What We Learned from the Mayors of PDX and Indy

Posted on August 1, 2014

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Len Reed from the Oregonian moderated the ELGL chat between Mayor Hales of Portland and Mayor Ballard of Indianapolis. The focus was on sustainability but topics ranged from bicycles and transit to urban farming and governance.



The City of Indianapolis behind the leadership of Mayor Ballard has created “SustainIndy” which is aimed at making Indianapolis “the most sustainable city in the Midwest.” Meanwhile, the City of Portland is recognized nationally and internationally for its bike infrastructure and commitment to being a green community.

Special thanks to Nancy Hales and Winnie Ballard for attending the event. Our partners, Drive Oregon, Oregon Metro, and Portland Development Commission, also deserve a “high five” for sponsoring the event.


Two Mayors, Two Political Parties, One Cause.


Administrators, elected officials and bike enthusiasts from around the Portland region gathered into the Elliot Center in southwest Portland last night to listen to Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard and Portland Mayor Charlie Hales discuss sustainability.

Moderator Len Reed of the Oregonian Editorial Board, culled through more than 100 questions to develop the Q&A for the mayors. And began by asking for each Mayor’s definition of sustainability.

“Sustainability is what’s right for your city in the long haul,” said Ballard.


Hales noted that sustainability in Portland began as an energy conservation effort. And said part of sustainability is recognizing that everything is connected.

“It’s also a combination of long term and environmental responsibility that is global and comprehensive,” Hales said.

Each Mayor recognized that both Indianapolis and Portland face the same challenge of being a major urban city in a largely rural state.

But Hales noted that Mayor Ballard has to deal with “more conservative Midwest values” when it comes to sustainability.

After getting definitions Reed moved the conversation to specifics of what each Mayor had done to advance sustainability in their city.

Ballard talked about creating an Office of Sustainability and unveiling the SustainIndy initiative in 2008. The community-wide plan is focused on taking local action to be more environmentally conscious.

IMG_1296“What I’ve done is common sense,” said Ballard. “Sustainability is about preparing ourselves for the future, which is the original definition of sustainability.”

Indianapolis has been successful in framing a sustainability policy around, Bigger, Faster, Cheaper, and Greener. Each sustainability initiative has only been successful because Ballard could show a budget savings.

For example, Ballard negotiated a solution for combined sewer overflows which saved ratepayers $800 million.

Indianapolis has also committed to a post-oil fleet by 2025, which has made Indianapolis the first major city in the United States to commit to the conversion of its entire municipal non-police fleet to electric or plug-in hybrid vehicles. But Ballard only made the move when he could show it made good financial sense.

Indianapolis’ approach to biking has resulted in major economic development successes. Ballard noted increased development and blight removal around the city’s Cultural Trail, a world-class urban bike and pedestrian path that connects neighborhoods, Cultural Districts and entertainment amenities. Homes near the trail are worth 11% more because of trail proximity.

IMG_1397When asked about the ultimate goal for biking in his city Ballard talked about providing alternatives to the car.

“We want people to be able to get around with or without a car,” Ballard said. “In Indianapolis, we have a bit of the car culture – we do have the Indianapolis 500. But there is also a pent up demand for cycling.”

When asked about cycling in Portland, Hales recognized there is still work to be done.

“Oh, we’re not done yet!” Hales said. “There is still pent up demand for biking in Portland, especially in areas of east and southwest Portland.”

Hales recognized one of the challenges for Portland is creating more trails like the Springwater Corridor or the Eastbank Esplanade, to attract occasional riders.

IMG_1365Both mayors believe bicycling is part of attracting people to a city and that businesses will follow the talent.

“It’s on us to create the type of city people want to live in,” remarked Ballard.  “Competition amongst cities is for talent. To bring talented people in to our cities.”

Hales agreed and talked about using an “orange juice test” to measure how bike friendly a neighborhood is. Measuring whether kids can get to a nearby store and back safely.

Hales admitted that a lot of Portland doesn’t yet meet that vision. But improving the bike infrastructure does cost money.

“Getting people to pay for things is the hard part – especially in the transportation world,” Hales said. “We have to find the funding locally, which is why we proposed this wildly unpopular street fee.”

Ballard agreed that getting people to pay for sustainability initiatives is a common problem.

“But let’s get this right, Portland is the gold standard for biking,” Ballard said.

After discussion of bicycles each Mayor remarked on the state of mass transit in their city.

IMG_1390Ballard noted that mass transit in Indianapolis is not where it needs to be, but connectivity is a major component of sustainability in Indianapolis. The desire is to make it easier for people to get from place to place both quickly and safely.

Hales when asked about how to decrease driving noted that it was about providing opportunities to change behavior.

“We want to create a culture of choices,” Hales said. “With more choices available, more people will choose options other than driving.”

Reed shifted the conversation to governance and how local governments get big projects done.

“We hardly ever get much value added from other layers of government,” Hales noted. “The state and federal levels are either occasional partners or impediments.”

But citizens still want to see action.

“The challenge for leaders and public administrators is to connect people’s love of place with the arcane work of government,” Hales said.

When asked about measures of success for sustainability, each Mayor had a different goal

“I want to leave behind connectivity in Indianapolis,” Ballard said. “I want people to be able to get around with or without a car.”

IMG_1384Mayor Hales talked about a metric that he admitted wouldn’t be accomplished during his term in office. His goal is that every neighborhood in Portland have local, healthy food available and that every kid can safely bike or walk to school.

Before the event wrapped up, Hales gave new bike helmets to Ballard and his wife Winnie. Ballard’s new helmet, from Nutcase Helmets in Portland, features a black and white checkerboard pattern similar to the start and finish flags in car racing.

“This will be a big hit in Indianapolis,” Ballard said with a smile.


Supplemental Reading


Supercharging Economic Development in Indianapolis

Speedway takes big step toward rail trail

Mayor announces early education and public safety initiative

Portland, Oregon – Sustainable Cities Institute

Portland: A living laboratory for green cities

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