What can Fort Wayne do to become a safer, more walkable city?

In 2013, Mike Roeger gave up his car. It needed major repairs and he and his family weren’t in a position at that time to fix it or buy a new car. Instead, they decided to go without a car, learn to navigate Fort Wayne on foot, on bike and via public transit, and planned that in four months they would buy a new car.

But for Roeger, four months turned into two and a half years. What started as a financial decision, turned into a deliberate decision to forfeit personal vehicular transportation.

Mike Roeger“My whole family went without a car, so we walked or rode our bikes or took Citilink pretty much everywhere we wanted to go within Fort Wayne,” he says. “That experience really opened my eyes to how little regarded people outside of automobiles are considered in Fort Wayne.”

Roeger's circumstance is not unique in a city reliant on cars for mobility. Many individuals, for various reasons including financial constraints, unforeseen vehicle issues, or a conscious choice to live without a car, find themselves navigating Fort Wayne without personal vehicular transportation.

The reality of navigating without a personal vehicle is not easy, and, in cities designed with cars in mind, it can be dangerous. 

According to the 2022 Indiana Traffic Safety Annual Report, Indiana has 131 pedestrian fatalities, an increase from the 2021 report. Additionally, there were 18 bicyclist or other cyclist fatalities in Indiana in 2022, which was also an increase from the 2021 report.

Roeger says the lack of safe routes for pedestrians and cyclists in Fort Wayne is what made him buy a car again in 2015. At the time, his mom, who was living in the Morgan Creek neighborhood off of Bass Road, had recently undergone knee surgery. The route between their homes was dangerous and inaccessible with no sidewalks, trails, or bike lanes. As her only child living in the area, he needed a way to visit her and take her to appointments. 

In the time since a path has been added along Bass Road, making the route slightly safer to navigate and more accessible.

Most cities, including Fort Wayne, are designed with cars in mind, but Roeger argues it doesn’t need to be that way– designing cities for pedestrians and cyclists instead, creates a safer, more connected community. He cites books by author Jeff Speck, “Walkable Cities” and “Walkable City Rules,” that point to this.

Cities are designed for vehicles, but Roeger argues it doesn’t need to be that way– designing cities for pedestrians and cyclists instead, creates a safer, more connected community. He cites books by author Jeff Speck, “Walkable Cities” and “Walkable City Rules,” that point to this.

“Those two books really opened my eyes as to how cities don’t have to be designed around cars,” he says. “In fact, if they’re not designed around cars and they’re designed around people they’d be safer for everybody.”

Roeger also points to Amsterdam, which he visited in 2018, as an example of a city renowned for its pedestrian-friendly infrastructure and cycling culture.

“It would make all of us safer if we had a better walkability,” Roeger explains. “The second thing is that it gives us options so we don't have to drive everywhere…the next thing, I think, is walking builds communities. When you're out walking, you see problems in the neighborhood that you wouldn't see when you're driving, when you drive past that, you’re not aware of all the things going on in your community. Walking, I believe, builds community because you get to know your neighbors.”

Mike Roeger crosses the street at a crosswalk on Columbia Avenue near Conjure Coffee in Fort Wayne.According to WalkScore.com, Fort Wayne earns a score of 32 out of 100 for walkability– deeming it “Somewhat Walkable.” WalkScore.com also gives Fort Wayne a 22 for transit and a 41 for biking.

Between research and his personal experience with walking and biking the city, Roeger felt there needed to be changes made in Fort Wayne to improve its walkability, creating a safer and more connected community. At the time, he didn’t know anyone leading the charge to make walkability changes and wasn’t sure where to start.

Then, his wife showed him a Facebook post searching for potential applicants to the America Walks’ Walking College, a six-month, educational program geared toward beginner advocates of walkability. The fellowship helps individuals address walkability within their community by developing the skills and knowledge needed to bring about change. 

Ruth Rosas is the program manager for America Walks. As an organization, she says their mission is to create walkable, livable communities. 

“We kind of represent this national voice for public spaces that allow people to safely walk and move,” Rosas explains. “We're talking about, you know, not just at the state or national level, but also at the neighborhood level.”

She says the Walking College helps bring that mission to the neighborhood level.

“We do give them a very foundational understanding of walkability,” Rosas explains. “We do go through a history of walking in the U. S. and we take them through redlining and why that separated certain communities. We go through all of the aspects of how our communities were built so that they have a foundation. We want to give them that language so that they can refer to that when they are asking for change.”

