Screenshot from YouTube video

Using the web with limited vision is awful. I just didn’t realize how awful.

A year or two ago I started reading some of Ethan Marcotte’s calls for better web accessibility. Taking steps to make websites behave more predictably, play nice with screen readers, and follow some code standards all seemed like easy enough things to do. I thought they’d be especially easy to do if we thought about it before developing a new website. Like wiring a house before putting up the drywall.

As one example, I knew that screen readers just read down the screen. Unlike humans with visual acuity who quickly learn to ignore the right column of ads or the navigation menu on each page, screen readers can’t discern what’s junk and what’s not. So they repeat everything on every page. Putting in a quick “skiplink” code allows the screen reader to skip narrating the navigation menu of a site every time a page loads.

Easy peasy! Throw in some ALT tags for images to describe what they are and we’re all set.

Problem is, none of this works like I expected.

On Friday I went to a client’s home to help them setup anything I could think of to supplement their vision. After a sudden surgery for macular degeneration, the temporary side effect left them unable to see well.

They had three devices: A Windows 7 desktop PC, an iPhone 8 with a home button, and a Windows 10 HP laptop.

iPhone Accessibility with VoiceOver and Zoom

We started with the iPhone first. I went into the accessibility settings thinking if we just made the text larger it’d be easier to read.

For them, the text size wasn’t of issue. The issue with their vision is a large dark area that blocks light. Imagine trying to read a piece of paper late at night. By shining a flashlight at an angle on a screen, they could make out the words and elements on the screen. But it wasn’t sustainable. Using the device with one hand and holding a flashlight with another was difficult for an octogenarian.

For kicks, we tried using the phone with Zoom on. The phone was more difficult to use because it required three fingers to move around the screen. Instead of just enlarging items on the screen, it turned the device into the world’s lousiest magnifying glass. By using three fingers to scroll through a “window” in all directions, and using three-finger taps to toggle it on and off, you couldn’t see the small screen to read with any ease because your fingers are constantly in the way.

You should try it yourself. Go to Settings > Accessibility > Zoom and toggle it on.

Next I tried VoiceOver. VoiceOver reads what’s on the screen so you can listen to it instead. For all the attention Apple spends promoting their accessibility work, I had high hopes and expectations for this.

Turning VoiceOver on immediately displays a warning that enabling it will change the paradigm of how you use your device. It’s not kidding. It’s like using an entirely different operating system for the first time.

  • VoiceOver uses the pre-Siri robotic voice you remember from the early 2000’s on the Mac. Harsh, clipped, and fast. iOS 14 has new options for download that might sound better, but on an old iPhone 8 with limited storage, it was a big ask.
  • Enabling VoiceOver means each tap selects an object, like a link or app icon. VoiceOver then reads what you tapped on and if you don’t quickly do something else it keeps reading “Double tap to activate. Or use Force Touch for more options.” This phrase became insufferable. Imagine after clicking and dragging something with your mouse your computer always said “Let go of the mouse to drop. Or press CMD for more options.” You’d probably unplug your speakers.

Couple this with mobility and dexterity problems

If you’ve ever watched an older or beginner use a touch screen before, you’ve probably noticed they don’t hover their finger over the glass. If you pick up your phone right now and launch Messages, notice how closely you probably keep your thumb or index finger over the keyboard and glass. You’re likely within centimeters of the surface ready to tap and type. Older people don’t do that because they either don’t think to, are afraid to touch it, or have shaky hands that trigger superfluous actions.

When my client tries to open an app, they’re used to holding the phone in their left hand and then striking with their index finger from 4-5 inches away. I’ve noticed this in a lot of beginner screen users. It’s an almost violent interaction method as if the glass is made of lava. This large gap between finger and screen is like dropping a missile from low earth orbit. The chances for missing are high, and the time it takes to reach the surface is longer.

With VoiceOver enabled, the interaction to open Messages went like this. Items in brackets are the robotic device voice. Keep in mind the first icon the home screen is FaceTime:

  1. Push home button to enable screen.
  2. [FaceTime. Double-tap to activate. Or use Force Touch for more options.]
  3. “I don’t want FaceTime.”
  4. “Select Messages with one tap,” I say.
  5. Taps Messages after looking for it.
  6. [Messages. Double-tap to activate. Or use Force Touch for more options.]
  7. Taps Messages again
  8. [Messages. Double-tap to activate. Or use Force Touch for more options.]
  9. “You need to double-tap that now to activate,” I say.
  10. Taps once and then lifts finger for a second tap. [Messages. Double-tap to activate. Or use Force Touch for more options.]
  11. Second tap lands. [Messages. Double-tap to activate. Or use Force Touch for more options.]

