If you happen to have grown up in Indiana or pass through the central part of the state from time to time, you have no doubt driven the U.S. 31 bypass around Kokomo. You may also recall that today, the U.S. 31 bypass is a quintessential commercial strip littered with every fast food, big box, motel, and retail chain imaginable. As a result it can be very tedious and slow going. The route completely caters to the almighty automobile.
For pedestrians and cyclists, alike, forget it. When I drove the bypass this past Sunday morning, I saw two very bewildered pedestrians standing in the grassy median trying to figure out how they were going to cross all that traffic.
Even in the years prior to becoming Indiana’s poster child of commercial sprawl, the U.S. 31 bypass was a slow motion trip in patience testing. The route was crisscrossed by a myriad of rail lines leading to the GM and Chrysler plants located at several points along the highway. It took just one train to botch up traffic big time. Hit the bypass around the shift changes at the auto plants meant certain delay and frustration.
For those of us heading north on vacation, Kokomo meant one final slow headache on the path to freedom from day-to-day rush hour(s). For some reason, South Bend never seemed at aggravating as Kokomo. Meanwhile, for those of us returning from vacation, the U.S. 31 bypass became an unpleasant reminder and reintroduction back into the rat race.
Kokomo itself, may be a very nice city. To be honest, I believe I have been in downtown just once. Unfortunately, for many of us, it is synonymous with the U.S. 31 bypass. Even though the hit song “Kokomo” by the Beach Boys had nothing to do with Kokomo, Indiana, one verse of the song was rather ironic. especially the first two lines.
“We’ll get there fast
And then we’ll take it slow
That’s where we wanna go
Way down to Kokomo”
Well, in the next year or so, the Kokoslowmotion will be coming to a welcome end as a new U.S. 31 expressway will open. Normally, I am one who tends to disdain our wanton disposal of historic highway corridors for new shiny new concrete ribbons – a.k.a. I-44 , I-40, and I-55 replacing U.S. 66, or I-70 replacing U.S. 40 for example.
In the case of Kokomo, I believe there is the opportunity to present a real and tangible show case for responsible and sustainable highway development. As its nickname suggests, “The City of Firsts,” Kokomo is a place where new ideas have been tried, with many becoming successful. However, the city has largely languished at approximately the same population level as it had in the 1950s. Meanwhile, once similar sized cities like Lafayette and Bloomington have grown steadily over the decades since then.
The State of Indiana did that just recently in Carmel with the very pleasing Keystone Parkway. Keystone Parkway is an artistic gem of an expressway, in the vogue of Hutchinson River Parkway and Taconic State Parkway in New York or George Washington Parkway overlooking the Potomac River in Northern Virginia.
Some options could include:
- Add artistry or architectural details to bridges – both Carmel and Columbus, Indiana have such features.
- Copious amounts of native landscaping – not just mowed grass and weeds. Make a statement with some lovely and maintained landscaping composed of prairie wildflowers or other native species.
- Downshielded lighting that limits/avoids sky glow at each interchange.
- Energy efficient and downshielded accent lighting along routes leading into town from the highway.
- Boulevards and roundabouts with landscaping and sculptures.
- Adjoining or shared multiple-use trails for cyclists and pedestrians.
- Requiring certain new developments such as lodging to incorporate EV charging stations.
Do I think this will happen? Honestly, no. But, if Kokomo and surrounding Howard County want to be remembered for something else than looking like Anywhereville, USA , I strongly recommend they pursue any and all avenues (bad pun) towards achieving an aesthetically pleasing, environmentally sustainable, and economically viable corridor along the new highway in that order.
The city does have some nice programs in place for its downtown area including a central business district architectural control guidelines, a downtown facade improvement loan fund, a green practice loan fund for locally owned businesses, and a riverfront district. But, given the area’s history along the existing U.S. 31 bypass, I fear that priorities will be primarily geared towards growth and economic development instead sustainable and livable placemaking along and near the new freeway corridor. And that, indeed, would be an unfortunate decision and a lost opportunity to reshape the destiny and outside image of Kokomo.
I lived in Kokomo this past summer while working for Delphi. While I welcome a quick route around the city, I have to wonder how big of an impact this change of traffic will have on the stores that rely on this traffic, esp. the restaurants.
Thank you, George. Initially the impact will be minor, but given the explosion of development at I-65 and SR 26 at Lafayette, I think over time it will be huge.
Have driven the US 31 Kokomo bypass, and without being limited access, it functions like many former bypasses, as a dysfunctional “central business district”. Memorial Parkway (US 231/431) in Huntsville Alabama used to be that way until it was “reborn” as limited access (like it should have been, of course) route (process still underway); Lincoln Highway, US 30 in central Lake County Indiana is functioning the same way; a dysfunctional “downtown” area replacing Gary’s downtown and possibly Hammond’s and East Chicago’s as well. A very good article worth following! LOVE those I-65 bridges over the Driftwood River just west of downtown Columbus Indiana; driven it most often! Let alone the architecture downtown!
Thank you, Basil. I know all those routes except Huntsville well. You are exactly right.
Thank you, Rick. In 1954 US 231 and US 431 was planned as a bypass route around Huntvsille (US 231/431 entered Huntsville from the north on Meridian Street (ironically located on the same geographic meridian as Meridian Street in Indianapolis!) as Florida-bound traffic and other through traffic traveling this route with two Federal highways routed on one or two streets (leaving Huntsville to the south on Whitesburg Road, now Whitesburg Drive and congesting Jefferson and Washington Streets, both north-south streets downtown). The new four lane route bypassing the city to the west (originally through cotton and soybean fields separating Huntsville from several then textile mill company towns, all well within the city now) was, like other bypasses, not limited access or even controlled access. Right after the route, named Memorial Parkway, opened, the Army chose Redstone Arsenal, adjacent to Huntsville’s southwest quadrant, as the site for the new Army Missile Command operations center with Werner Von Braun and his rocket team doing the work. That alone made Huntsville grow from 17,000 in 1950 to 86,000 in 1960, and 139,000 in 1970, and so on. This “explosion” in population coincided with the “suburban” movement and shopping center development, so downtown Huntsville, although with a fairly decent “skyline” on 10 to 15 story buildings, never has resembled a downtown for a city more, than, say, about 20,000 people, retail wise. Conversely, the downtown has attracted development based on a more “walkable” environment using its historic significance similar to many county seat towns. OK, enough trivia!
Rick, you are welcome.
How is “growth and economic development” incompatible with “sustainable and livable placemaking”?
When it is simply growth for growth’s sake, it is not sustainable.
Rick: Our world is shrinking a little more every year. I personally feel sorry for the former Chinese that never owned a car. China is slowly growing away from the China of cyclists it was just last century.
Wouldn’t a bypass fail to improve the congestion and safety concerns on the existing US 31?