I finished writing this letter recently, which I will mail to IndyGo President Michael Terry tomorrow:
An Open Letter to IndyGo President Michael Terry
February 10, 2012
Dear Mr. Terry,
My name is Justin Harter and I’m a resident of Indianapolis. I’ve lived here since 2005 and I have never ridden an IndyGo bus. I know a lot of people in this city, many around my age of 20-35 years old. They have never ridden a bus, either. The ones that have ridden a bus no longer do.
It’s not because I or other people don’t want to — my goodness, people want to take a bus. It’s not some hippy youngster thing, it’s a matter of convenience, savings, and the ability to have a less stressful commute. The environmental impact is just a small part of the reason for wanting to ride a bus.
But I’ve never ridden a bus before because a myriad of reasons. Reasons I’m sure you’re used to hearing: other passengers are disruptive, the busses are slow or late, I don’t know if it’s safe, etc. But rather than complain about those things, I wanted to share some ideas for solutions. I recently sold my car, instead favoring my bicycle for commuting and traveling around town. My neighborhood, located on the east side near Southeastern Ave. and Raymond Street is conveniently served by Route 14-Prospect. I work two days a week as a teacher at Ben Davis University High School, which is served by Route 8-Washington Street. Other times, I work from home.
Even though I haven’t ridden an IndyGo bus before, I don’t because of one very important reason: I don’t have time to wait for a bus and risk it not showing up or being egregiously late. I teach a class; my students have reliable bus service that gets them to school and on time. If I don’t show up on time, my class is unattended and that’s an obvious problem. I can’t just call in and say, “I’ll be there in 20 more minutes.” I could easily bike up to Irvington and take the Route 8 bus to give me a straight shot across town. But that route takes over 80 minutes, which is 10 minutes longer than if I just rode my bike the 12.5 miles from my house. That doesn’t bother me so much, what bothers me is the idea that the bus might be really late.
I don’t know what the accuracy of busses hitting their stops at the proposed times are — which would be useful to know. If the number if 90%+, I’d be touting that number on my website, Twitter feed, etc. to shatter my perception.
I had read in a news article in the Indianapolis Star a couple years ago that said IndyGo busses would seen be outfitted with GPS tracking. Has that happened? According to IndyGo.net, that has. But are they hooked into any public system or website? The ability to see where the bus is on its route from my computer or smartphone, particularly as a bicyclist, would be divine.
I follow the Twitter feed at @IndyGoBus. Every day, seemingly in the middle of the day, there’s a slew of busses announced on delay. Yesterday, February 9th, at around 2 in the afternoon, it was announced that IndyGo routes 38, 10 WB and EB, 39 and 18 were all running 10-20 minutes late. At that time of the day, traffic in this city can’t be much of a factor. By the start of rush hour, the number had ballooned to include Routes 24, 25, and 37. Delays in the afternoon are less problematic for commuters than morning delays, but if you’re trying to get somewhere, the current route schedule is either more of a “best guess” or woefully inaccurate. I’d rather see two sets of schedules: one for peak rush hour periods, another for non-peak periods. Schedules are already different for weekends and holidays. If a bus is consistently behind during peak periods, particularly a heavily used route like Route 8, the schedules are misleading and make it difficult for me, as a potential rider, to schedule around that. I don’t mind waiting an extra 15 minutes at my home before catching a bus that arrives every 30 or 60 minutes. I do mind waiting for a bus at the bus stop, in the cold or rain or heat, for an extra 15 minutes on top of the 10 I’d otherwise allow for minor variations in traffic flow. 25 minutes to wait for a bus at a stop when it’s supposed to be there isn’t doable unless you’re completely out of options.
I recognize that with current funding, IndyGo’s hands are tied. But a change in schedules at least sets the right expectation. So many busses consistently running 20+ minutes late indicates something worse is happening. It’s a given that at some point a bus is going to break down or a passenger is going to be in distress that causes a larger delay. But it doesn’t have to be a given that so many busses are constantly late.
Another perception among the non-bus riding community (many of which would like to ride the bus), is that it’s not safe. Statistically, that’s not true. I’m much more likely to be killed in a car accident than a bus accident. In fact, over the years I’ve lived here, I’ve rarely heard of a bus being involved in a serious accident. The safety issue stems from the kind of “transit-dependent” people that ride the bus. Let’s be honest, a seemingly non-insignificant group of people riding the bus today are not tolerable to a large majority of the population. There’s nothing we can do about that short of issuing personality tests at the bus stop. Those people, whether they be loud, rude, under the influence, etc. have a right to ride the bus as much as anyone else.
Even if the stereotype and perception is horribly inaccurate, and I suspect it is for the majority or rides and routes, it’s stifling ridership. How about offering free rides to on and off-duty police officers? Officers that live near a route that can’t or don’t want to take their police cruisers home with them can get a free ride and appear on busses at random or regular times. Knowing an officer may be on or is visibly on the bus would alleviate 100% of any rider’s issue with safety. With help from IMPD, the city’s bicycle patrol officers could include IndyGo routes into their normal patrol operations. An officer leaving Downtown could Bike-and-Bus to outlying parks and trails, giving them increased presence in the community and on busses. The cameras on busses are useful, but they aren’t going to stop someone from verbally harassing a passenger on the bus.
A friend of mine who relied on IndyGo to get to work, on the Route 14 bus, was informed by an off-duty IndyGo employee that when busses run late they are instructed to skip all stops and go to the beginning or end of their route to either accelerate ahead or wait until they’re on time again. Passengers at stops who are skipped are called “collateral damage” internally at IndyGo. Whether all or part of that is true, I do not know. But what I do know is that at least once every two weeks, my friend was unable to get on a bus because it would simply drive right by. At times, my friend would walk almost out into the road, wave a flashlight or his arms or try in some fashion to signal the driver, all to no avail. All at a two-lane road with no heavy traffic or other distractions. The most egregious part? The end of Route 14 is less than half a mile away from the stop he was standing at. The bus would proceed to the end of the route and park and wait. And do nothing. For several minutes. That is completely unacceptable.