This went on for a frustrating amount of time. The time between his first tap and second was long enough the device didn’t register it as anything but two single taps, not a single double-tap.

Adjusting the tap time, again in Settings, helped a little. But their poor vision and unsteady hand meant high errors in where taps landed. A double-tap aimed at Messages meant one tap for Messages and another, mistaken second, tap for Phone.

Even when I tried using the iPhone with VoiceOver enabled it proved frustrating and annoying. Going into Messages meant the reader kept saying things that really weren’t helpful most of the time. It sounded like this:

  1. Tap Messages [Messages. [Double-tap to act—]
  2. Double-tap Messages [Messages.]
  3. [Edit]
  4. [Messages]
  5. [New Message]
  6. [Message from: John Doe…]

You’ve probably never noticed, but if you go into Messages you see the “Edit” button in the top left. The heading “Messages” in the middle, and the “New Message” icon in the top right.

VoiceOver reads these each time you go into the app because they’re the order they appear. It’s worth noting, too, that if you have unread messages, VoiceOver will say [Messages. 1 new unread message.] when you tap on the icon from the home screen. And again when you’re in the app before it starts reading.

This behavior was the same on their phone, which contained 1,257 unread items. They, like me, never deletes their voicemails because I just wait for the text message transcription to pop in.

The transcriptions were a nightmare. VoiceOver not only tries to read the transcription, but it does so while playing the voicemail. A significant bug that rendered it completely useless. Listening to a robotic voice read a broken transcript where every third or fourth word is wrong and the actual audio of the voicemail at the same time made my client shake their head in frustration. “I can’t use this.”

“No, this isn’t useful or helpful at all.”

We turned it off. Literally all they wanted their phone to do was read voicemails and text messages. Text messages, which, by the way, were overflowing with political campaign spam.

Windows 7 and 10 Narrator equally frustrating

On their desktop PC running Windows 7, my client wanted to get similar help with email. Specifically in AOL, which they’ve used since the Clinton administration.

This proved equally frustrating. But was surprisingly better in some ways. Narrator performed the same on Windows 7 as it did Windows 10. It doesn’t seem like there were any improvements there. But it at least sounded more human out-of-the-box.

And like VoiceOver on iOS, Narrator read down the list of what it saw on the screen. But it wouldn’t read email. It can read the “chrome” around the window. Things like the File menu, Edit, etc. But not the actual text of the email.

For that, we tried a service that promised to speak email, but it was not designed for anyone who gets actual emails.

The first email was junk from a car dealer. My client, like me, does not own a car and does not want a car. But there we were, staring at an ad for a new Audi while they beamed a desk lamp on to the screen to try and read it.

As difficult as tapping was on their phone, clicking with a mouse was nearly impossible. They just didn’t know it. I sat and watched as they clicked helplessly on what was expected to be a close “X” in the top right. Instead, clicks were registered on all manner of banner ads, spam, links, and useless menu items.

Apple nerds have long complained about Apple shoving menu items into “drawers”, or otherwise requiring you to click a hamburger menu icon to show them. Microsoft goes the other direction and shoves every icon imaginable into ribbons and menus. I now believe Microsoft’s method puts too many accidental clicks in reach. For users with dexterity or visual impairment, all those icons and menus are landmines ready to blow.

Within seconds my client had opened several tabs and windows. They were on the way to unsubscribing, buying a new Audi, sending a new message, and organizing Contacts when they really just wanted to Exit the window. With each frustrating click, more random stuff just bounced around the screen.

On the laptop, it took me ten minutes to figure out why a checkbox was enabled that meant the speakers were listening to the microphone. This should never happen because all it did was result in a feedback loop of noise. There’s no reason for that option to exist, but it was on, and made the HP laptop’s microphone and speakers useless.

Windows 10 does have a Dictation app, but requires you to trigger it with Windows + H, and works like Siri on your phone: sporadically and with clipped commands. Knowing when it speaks, when you should speak, when to let go of the keys, and listening for its feedback were challenging. Significantly, like your phone, if you don’t know what you’re going to say immediately as it begins listening, you get superfluous input or nothing at all.

