Monday, January 17, 2022

Indianapolis' Outdated Approach to Mass Transit is Doomed to Failure

A few years ago, Indianapolis began an expansion of its lightly used bus system by adopting rapid transit routes throughout the city.  The idea was to take away traffic lanes to create bus only lanes, which would speed up trips and thus encourage more people to take the bus.  The first rapid bus lane installed was the Red Line, a route that leads from downtown to the northside.

Even advocates of the rapid transit routes admit that the Red Line has been a bust.  Even when the bus trips were free during the pandemic, few riders were taking the Red Line. The loss of two travel lanes, primarily along narrow College Avenue, has caused more traffic congestion and hurt businesses.  Drivers trying to navigate the downtown streets find extraordinarily confusing signage and traffic signals.  And it's not just because of the bus system.  We also have dedicated bike lanes that also has signage and signals.

Because the Red Line has been such a failure, two State Senators, Jack Sandlin and Mike Young, introduced a bill which would effectively stop the next stage of the expansion of Indy's bus system, the Blue Line.

The idea for the Blue Line makes the Red Line look like a stroke of genius.  The Blue Line would run from downtown along Washington Street to the airport.  It will remove two traffic lanes, turning Washington Street, one of the major thoroughfares in Indianapolis, into a two lane road.  It will devastate businesses in the area, cause considerable traffic congestion, and increased pollution from idling cars.  

Even though Star columnist James Briggs sees the Red Line as a failure, he is offended by the Sandlin/Young bill which will, in his mind, halt progress.  Briggs has never seen an Indianapolis corporate welfare scheme that he wouldn't support.  In that regard, he is exactly like his predecessor, the late Matt Tully.  What Briggs does not seem to get is that the rapid bus expansion was never about serving the needs of Indianapolis residents.  It was always about Indy taxpayers funding economic opportunities for the well-connected developers and contractors who have for decades dominated Indianapolis politics, regardless of which party runs things.

When engaging in city planning, Indianapolis' leaders always assume the future will look like the past.  The overhaul of the city's bus system still utilizes large buses to transport people using a spoke-and-hub system, a design straight out of the 1970s.  As is typical of Indianapolis, the sole nod to the future is to use (overpriced) electric buses to service those new rapid routes.

Mass transit does extremely well in cities that have highly dense populations, cities like Chicago and New York City. Indianapolis though has the second least dense population of any large city in the country (Jacksonville, Florida is #1).  Yet, Indianapolis city leaders insist on using an approach to mass transit that requires a high degree of population density to succeed.

In addition to the lack of density, Indianapolis' transportation needs are quickly evolving.  Indianapolis' current bus system is geared toward hauling white collar workers from the outer reaches of Marion County to their downtown jobs.  With telecommuting many of those workers no longer need to regularly travel downtown to work in a cubicle located in some high-rise building. They can work from home.

The workers who need mass transit in Indianapolis are blue collar workers.  For example, you have a worker who lives in a Castleton apartment but works at the Amazon facility on the west side of Indianapolis.  That person is not going to ride on a bus downtown and transfer to another bus to ride to the westside.  Even if those buses are "rapid," the trip is going to be lengthy.

Instead of large, heavy buses, Indianapolis needs a mass transit system that utilizes smaller vehicles that transport people from point to point.  Take people from where they live to the employers where they work.  Right now, Indianapolis is using a "Build It And They Will Come" approach to mass transit that has failed everywhere it's been tried.   You build mass transit systems to respond to a demand for mass transit.  You don't build mass transit to create that demand.

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