over 25,000 square feet of planters. 

The trail fosters a celebration of the arts; a performative arts program has brought local musicians to perform on the trail, along with experiential art installations that feature pieces from local and international artists, Haley said. 

The trail hosts regular events to engage the local community and build awareness about the landmark. In particular, the Young Professionals Board creates opportunities for youth to experience the trail in different ways. Their recent egg hunt event was a significant success, Jillian Pierce, volunteer coordinator at the Indianapolis Cultural Trail, said. 

“It’s so important that we have the support and buy-in of our younger community,” Pierce said. “The trail is going to be a public destination for a long time, so it’s really a kind of investment in the future of the trail and the future of the city.”

From Kindred’s weekly bike rides to children’s egg hunts, people from all walks of life are taking advantage of the touristic amenity. 

“There’s no common denominator in who uses the cultural trail and that’s the beauty of it,” Morgan Snyder, a spokesperson from Visit Indy, said. 

The trail has brought in tourism from all over the country, with visitors interested in learning about the trail and taking on new terrain with their bikes. 

“Truly overnight, you saw a new wave of visitors and residents out and about enjoying Indianapolis in this new way and with this new amenity,” Snyder said. “It directly impacted a boost to Indianapolis economic impact.”

Image courtesy of the Indianapolis Cultural Trail.

With the success of the last decade of the Indianapolis Cultural Trail, developers are looking to extend its reach. 

Because the trail transforms the street life of the areas it passes through, it was important to choose the next locations wisely, Haley said. This included assessing the cultural needs of certain underrepresented or disinvested communities. Another important consideration was which cultural elements the trail was lacking.

Currently, there are three expansion plans in the construction phase, each of which will add a unique touch to the trail by introducing travelers to overlooked areas of the city and giving their journeys an additional touch of nature.

The first expansion will be found along South Street, located in the downtown area. Although two existing parts of the trail touch the street, these sections do not yet connect or pass alongside the street. The area is currently filled with parking lots and does not have a visible community life, but the trail’s expansion in the area will bring a beautiful pedestrian experience, Haley said.

Indiana Avenue is the second location for the trail’s expansion. By the 1890s, Indiana Avenue was a predominantly African American community fully established socially, culturally and economically. Home to the Madam Walker Legacy Center — a national historic landmark honoring entrepreneur and activist Madam C.J. Walker — the neighborhood continues to thrive with stores, theaters and jazz clubs. The trail only reaches into this community by half a block, which is why the residents desired an expansion into their area, Haley said. 

“The community that we’re expanding into was just honestly overwhelmed with joy when we were able to share that the cultural trail will be coming to their neighborhood,” Haley said. “[It is] a safe connection in an area that had been disinvested in so long with sidewalks and connectivity, and just was really hard to even get across the street in some places.”

The Indianapolis Cultural Trail’s newest expansion will extend over the new White River bridge at Henry Street, connecting communities across the river in the west side of the city, and is slated for completion in 2026.

The mantra of the trail, it seems, is connectivity and accessibility. 

“There’s not a stopping and starting point,” Haley said. “There’s not a parking lot where you stop and get on the Cultural Trail, or a place where your journey ends. It is one and the same with the fabric of downtown.”


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