7 miles in Indianapolis

Think about your morning routine. If you’re like me, you wake up, get dressed, and head out the door to go to work. Your schedule will vary, of course. I get up early, and you may get up later. I don’t have to shuffle kids to school. You might have to. But the routine is steady. Only occasionally does something get in the way – like an illness or a dead car battery. How many of the 260 working days each year does that happen, though? For most, it’s probably only a few.

For another group of commuters, it’s likely most days. I’ve long lamented the wastefulness of cars and car culture. But there’s a reason why cars win and there’s a reason why self-driving cars have so many people excited for the future: it works way better.

My commute this morning, and last Thursday, and last Wednesday looked something like this:

  • Wake up at 5:30 a.m.
  • Out the door at 6. Walk 15 minutes.
  • Take a bus Downtown. Arrive at 6:40.
  • Walk across the street to grab a Bikeshare bike. There are no bikes.
  • Walk to another station. There are no bikes.
  • Walk to another station, 15 minutes later, get a bike.
  • Bike to the station nearest my office. There are no open docks.
  • Bike backward to dock at another station then waste another 15 minutes walking.
Pacers Bikeshare Empty Station
An empty Pacers bikeshare station

You can imagine how awful that is when the weather is lousy. This is all to go 7 miles.

At the end of the day this process is reversed on more occasions than not.

Bikeshare as transportation doesn’t work because bikeshare doesn’t work for anything buy playful jaunts on a whim. I spend more time walking to and from bike and bus stations than I do using them.

The broken Pacers Bikeshare app just displays a map
The broken Pacers Bikeshare app just displays a map

The Bikeshare people regularly say to check their app to make sure a bike is available or a dock. Except it doesn’t work and hasn’t worked for over a month. Plus, it’s ridiculous. You’re telling people, “Before you go to work make sure one of the five spots is open.” As if that somehow changes where your office is.

Cars cost a lot of money, and I think they cost more than they’re worth. Government regulations require ever-additional costs (backup cameras, for instance). But there’s a reason everyone immediately shuffles to get one in all but a few cities in the U.S.: you get in them, you go somewhere, and you go somewhere else, and you get stuff done. That’s what productive high-performing people do. They get stuff done.

If time is money, then the time wasted on this dance every morning is a tax. We try to fill it with “productive” work – like listening to audiobooks or podcasts, but you can’t read a book or type on a laptop while you’re walking. If I left my house in the morning when I was ready, at 5:45, I could be at work by 6:05. In other words, I could be at my destination in the time it takes to walk half a mile down the road. This is why self-driving car advocates are excited. You couple the speed of destination arrival with the ability to read a book or catch up on emails. Convenience always wins. If every morning was a driving disaster this conversation might be different. But that’s not a problem I encounter even if I did drive.

Nothing any mere mortal can do will change this. Cities aren’t magically going to increase their density so you don’t have to travel as far. This doesn’t matter anyway. Just look at my commute problems, where most happen in the city’s densest square mile. The Transit Plan addresses none of this, because it doesn’t matter if the frequency is higher if I still have to walk 15-20 minutes to get to a stop. The Bikeshare isn’t going to get any better because no one’s coming to work at 4 am to make sure everything’s in order by 6.

Using car share isn’t much different in problems than bike share. But the cost is bonkers, at nearly $6 for a one-mile jaunt thanks to Indy’s nation-leading rental car tax. $12 a day round-trip just to move a mile is insane. You might as well buy a car so you could go more than one place a day. And spending more on ride-hailing services like Lyft is even more expensive. I don’t, however, think self-driving cars will make Lyft and others cheaper. Just more profitable for the companies.

Before urbanists and cities can attempt to make this better, we must start from a few central points:

  • Everyone living in apartments in a city center isn’t for everyone in costs, availability, and life needs.
  • You must recognize people can’t build wealth if they’re spending it all on transportation, or in time waiting for it to work.
  • You can’t change where people have to go. That client meeting on the edge of town, the school on the other side, the grocery store with food you like and can afford, and the dog park all exist where they exist.

