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On Indianapolis' Public Transit
With your pockets well protected at last
And your streetcar visions which you place on the grass
And your flesh like silk, and your face like glass
Who could they get to carry you?
—Bob Dylan, Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands
I hate cars. I hate driving them, I hate being driven in them, and I hate the anti-urban effect they have on cities that depend on them. Unfortunately I live in Indianapolis, which is, like most of North America, pretty car-addicted. It’s hard to live car-free here, but I try to be car-light, which is more doable in some neighborhoods than others.
In 2019 Indianapolis built the Red Line, a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) route that connects Broad Ripple—a major midtown cultural district—and the University of Indianapolis on the south side via downtown. This is a major upgrade to the city’s public transit: the Red Line services a dense corridor of residents and employers, providing better access to workplaces, hospitals, stores, restaurants, and entertainment.
As part of my car-light efforts, I chose to take the Red Line to a rehearsal one afternoon. I live a few blocks south of Broad Ripple and my rehearsal was at the University of Indianapolis, so the commute should’ve been straightforward. I loaded up my fare card and got ready for what I thought would be a peaceful afternoon of riding the bus while stressed out drivers fought traffic.
It was a fiasco: the bus was late, it got stuck in traffic, and it didn’t even finish the route—I was dumped without explanation at the Transit Center downtown. I couldn’t wait for a transfer because I was already running late by that point, so I just called an Uber. It worked out for me, but others may not have been so lucky. Surely, there was at least one rider whose day got immeasurably worse because of this system failure. Maybe they were commuting to a job with less than understanding colleagues. Maybe they were on their way to an important interview or medical appointment. Maybe they were going to take care of a sick relative.
Indianapolis residents love to bicker over why the Red Line—like much of American public transit—has poor ridership. It’s a complex problem, but there’s a simple question at the heart of it: if someone is able and willing to drive, why would they put up with an unreliable bus in a city that treats everybody outside of a car like a second class citizen?
In transit lingo a distinction is made between choice riders—people who own cars and are typically higher-income—and captive riders—people who don’t own cars and are typically lower-income. This is a false dichotomy in some ways, especially in transit-heavy places like New York City; but in cities without a metro, people typically take the bus because they have to, not because they want to. My aborted commute makes it clear why.
So, how can a car-dependent city like Indianapolis make people want to ride the bus? Should it even try?
All riders—choice or captive—typically care about the same things: frequency, reliability, convenience, and usefulness. If those criteria are met, most people will choose to use public transit at least some of the time, regardless of income level or car ownership.
Frequency and reliability are simple problems that can be solved with transit infrastructure. Conventional buses are infrequent and unreliable because they get stuck in traffic with cars. The point of Bus Rapid Transit, which is billed as an affordable alternative to light rail, is to get the buses out of traffic and keep them moving smoothly. BRT systems use such features as:
Off-board fare collection to eliminate the small-yet-compounding delays caused by passengers queuing and paying as they board.
Platform-level boarding to make the buses easily accessible to people with wheelchairs, bicycles, or strollers, minimizing their boarding time.
Dedicated lanes to make sure that buses are never caught in mixed traffic.
Intersection treatment to reduce the time buses spend stopped at lights by granting them signal priority and prohibiting turns for traffic across the bus lane.
In theory, this is a pretty good system. However, the Red Line doesn’t have dedicated lanes and priority intersection treatment throughout its route. As a result, the buses don’t arrive at predictable intervals and their travel times are highly variable. Let it be a lesson: you can’t just throw money at a fleet of electric buses and some nice platforms and call it rapid transit. Without the proper infrastructure, it’s little more than a conventional bus system with a hefty price tag.
Convenience and usefulness are more complicated problems because they’re broadly linked to land use and urban design. Transit projects fail in suburbanized cities like Indianapolis, Nashville, and Detroit because planners seem to think that they can just add bus lines to their car-centric roads, but implementing successful transit requires a more holistic approach.
