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.

Thoughts on actual usage of Indy’s new transit center

There’s been a lot of positive press coverage of Indianapolis’ new transit center. Operated by IndyGo, it replaces the obvious lack of such a facility. In the bad old days of last week, everyone just stood around along various stops on Ohio Street.

There’s a lot of talk about the architecture, how slick it looks, and how it’ll be a positive asset for Indianapolis. Those things may all be true. I even kinda like that it sorta resembles a bus, because it’s subtle and almost like a secret. But like a lot of subjective things, there are other opinions. Plus, a lot of the press coverage hasn’t actually talked about what it’s like using the darn thing. It’s like a new restaurant opened, everyone reported on it, but didn’t bother to eat the food.

For all the talk about how this is a win for the city, let’s talk about the losers. Government projects can’t be done without making losers.

  1. At the opening ceremony, Congressman Carson said his grandmother, Julia Carson, whom the Center is named after, “…got the money [for the Center] through an old-fashioned legislative amendment.” In other words, pork. He added, “I wish we could still do that sometimes.” Depending on your views of paper clipped legislation, the losers here are either “everyone else in the country” or “everyone in the country”.
  2. The Center has a clear neighbor: the Marion County Jail. I’ve overhead many passengers this week noting the proximity of the jail and noting obvious jokes to just driving people straight into a cell. In all likelihood, however, the jail won’t be there forever.
  3. We all now have an extra building to support, despite the fact that Union Station is also still being maintained as a transfer point for Greyhound and some others. I get that IndyGo needed more space, but it sucks having such a great old building fall apart with no clear use.
  4. For anyone who lives on the south side and actually took the bus downtown to work, this is a clear loss. You come in on the southeast side and southern buses largely don’t go any further. And because the southeast corner of Downtown includes such attractions as the jail, bond offices, and parking garages, your commute just got longer, more expensive, or both to actually reach useful places. North side commuters, like everything else north-side oriented, still get a win. Their busses still travel through much of Downtown to get to the Center.

And the winners:

  1. People who do consistently transfer to the same bus every day. The woman who gets on in Fountain Square and travels downtown to catch the 24 to the southwest side is a winner.
  2. IndyGo, for being able to nudge more people into buying more trips and more expensive passes to cover that last 1-2 miles for users. This is likely a sore point for anyone who works or goes to the Government Center, IUPUI, One America, some Salesforce properties, and anything north of Ohio Street or west of Meridian at a minimum. Which is to say “most people who work Downtown”.

You can imagine where I am in this. I’m a loser, because it increasingly seems every time someone suggests an idea for route changes mine gets worse and worse. My 14 is now shorter, but the timing isn’t saved much for travel time it seems. Instead of moving around the streets of Downtown for 15 minutes I sit at the transit center for 10 minutes. And again along the route path 1-3 times because the bus runs too early too fast. Which makes it feel slower.

I also get the loss of being further away from my office (10th and Capitol). On a rainy or bad-weather day this almost guarantees I have to spend more on fares when I otherwise didn’t. The walk is now 10 minutes longer.

Kudos to IndyGo for having the thought of offering free rides this week. That likely cut down on a lot of upset users who haven’t quite realized the sting of being further away from things.

But let’s talk about the thing that really grinds my gears: the Center is incredibly pedestrian-hostile. The rain gardens are a good idea, but are at least 2-3 feet below street level. The Cultural Trail has some of these, but aren’t as deep. I have to imagine people falling into those things.

And then there’s the crosswalks.

See, you can’t make a facility super pedestrian-friendly when you have large metal boxes rolling around it. So if you get off a bus that pulls into one end of the facility, and you see the bus you want to take on the other, you have to walk the distance of half a block or two to get to it, lest someone scolds you like a child for not using the crosswalks. It makes me cringe every time.

Pedestrians will always take the shortest, most-direct path. Always. The Transit Center doesn’t facilitate either of those things unless you’re extremely lucky to park next to the right door. Once the volunteers and staff leave the Center, it’s going to be the wild west of people walking in the shortest paths possible to get where they need to be and roam around. Because that’s what pedestrians do, particularly when they have to get to work or meet a timeline. That’s what the staff does.

I can’t find the logic in how buses are organized, and while I imagine there is one, it’s not as easy as numerical ordering or direction they intend to travel. Which means it’s not intuitive.

