A new study shows how changes to Columbus’ streets, neighborhoods, trails and zoning rules could lead to more walking options for residents.

“Columbus, Indiana: Walking Towards Greatness” was completed Oct. 14 and 15 by the Walkable and Livable Communities Institute of Port Townsend, Washington.

It describes a number of potential infrastructure changes to Columbus streets and neighborhoods, including converting the four-lane 25th Street near FairOaks Mall into a two-lane road with a bicycle lane and on-street parking.

Another proposal calls for creating a riverfront park with a beach along the East Fork White River between the two bridges on State Road 46 entering and leaving Columbus.

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Laura Garrett, who leads community initiatives at Reach Healthy Communities, said she hopes these examples can be used to demonstrate new ways of thinking about street planning and zoning — even if the ideas never become reality.

The report relies on using existing streets to demonstrate methods for making streets more friendly to walkers, funded through a $125,000 grant from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It will be used to guide long-term planning decisions for the city, Garrett said.

The study also focuses on how traffic patterns could be changed to improve pedestrian and bicycle use. Those suggestions range from simple road marking changes to long-term concepts such as implementing road dieting — intentionally narrowing streets to discourage cars from speeding, and making streets friendlier to pedestrians.

Some of the proposals seem unlikely now, but that isn’t the point of the report, said David Hayward, Columbus executive director of public works and city engineer.

“It’s always good to get some ideas from others who travel around seeing what other places are doing,” Hayward said.

Street updates

The city already has considered some updates to sections of the 25th Street corridor, particularly near Columbus North High School, Hayward said.

Traffic counts in the area show a steady decrease in car usage during the past decade, as motorists started turning to other arterial streets such as National Road for access to State Road 46 and U.S. 31. At the same time, students heading to nearby restaurants often walk across 25th Street.

Even if city officials have no immediate plans to change 25th Street, they are interested in ideas that might improve walking and bike access in that area, Hayward said.

Penny Dykes often visits her daughter, who lives in the neighborhoods near Lincoln Park. Dykes described the paved trails in this park as wonderful, and among her favorite dog-walking spots in the city.

However, 25th Street isn’t one of her favorite walking spots, she said.

Trail access seems to stop abruptly north of Lincoln Park, dead-ending into an empty, uninteresting 25th Street, Dykes said.

Dykes tends to avoid walking that end of the park, because it leads to nothing but empty parking lots, she said.

The walkability report may have some long-term ideas which could change this perception, said Jeff Bergman, city-county planning director.

Along with on-street parking and protected bike lanes, the 25th Street proposal calls for amending zoning ordinances to encourage placement of storefronts along the street and sidewalk in front of the current FairOaks Mall parking lot.

Right now, there’s little reason to walk along many sections of 25th Street, Bergman said. Properties in the area are separated from the road by wide parking areas, and few locations are directly connected.

When the mall opened in 1990, Columbus was heavily car-oriented and wanted to strongly differentiate between different types of property uses, Bergman said. Houses were placed in residential zoning, while businesses went in commercial zoning, he said. Visiting a store meant getting into a car and driving to it.

This separation was often achieved by mandating substantial set-backs on commercial land to create empty spaces between different types of property, Bergman said.

Even if commercial property fronted a road or residential property, set-back requirements meant any buildings on that property were 25 to 30 feet away from the street or nearby houses, he said.

In FairOaks Mall’s case, this meant wide parking lots separating the mall building from surrounding property and neighborhoods, Bergman said. This resulted in large gaps between the mall and nearby stores.

With destinations so spread out, it’s often easier to drive than walk and there is little reason to linger in these areas, Garrett said.

Kathy Toburen has lived in the neighborhoods west of Central Avenue near 25th Street for the past six years and regularly walks her dogs on the sidewalks around Columbus North High School.