Every commute begins and ends with a walk or a bike ride, so the areas surrounding stations are crucial for commuters’ convenience—but American roads are typically hostile to pedestrians. My road to the station is not an anomaly, and I’m sure most riders walk along similar ones:
Design is an expression of values, and it’s clear that this road doesn’t value pedestrians or cyclists. The road itself is too wide, which encourages driving above the posted speed limit. Consequently, the sidewalks and bicycle paths are too narrow, and the lack of separation from car traffic is disconcerting. The sidewalk also ends inexplicably on one side, forcing you to either walk in the street or with cars to your back.
It isn’t paranoid to say that walking on a road like this is uncomfortable and dangerous. We have significantly higher rates of road accidents here than in any other developed country, including car-dependent ones like Canada. Pedestrian deaths, in particular, are at record high levels. Traffic violence is omnipresent in American life. Cities can encourage people to use public transit by making the areas around stations—say, within a 0.5 or 1 mile radius—more friendly to pedestrians and cyclists.
Additionally, these areas should be useful, which is where transit-oriented development comes in. Basically, that means building walkable blocks of businesses, restaurants, bars, and mixed-income homes around stations. It’s a trendy term for an old way of building city neighborhoods.
Some Red Line stations have interesting urban pockets around them, but many are in low-density areas. Look around this station at 46th & College:
I guess there are a handful of churches, but on the whole, this area is neither exciting nor efficient. Most of the corridor is built like this: one intersection will have a couple of restaurants and a record store, another will have a pub and a grocery, and so on. You can theoretically take the bus to go out to eat, get drinks, and do some shopping on the way home—but each location will be at a different intersection, and they’ll be separated by large, suburban blocks that aren’t interesting to walk along.
In this setting, most people will choose to drive if they can, because everything revolves around the destination. There isn’t anything to do other than to go directly to the restaurant or the store. People don’t tend to wander aimlessly, talk nonsense, and generally loiter in this neighborhood, which is a shame because there are actually some charming streets and shops around.
Compare that to the station in Fountain Square, a historic neighborhood in the heart of the city:
Within a couple of small, walkable blocks there are several bars, cafés, and restaurants, as well as entertainment venues, stores, and even a veterinary clinic. The dense, mixed-use streets around the station gradually turn into residential zones, making this area interesting, efficient, and livable. This neighborhood actually encourages walking, cycling, and the use of public transit over private cars because it feels like a village within the city. You might go duckpin bowling, watch a movie, pop into a bar for a drink, find a place to eat, or just hang out and walk around.
Cities were historically built this way, and great American cities like New York and San Francisco retain this sense of being made up of little villages. But even suburbanized, sprawling cities have pockets like Fountain Square that reflect this kind of urbanism. They’re usually the coolest areas—downtowns, oldtowns, cultural districts, and so on. People come from all around the city to hang out at these vibrant neighborhoods. Why not try to create more of them?
Encouraging this kind of dense, mixed-use development around transit stations is a great model for sustainable and equitable urban growth. It makes the city more livable for everybody: people who can’t drive—or don’t want to—have a reliable way to get to work, run errands, and hang out; drivers will in turn benefit from the roads becoming less congested; and fewer cars on the road means less air and noise pollution. It’s a better economic model for the city, too: businesses along the transit lines should see more foot traffic due to their increased accessibility and, as Chuck Marohn argues in Strong Towns, the suburban experiment is bankrupting American cities. It also just makes the city more fun, with more vibrant pockets around every corner.
I often hear people saying that Indianapolis—or any other suburbanized city—has a population density that’s too low to support good transit. Besides the fact that many European cities have lower population densities and better transit, that excuse overlooks an important point: we’ve done it here before.
Indianapolis had one of the country’s most extensive streetcar networks until they ceased operation in 1953. These pictures show a productive, bustling city with great transit and people spilling out onto the streets. It’s sad to walk around Fountain Square now and see a Jeep parked where an old streetcar line would’ve been.
American cities weren’t built for cars. They were destroyed for cars. We can choose to build our cities at a human scale once again, stronger and more vibrant than before.