Better tech is possibly better, but the failures were not theirs

Nerds might say an ad-blocker, using Alt+F4 to close windows, buying a bigger screen or better device, using Gmail or Outlook or some other software would help. This probably would help. And for millions of people who have prolonged visual, mobility, dexterity, or audio impairment this is probably what they do. On-device screen readers can work in their native apps like Edge or Safari respectively, which is something, but they’re also an impossibly limiting and frustrating experience because of what we throw at them to read.

My client wants to work on their book, read text messages, and send emails. And wants to do so, hopefully, for a couple of months with a little help until his vision returns. My client’s not trying to build a house with custom power tools. They just want to send emails.

Waking up one morning and telling yourself we need $300 in Dragon Dictation software, (which only works with Outlook and Gmail), switching email to somewhere else, learning a whole new paradigm, buying a new microphone, or just getting better at holding the device are all wrong answers.

In my research, I learned Medicare allows people to request a Mobility Coach that can help train patients on this stuff at the request of a physician. Thing is, you have to get the referral, go through an intake process, and then someone will get to you in 8-10 weeks. At 84, time’s ticking, and 8-10 weeks is a long time.

This is not their fault and it’s not the fault of any user. This tech is lousy and hostile. It’s unfriendly and annoying. Web, app, and software developers have made equally unfriendly products. Everything from web pages to emails and software. And Medicare is surely overloaded on being able to quickly send some therapist to every house that needs it on demand.

I’m sure things are getting better, all things considered. Certainly the software on an iPhone today is better than it was ten years ago. But a lot of things are working against all of us.

For my part, I think about the emails we design for clients and the webpages we make. I think about the constraints I have in making those.

  • There isn’t a week that goes by that someone doesn’t want me to dump a scanned PDF document from an office copier on to the web. For screen readers, this is a non-starter.
  • Almost no day goes by without someone asking me to put together some infographic or cute thing to stick somewhere. Hand-drawn fonts and other unique typographic features might look attractive, but they’re a waking nightmare for many people.
  • People constantly ask to “Put these photos in our next email”. Those dozen photos not only bloat email bandwidth requirements, but they’re also seldom worth much even to fully-sighted people.
  • Shoving ads “up top” or in bigger spaces so people “will be sure to see them” seems easy enough to ignore with eyes. But for my client, this not only made the web tougher to use, it also wasted a lot of time. The myriad spam texts and emails would have easily taken an hour to work through by listening. You or I would just swipe, swipe, swipe. Or, select “Edit” and selected many items at once. This option is largely disabled in VoiceOver.
  • Clients always want some visual distinction. Having a unique design, made popular by the throngs of visually attractive but largely empty templates from theme stores are what people pay for. It’s not what you or anyone wants, however. All those webpages that have cute counters that say how many cups of coffee your team consumes a day add nothing. Giant banners and sliders add nothing.
  • I’m constantly fighting a battle where clients want to add links to external websites, PDFs, and images directly in their menus. This is bad even for sighted users.

All of these things are battles designers and developers are fighting every day. And sometimes, myself included, I just don’t have the ability to fight all of them. A teammate will ask me, “Are we really doing this?” and all I can utter is “This just isn’t a hill I’m willing to die on.”

This is frustrating because why on earth am I fighting? And then I realize what is we’re saying:

  • Remove distractions and “tricks”, like banner ads at the top of a page
  • Invest in web and language accessibility
  • Recreate material to be accessible when it otherwise isn’t
  • YouTube videos need a transcript for those who can’t hear
  • Websites need compelling and useful audits of all images, links, and behavior

There’s no easy way to make a website better or more accessible. And that costs time, money, and for a lot of clients doesn’t pay the bills. Like adding an elevator to your house. Most clients would rather us invent a “make money” button and just press that time and time again.

But there is overlap. We took a look at a website of ours and measured how many clicks it took to buy something versus competitors. We took half as many clicks. From an accessibility standpoint, that’s good for all users because everyone gets done faster.

But we do it in fewer clicks by not asking for things like phone numbers and “how did you hear about us?” at checkout. That’s a battle we have to fight but really shouldn’t have to.

There are no plugins for this that you can just install and walk away from. There is no service. It’s like going to the gym: it’s hard work that requires time, deliberate thought, and dedication.

Developers need to start bundling the costs of this kind of work into their service. And if clients don’t want to pay, then I say having nothing is better. We have to stop pumping garbage on to the web.

Developers also need to learn about what it takes to make sites accessible and test for them just as rigorously as we test mobile layouts vs. desktop ones.

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.