And that’s if you can actually see the bus you want. Because the bay letters are small, and the display screens are small and hard to see in bright sunlight. You can’t see what’s down the platforms. The Center forces you into walking around aimlessly to find what you’re after or to quickly get into a routine and stick to it despite there being other options.

To give you an example of what this would feel like, imagine you’re standing on the Circle. You’re right by the South Bend Chocolate Factory. You see Starbucks to your right and want to go straight there. But you aren’t allowed to. You have to walk ¾ the way around backwards. That’s what the Transit Center feels like.

As another example, I got off my bus this week and stepped on to the platform. I know I have four options for getting up Illinois Street: routes 4, 18, 25, or 28. Or, I can take Meridian street buses 19, 38, or 39 and be a block further away. I just don’t know where those buses park, and no one’s bothered to publish a map so I can do my homework.

So I get off the 14 and I know I have mere minutes to find one of those other buses. The 28 is all the way at the end. I walk fast. I don’t make it. So I turn around. I see the 39 on the other end and across the pedestrian canyon that is the driveway. I walk fast. I don’t make it. I give up and turn around to see the 19. Not exactly what I wanted, but good enough. I get on. And sit for 10 minutes. We leave and go two blocks and sit another few minutes. You know what’s more infuriating and demeaning than seeing a bus leave just moments before you get there? Getting on a bus that isn’t moving anywhere. Even if we’re driving in circles I at least feel like I’m doing something. Sitting and idling is painful.

All the sitting, waiting, and guessing at what might show up and leave has reminded me that yes, IndyGo needs more buses to have higher frequency. But I’m not sure we can say the Center lives up to the claim of “making transfers easier”.

If I thought anyone cared about my recommendations:

  1. The signage for bays and departure times needs to be way bigger and way brighter, or at least flatter. I can imagine some older users probably can’t even read the signs when they’re standing right under them.
  2. Publish a map that shows what bays hold what buses consistently. So when I get off one bus I can know roughly where to look to see if a potential transfer is there and go straight to it.
  3. Give up on trying to corral pedestrians into crosswalks. I know the lawyers and insurance agents will have a fit, but I’m an adult. People jaywalk not because they’re criminals, but because the effort, particularly in bad weather, to use crosswalks is not at all conducive to logic and need. Especially in the winter when the driveway may have less snow/ice coverage than the sidewalks.
  4. Rethink some sign placement. There’s a sign near one crosswalk that says “Not a pedestrian crossing”. Then what is it? The sign that says “Transit Center Grounds Closed” stays up all the time, which seems confusing.
  5. An announcement system for folks outside would be helpful for all users, including those with vision problems. “Now leaving, Route 10, 16, and 28”, for example”. Or, “Arriving now, Route 12, 19, and 22.”
  6. Transfer passes. The lack thereof strikes me more than ever as a cynical money-grab. Pay $1.75 to go from Cumberland to the Airport. Or 7 blocks. That leaves a taste of bad value. And no one likes to feel like they’re being extracted.

Maybe I’m just the only person cranky enough to have problems with this. But I’m still glad to see some forward momentum on this. At least people are trying.

I have an answer to frequency vs. coverage

For months I’ve been thinking about the most obscure things. Things like radio shows and bussing options. It’s because I’m just that cool.

But the topic of bus options is interesting to me. Indianapolis keeps murmuring about expanding bus service, but that’s years away. Now IndyGo has introduced a riddle of a question they could theoretically implement now: which is better, higher frequency or higher coverage?

Right now we’re at a 60% coverage 40% frequency, which as the status quo can be defended. It’s no accident we ended up with the system we have now. But after a lot of thought, I think I’ve made up my mind: we need higher coverage.

Don’t get me wrong, the ideal scenario is a better overall system that does both, but that requires money. Despite the average resident spending a third of their income on transportation (which is just absurd) and the fact tax increases for busses would put way more money back into people’s pockets, we’re not there. Taking the $66 million the region already scrambles together every year, I vote higher coverage.

To give you a visual idea, check out these images IndyGo shared of a conceptual network. This is what it could look like if we had higher frequency and less coverage (red lines are buses every 15 minutes, blue every 30):

IndyGo Frequency Map


And this is what it would look like if we had higher coverage and less frequency (green lines are busses every 60 minutes):

IndyGo Coverage Map

For most people you look at this and think, “Well, I’m on a good route, I’m all for higher frequency”, or, “I don’t have a route anymore on that frequency system, so I want higher coverage.”

But step back and think about Indianapolis, our culture, and who uses our bus system.