It’s also a little insulting to tell people everything would be better if they lived in $1,500+ per month apartments they rented for their entire life in the nicer, denser places.

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Photo of Justin Harter


Justin has been around the Internet long enough to remember when people started saying “content is king”.

He has worked for some of Indiana’s largest companies, state government, taught college-level courses, and about 1.1M people see his work every year.

You’ll probably see him around Indianapolis on a bicycle.

2 thoughts on “7 miles in Indianapolis”

  1. You definitely have some valid complaints and concerns.

    There is no excuse for PacerBike share not to be out redistributing bicycles long before rush hour commutes. They know which stands get the most use during rush hours, and how many docks and bikes are available. What you experienced should not happen.

    I wasn’t aware of the extra taxes on Blue Indy. That seems like something The City needs to address to make it a more viable transportation option.

    To me, some of your other comments lack full information on the subjects, and, in my opinion, come to questionable conclusions. In general:

    -We drive because we don’t have a choice
    -Driving seems cheap and easy because the costs are hidden, and are not up front.
    -Car ownership and commuting is one of the biggest expenses people have besides housing, and it keeps people from building personal wealth.
    -Low density areas, in general, do not generate enough of a tax base to cover the cost of living there. It’s “subsidized.

    Below I expand on these topics.

    Driving is easy because we made it that way. In contract, we’ve made it extremely difficult to walk or use any other form of transportation besides a car. Your experience is proof positive. It’s not that cars area a superior mode of transportation. It’s just that there aren’t any other choices.
    Experience shows that when other transportation choices are created and are made safe and reliable then people use them.

    Driving seems cheap because the costs are hidden in taxes, fees, subsidies, building costs, and government regulations. If we really had to pay the true cost of driving up front, most people wouldn’t drive as much. Just look at how people get so upset when the prospect of tolls is brought up. Yet, we can’t pay for all the roads and freeways we’ve already built.

    Car ownership really puts a burden on people’s budget and ability to build personal wealth. It’s one of the biggest expenses people have besides housing. And as urban areas become more expensive, and “drive ‘till you qualify” forces the working middle class out to the suburbs, it becomes even harder for people to build wealth — we’ve given them no other choice but to own and use cars for transportation. We’ve made it nearly impossible for them to get ahead.

    I have no problem with people choosing to live in suburban areas … IF they pay the extra costs of living there. As it is now, most do not pay for the cost of living in low density areas. The extra amount of infrastructure (roads, sewers, water,) and the cost of services (police, fire, city) don’t begin to be funded adequately by the tax base generated in low density areas. As it turns out, suburbs are subsidized by people who don’t live there.

    There is so much more research and information available that counters the conclusions you arrived at based on your personal experience. Much more than I can write here. And I didn’t even touch on the environmental costs, the cost to society, and health impacts and costs!

  2. I enjoy your blog. Every time I read it, you reinforce that leaving my hometown of In-duh-napples was one of the best decisions I ever made.

    You nailed why I left. It’s because you’re the type of place where they put in things like bikeshare and car share to appear trendy and up to date but once it’s built it gets no love. It’s almost like you’re so defeated that you don’t believe it can make a difference. You just put it in because everybody else is putting it in. You don’t know what to do with it once you have it, so you let it decline and crumble…just like Detroit.

    Blue Indy is pathetic. So is the bikeshare program. I’ve used it and I’ve used bikeshare in other cities. You’re not keeping up. Doesn’t surprise me. Both were the brainchild of Greg Ballard, the roly poly Marine. Why do you continue to elect clowns like him? Do you think Joe “I mow my own lawn” Hogsett is any different?

    I grew up in Indiana a long time ago and it didn’t used to be this way. I’m not sure what has changed, but when I moved back it was impossible to miss. I left again and I will never return. There are cities that truly have pride and do the heavy lifting to improve themselves and then there are other places that focus more on image and less on substance. By any reasonable measure, Indy is in the second group. Too much capital wasted on crap you’re not willing to pay to maintain. That’s why half the city is abandoned and has been so for well on 30 years. This isn’t rocket science.

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