However, she rarely strolls past Central Avenue towards FairOaks Mall, she said. Even with two large shopping centers nearby, 25th Street is too busy and things are too far apart for comfort, she said. Instead, she drives — but that could change if shopping options were closer together, nearer to the road, she said.

New mixed-use zoning

The city plan commission already has experimented with allowing this type of mixed-use zoning in several neighborhoods between 25th Street and Second Street in central Columbus, Bergman said.

For example, a small strip of businesses operate between Home Avenue and Union Street on 16th Street. Unlike the FairOaks Mall property, the businesses are surrounded on all sides by residential neighborhoods and are next to the street, within easy walking distance of potential customers.

These kinds of zoning proposals have long-term implications and deserve careful study, Bergman said. Mixed usage does encourage walking and may be appropriate for some neighborhoods, he said. But, this type of zoning also can drastically change the character of a neighborhood by moving the neighborhood away from quiet suburban environments towards more active urban layouts, he said. 

While that commercial energy may appeal to some residents, others may find increased foot traffic generated by neighborhood businesses disruptive, Bergman said.

Similarly, the walkability study also recommends encouraging traditional grid style road plans in new residential developments, Garrett said.

Cul-de-sacs discourage walking by isolating homes from nearby destinations, Garrett said. As examples, she points to some of the neighborhoods near Parkside Elementary School.

Many children in the area live within a quarter mile of the school building. However, these kids often can’t make that walk without relying on informal crossings onto private property, because no roads or paths lead directly to the school.

Since the 1950s, many developers have preferred winding warrens of roads with meandering cul-de-sacs branching off to form isolated mini-neighborhoods, Bergman said.

This model remains popular with many home buyers, forming close-knit and quiet neighborhoods, he said. 

While the city can pass ordinances which discourage these types of meandering developments, most of the actual subdivision planning falls to land developers and is beyond direct city control, Bergman said.

Columbus beach?

However, there are other proposals in the walkability study which are under the direct control of the city, Hayward said.

The report calls for installation of a beach near the low-head dam on East Fork White River, Hayward said. Ideally, this would create a waterfront destination which would encourage walking from the downtown area.

Currently, that dam is incredibly dangerous, Hayward said. Water flowing over the concrete structure re-circulates, creating extremely powerful undercurrents which can easily trap swimmers and boaters. There have been six calls for water rescue in areas around the dam since 2010, including two deaths, said Mike Wilson, Columbus Fire Department spokesman.

It’s also not as simple as removing the dam, Hayward said.

Heavy manufacturing was located on the riverfront years ago and nearly a century of contaminated silt is trapped behind the dam, he said. Any changes to the site could unleash a flood of pollution down the East Fork White River, Hayward said. Right now, installing a beach in this area would be grossly irresponsible, he said.

City officials are searching for development options which would leave the low-head dam largely intact, while allowing better, safer access to the river, Hayward said. The hope is to create a park-like walking destination for the area, which is currently inaccessible and not often used, Hayward said.

The city is in the process of naming a project director to guide a more intensive study of the dam and surrounding area, with the eventual goal of creating a usable riverfront area, he added. This project also aligns with existing plans to extend paved People Trail access, eventually forming a junction between the Haw Creek area and downtown portions of the People Trail network.

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Short-term walkability projects

  • Install on-street bicycle parking
  • Create pocket parks
  • Convert more alleys into parks or usable spaces
  • Increase duration of pedestrian signals
  • Install curb extensions and crossing islands

Mid-range walkability projects

  • Create community events which take place on closed streets
  • Install protected and buffered bike lanes
  • Create a connected bicycle boulevard network
  • Identify opportunities for modern roundabouts
  • Install mini-roundabouts and traffic circles

Long-term walkability projects

  • Narrow 25th Street and add a bike lane and on-street parking
  • Eliminate large parking lots
  • Create a riverfront park
  • Change zoning ordinances to encourage connected neighborhoods

Source: Walkable and Livable Communities Institute

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The full report can be found under the resources tab at