Let’s be sincerely honest: most riders on IndyGo are poor, they’re disabled or facing some sort of challenge. Many would cast a large portion of them in the camp of people who lost their license to DUI or other charges. And in a lot of cases that’s right (though ridership surveys say the DUI stuff is overblown). The majority of riders on the system now are too poor to own and operate a car. Add in a dabble of racism and this has given our bus service the stigma of being a “service to the poor” instead of being an integral part of our transit infrastructure. And this is the biggest reason why higher frequency matters. People who can drive won’t ride a bus if the options are leaving now or leaving in 45 minutes.

IndyGo has a few higher frequency routes now operating on lines 8, 39, and 10. Those routes offer rides every 20 minutes, mostly on the east side of the city. They say they’ve seen ridership increases of up to 7%. Which is good, because if you’re reliant on the system it can really suck having to spend 4 hours a day getting around town. If time is money, then that’s a shadow tax.

But I see another bigger issue and a reality of the current and proposed systems. What happens to the elderly woman in a wheel chair at Emerson and Raymond? What happens to the 18 year old saving money to go to IUPUI by riding the bus when his bus stops coming to Kentucky and Minnesota?

And more specifically, IndyGo is quick to claim “where transit goes, the community grows”. By going to a higher frequency system we’re basically saying most of the southside and large swaths of the northeast and northwest sides aren’t part of our community anymore. Or at least aren’t enough to warrant investing in. One wonders if Washington Street on the westside would be worth it to anyone if not for the airport nearby.

Our bus system as it is has some big problems because frequency isn’t very high. But it is a very good system to serve as a complement to a bicycle, particularly when on a 12 mile commute where you can maybe bike 2-4 miles to the bus and ride that the rest of the way.

But most people aren’t me and most people can’t or won’t ride a bike places. So it’s either the bus or nothing and it’s almost cruel to take away someone’s route, which if you’re on the southside is almost a certainty in a higher frequency system.

And there’s one other big reason why coverage matters more than frequency: transfers.

It’s 10:30 a.m. right now. If I wanted to get to Irvington from my apartment on the northwest side I’d wait 45 minutes for Route 34, get downtown at 11:45, take route 8 eastbound at 12 noon, and arrive in Irvington at about 12:30.

If we had a higher frequency system, I’d wait 15 minutes, take Route 34 downtown, get there at 11:15 and take the 8 at 11:30 and arrive in Irvington at noon.

I’d save 30 minutes. Or I could sit here at my desk and work for another 45 minutes and just walk outside then. The timing of the buses is actually really very good. The notion the busses constantly run half an hour behind is unfounded.

But if I wanted to get to the city’s animal shelter on Raymond Street? Can’t do it. If I wanted to get to Broad Ripple from here, which is 4 miles east of me, it’d take 2 hours (go downtown, transfer, ride back up). Want to go 7 miles south to Beech Grove on Emerson? Can’t do that that on a high frequency system, and you can’t do it now very easily. Want to get anywhere in this city to Eagle Creek Park, one of the nation’s largest city parks? Can’t do that on a high frequency system or very well at all right now.

But with a higher coverage map and more cross-town routes? Well, suddenly these travel times to things just a few miles away are more obtainable. Not everything has to function going downtown, and in fact, most of the time you don’t want it to.

From Southeastern and Raymond streets you can’t get 4 miles north to Irvington and you can’t get 4 miles south to Beech Grove without the coverage system. Which means you can’t get to a grocery store unless you transfer or go to that fancy Marsh downtown that’s crazy expensive.

Let’s remember that transit isn’t a toy. It’s a means to get people to work and to necessary functions like doctors, grocery stores, and even some entertainment. But what good is a system that serves just half the city, or less? And of all the things we can spend money on, even the most conservative among us has to recognize it’s better to give someone a bus to work than to give them a check for no work at all.

A person can time a bus if they need to so they’re not entirely left out in the cold. But if you take it away so someone in Broad Ripple only has to wait 15 minutes instead of 30 after having a beer? That hurts and sends a bad message to people who really do need service to get anywhere at all.

The inclusion of more cross-town routes, particularly on Emerson, Raymond, High School, and some of Southport Road makes for a much more useful system to more people. It’s the more utilitarian system, and while it’d be nice to have higher frequency, there’s only so much we can do right now. And it’d be a shame to do more for a select few to not wait a little bit longer than do nothing for even larger chunks of the city.