Throughout the program, Roeger and other participants learned about street design and public policy, campaigning for change, the history of the car-centric transportation landscape, and the connection between transportation networks and social justice, mobility justice and climate justice. With the help of the course material and mentors, fellowship participants develop an action plan for their community.

Navigating the bridge and area around Columbia Avenue & Saint Joe Boulevard can be very dangerous for anyone needing to use the bridge or access the Rivergreenway, due to the small sidewalks and the proximity of traffic.Roeger says many of Fort Wayne’s one-way streets give drivers the sense they’re on a highway, encouraging them to drive faster than they should. Slowing traffic down, or eliminating one-way streets, makes it safer for those utilizing active transportation. 

Another key aspect keeping Fort Wayne from being walkable is the size of the sidewalks. Roeger says too many of our city’s sidewalks are too narrow and don’t provide walkers or bide riders protection from vehicles. He points out that not only could two people walking in opposite directions not pass one another comfortably, but many sidewalks here are not wide enough for wheelchair users to navigate. 

Roeger points to one dangerous spot in Fort Wayne that exemplifies this– the Columbia Street Bridge. 

“Columbia Street Bridge is part of the River Greenway system and the sidewalk there is only five feet wide, and it's about a foot off the ground above the roadway, and you've got cars going two lanes in each direction next to those sidewalks,” Roeger explains. “I think we need to narrow the driving lane on the Columbia Street Bridge and widen the sidewalk so that it's safe for two-way traffic, two-way bike, and pedestrian traffic, and have it protected against cars.”

Mike Roeger walks the bridge on Saint Joe Boulevard near Conjure Coffee in Fort Wayne.Fort Wayne is not oblivious to its issues relating to walkability. The City of Fort Wayne created an Active Transportation Initiative in 2010, which has introduced plans like the Walk Fort Wayne Plan

In 2023, Fort Wayne spent a record $40 million on neighborhood infrastructure projects. According to a December press release, they completed three sidewalk projects and plan to invest $9.4 million in sidewalks and alleys in 2024. Part of those neighborhood infrastructure projects also include resurfacing or repairing roads, fixing curbs, and land acquisition for future sidewalk projects. 

But Roeger says he thinks the efforts made thus far are only baby steps toward a more walkable city.

“I could sit here for hours and go street by street where I think they need improvements,” Roeger says. “The city has made some baby steps in improvements.”

Much like Roeger’s personal experiences drove him to become an advocate for a more walkable Fort Wayne, adding in the personal experiences of others only contributes to a city more suited for everyone who inhabits it.

Walking College Mentor Majorie Hennessy says that’s why community engagement is so important when it comes to matters like walkability.

“When you think about how community engagement, you know, there's a reason for community engagement because you don't ever know what somebody else's lived experience is,” Hennessy says.

Mike Roeger and Rachel Jones pass each other on the bridge on Saint Joe Boulevard, showcasing how small the sidewalk is.As the only Walking College participant from Fort Wayne, he says he hopes more people from Fort Wayne will join next time. 

“I think there were 20 to 25 of us, and I would say half were in the Indianapolis area,” he says. “I was the only person from Fort Wayne, which, you know, Fort Wayne being the second largest city in the state, we should have more. If and when America Walks does this again for Indiana, I would hope that Fort Wayne would be better represented with more than just one participant.”

After completing Walking College, Roeger discovered the Active Transportation Coalition. The group of volunteers formed in 2018, to make Allen County better equipped to support people who want to bike, walk, roll, or get around the area on foot. 

“When I began the program, I did not know about the Active Transportation Coalition,” says Roeger. “I thought I was on an island by myself here in Fort Wayne.”

Since completing the Walking College, Roeger has been able to connect with the Active Transportation Coalition and present ideas to the group, bringing more awareness to the improvements that can be made in Fort Wayne.

“My biggest takeaway is improved walkability makes it safer for everybody,” Roeger says. “It builds community. It gives us options. I think it would just make our city a more pleasant place to live and I wish, you know, to get that through to policymakers– It's just not building sidewalks. It's a whole host of things. You know, like I said, Fort Wayne has made baby steps, but there's still so much Fort Wayne can do.”

This story is made possible by support from AARP Indiana.
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