Bill Oesterle: 38th Street is not a highway, but it’s treated like one


Bill Oesterle38th Street is not a highway. It isn’t marked on any map as a highway. It does not have highway markings or signs. If you ask any of the neighborhood associations that border 38th Street, they will tell you that it is not a highway. If you ask the homeowners or businesses located on the street they will tell you that it is obviously not a highway.

If this is so self-evident and widely accepted, then why say it at all?

It must be said because powerful officials in our city government say it is a highway. They don’t say it right away, but after you talk to them for a while, which I have, they eventually come clean with it. This was news to me, and no doubt to all of the other people with an interest in the street. I have come to realize that most of 38th Street’s problems stem from this basic misunderstanding.

I actually think it is only a minority of people in city government that think 38th Street is a highway, but it is an important minority. The belief is heavily concentrated with the very people who decide what happens to the actual street itself—the ones who determine the number of lanes, how stoplights function, where crosswalks go, that sort of thing.

If you question the notion that 38th is a highway with them, they often retort with a historical fact, “Actually, 38th Street used to be State Road 67.” So what? First it hasn’t been a real highway since the 1950s, and second, the whole point is that it used to be a highway. The city consciously decided to move State Road 67 out to the then brand new I-465, ensuring that 38th Street would be, well, a street.

The results of this conflict are self-evident. People and companies live and conduct business on what they think is a street. The city designs the street to behave like a highway. The results would be funny if they weren’t so sad. In a recent meeting, city officials explained that the reason the Red Line does not have a dedicated lane on 38th Street, as it does almost everywhere else, is because officials didn’t want to impede vehicular traffic.

The irony of this decision is remarkable. They intentionally slowed the rapid-transit buses of the Red Line to maintain the flow of cars. The real sad part is that traffic calming is the main goal of the neighborhoods and businesses along 38th Street. It was a lose-lose decision. That is unless you are one of those people who likes to drive 65 mph on 38th. (It is marked 35 mph, by the way.)

This issue needs to be settled definitively. If the city is going to turn 38th back into a highway, the City-County Council and the mayor need to say so. If not, the city needs to start treating it like a bona fide street where vehicular traffic no longer reigns supreme. Streets are about moving people, not just cars. They are about living and commerce.

This highway-in-street’s-clothing tricks people into making bad and even dangerous decisions. It is not a coincidence that two of the most dangerous pedestrian vehicle intersections in the region are College Avenue and 38th and Meridian Street and 38th. There is considerable bike and pedestrian traffic on 38th. I doubt anyone told these people that 38th is a highway.•


Oesterle is the CEO at Tmap LLC. He managed Republican Mitch Daniels’ first run for governor. Send comments to [email protected]

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7 thoughts on “Bill Oesterle: 38th Street is not a highway, but it’s treated like one

  1. 38th St. east of Meridian (plus Fall Creek/Binford) used to be SR37 until the State returned 37 to the City during the Goldsmith/Peterson era. Some of the funds from the “relinquishment” paid for the boulevard improvements on 38th.

    When Indianapolis DPW was planning the rebuild (shortly after Peterson took office) a group of neighbors pressed them to alter the “cross section” of the street, narrowing the lanes to achieve traffic calming while adding a multi-use trail on the north side of the street between IMA and the State Fairgrounds. In response, DPW staff made very clear that there would be no such thing done. The neighbors were at least 15-20 years ahead of our time, I guess.

  2. Great link Jeff. Great article Bill. In the US infrastructure is built almost exclusively for cars to the exclusion of almost everything else. City should be for the people living there, and not just the cars passing through. Everything on 38th Street has been done for the cars passing on the street, even the new Monon Overpass still follows that same principle, disconnecting the pedestrians from connectivity to the street.

  3. Very true. Would be great if we had a mayoral candidate with this kind of insight and vision. Unfortunately, until we do, we’ll keep getting more of the same. Keep Hogsett or elect Merritt, but either one will likely keep stocking departments like DPW with people that keep doing what they’ve been doing, because neither candidate has provided any reason to believe they are interested in changing the status quo. There will continue to be nuggets of progress mixed in here and there that apologists for city government will keep pointing at to tell us how Indy is on the right track while also telling us things like 38th Street are “just fine”, “getting better”, “too expensive to address”, “as good as we can do right now”, etc.

  4. We’ve let traffic engineers design our cities. That needs to stop. They are NOT urban planners/designers, and should not be designing our neighborhoods.

    They don’t care about quality of life. Traffic engineers’ number one goal is to move the highest volume of traffic, at maximum speed, with the least amount of congestion. That’s it. Period. People walking are a problem, because they impede car traffic. Bus lanes are a problem because they impede car traffic. Bicycles are a problem because they impede car traffic. Quality of life is a problem, because it means cars aren’t the priority.

    The City needs to give the DMD and urban planners/designers control over city design. The mayor needs to strongly enforce this. Designing for people must be the priority. Until then, Indianapolis will continue to stagnant.

  5. Two years ago IBJ published an article titled “Apartments, grocery proposed in $32M renewal effort on key stretch of 38th Street”. What ever happened to this project? What can we do to revitalize these efforts and improve this area? I think most of us who live near 38th and Meridian agree that this is a major problem area, not just with traffic but also crime, but we need ideas on how to take action.

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