Indeed, this behavior by busses feeds the perception among potential riders, and even among those who have ridden the bus, that drivers are not courteous, drivers skip stops, drivers ignore passengers or ignore those waiting to board a bus. An even worse perception is that bus drivers are constantly seen standing outside their bus doors in outlying areas of the city. They’re talking on their phone or smoking a cigarette.
On three separate occasions over the last six months I have witnessed the Route 14 bus parked at the Raymond Street shelter, at the end of its route. I would cycle past the bus, travel 5 miles south on Emerson to the Wal-Mart in Beech Grove, pick up some items, cycle back up the road and the bus would STILL be sitting at the shelter some 20 or 30 minutes later. The driver on two occasions was sitting in the shelter, smoking, while the bus was idling, once with a passenger visibly on board. I’ve had people who ride busses tell me that bus drivers will get off the bus for a personal call or smoke break, with passengers still on the bus. That, too, is completely unacceptable. On a different occasion, a friend of mine was alone on a bus traveling through Fountain Square when the driver stopped, got off the bus, walked into a Wendy’s for lunch, ate and came back. With a passenger waiting the whole time on the bus!
Driver training, rule enforcement and visible and invisible monitoring of drivers is the only way to solve that problem. I understand that the bus drivers are unionized, that firing them is difficult, that the pay is probably low and makes retention of good drivers difficult, that drivers need breaks, too. But passengers who are paying taxes to fund their salaries deserve better. If teachers stopped teaching at the end of class to walk outside of their school buildings for a smoke break, even under teacher union rules, action would be taken. I don’t expect driver’s to be like Mr. Rogers at every stop, either, but simple eye contact and a head nod goes a long way. To keep service honest, ghost riders who are volunteers or compensated can keep service under review.
When busses do run late, what’s the feasibility of strategically parking some IndyGo busses in parts of the city to assist with delayed or full busses? This model works similar to the Hoosier Helper courtesy vans. Vans park near known trouble spots, like I-69, I-465 at I-70, I-65, etc. at specific times of the day and when trouble does come up, they’re just minutes away instead of being dispatched from a central location further away. If Route 13 encounters problems near downtown, a bus (even a smaller ParaTransit bus) located near Garfield Park, maybe parked there or at some other public location like a fire or police station, could jump in to service that route and meet up with the regular bus once it gets going again. Busses parked in certain areas could provide standby coverage for a lot of routes. For instance, a bus parked near Garfield Park could easily provide backup coverage for Routes 12, 13 and 14. A bus ready near Community East hospital could provide backup for routes 3, 8, 10, 21 and 87.
I recognize that to be a truly great service, IndyGo just needs more money. No one in the community is under the impression that IndyGo is wasting money or diverting resources to unnecessary non-bussing sources. The community recognizes that busses cost money, drivers require a salary, maintenance has to be done, and gas isn’t cheap. The recent proposal by IndyConnect includes many of the things IndyGo desperately needs. It also includes the train line between Noblesville and Indianapolis. One has to assume much of the billion dollar price tag is absorbed into the train system.
How much would it cost to just double the size of IndyGo and eliminate the trains? To get stops every 30 minutes where they’re currently at 60 and to get stops every 15 minutes where they’re currently at 30? One assumes it’s a much lower cost. Is it low enough that Marion County can afford to fund it? Is it low enough that Marion County taxes can be raised just enough on our own accord without state approval? Is it low enough that bus fares can be set to tiered pricing to cover most of the costs? Students, seniors and low-income individuals can sometimes expect a lower fare price. But even if the cost of a 30 day bus pass is $100 a month for a rider like myself that could afford it, it’s still much cheaper than owning and operating a car. Mayor Ballard famously said that they were the administration that found the money to fix the roads. He clearly supports bike and alternative transit methods. What ideas have been floated between each of you to help IndyGo to find the money to put busses on those newly fixed roads?
The laws and regulations are complex, I’m sure, and I have to assume that you and your staff have looked into virtually every imaginable grant, tax and revenue source. It’s the belief of many in the community that if IndyGo can just make the existing system ever-so-slightly better in safety and timeliness, that enough new riders will swell into the system that would place just enough political pressure to increase funding to IndyGo. A part of me strongly believes that accepting donations from the community and business partners like the Lilly Foundation would put us on the right path to a better transit network. Indy loves a good public-private partnership. Maybe IndyGo could benefit from looking at revenue deals similar to what Circle Centre Mall, the Stadium and Convention Centers and the water and gas utilities benefit from.
This city has proven with the Super Bowl that we can raise the necessary capital, we can get the right people and we can do things spectacularly when we want to. I don’t think anyone in Indianapolis except the most ardent anti-government, anti-public service believers thinks that expanding IndyGo would be a waste. The demand is here, the time is now. How much does it cost? How much will fares rise and cover costs? How quickly can we get more busses into this city? The community wants to know so the community can help, but that information isn’t being communicated to us.
I’m sure someday, probably when there’s five feet of snow on the ground, I’ll take a bus. I hope I’m surprised. I think I’ve been accurate and fair in my account of current standards, and I think I’ve proposed some useful ideas to help. I’m hopeful for a day when I can walk out to a bus stop and rest assured that in 10-15 minutes, a bus is nearby. But today, I’d settle for a bus that almost always arrives every 30 minutes and is safe, clean and timely.