Blue Indy is the sort of public-private transit operation we should celebrate
Indianapolis likes to boast of a lot of public-private partnerships. Where private-sector entities work with the City of Indianapolis to launch a new project or service. Circle Centre Mall and much of the sports complexes are such examples. The truth is lots of cities do these kinds of things all the time because they often make good sense. Particularly when most of the risk can be pushed off on to the private entity (though that doesn’t always happen), or when a City can break-even win or lose.
Blue Indy could be one of those public-private success stories. The City of Indianapolis is out parking meter revenue for the small Blue cars, but it’s not much expense long-term. With 73,000 spaces Downtown alone (I can’t find numbers for other areas, like Broad Ripple or Fountain Square), even at a full 200-station system that Blue Indy is driving toward with 3 cars a piece, that’s just over .8% of parking spaces. It’s no doubt less once you factor in metered spaces outside of Downtown.
The bigger costs to the City are in electric vehicle charging stations. Which, even if Blue Indy withdraws and we look at it as a bad idea, we’ll still have the EV charging stations. It’s hard to imagine a world where EV isn’t the next standard. We’d come out ahead of other cities in letting the market push beyond fossil-fuel driven vehicles.
Even with 200 stations, it’s still not a total replacement for robust public transit. At some point they just run out of cars if everyone drove one every morning. One wonders if there’s ever a possibility of useful privately-funded transit for a municipality. This is as close as anyone could get today.
My experiences with Blue Indy
I’ve used Blue Indy three times. The first two times were more of a learning experience. There are some catches and foreign pieces.
My first time using Blue Indy was on a cold, windy morning. I was trying to get from Maryland and Capitol to my office at 10th and Capitol. It’s exactly 1 mile. Standing in front of me was a station, and having already acquired a membership, I got in. The kiosk does well enough guiding you through the process of getting a car, albeit with clunky French-to-English translations. As someone who designs interfaces for a living, I’m hypercritical of these sorts of things.
I found the car somewhat dirty, but excused it because of the cold. It can’t be easy to wash or clean the inside of cars below freezing. My bigger problem was the cost of this trip. Moving my body 1 mile cost just over $5. $5 can cover most of the cost of a lot of things. A 1-mile trip at that rate felt like a bad value.
The system charges you a flat rate (variable by your membership level) for 20 minutes. I took 12 to get up the road, hitting every stoplight on the way. With most stations clustered within a radius of 1-2 miles, it’s hard to get a good deal on that short of a trip. You can practically fall onto a bus by accident that will carry you any direction at any interval of time from Downtown for $1.75. A bike share pass costs $8 for the whole day of unlimited 30 minute trips (admittedly less pleasant if you’re not dressed properly for the weather). But the bike’s savings can rack up quickly in this scenario.
The second time I used the system I again forgot about the 20-minute minimum time and found the car cumbersome to get into in the dark of the early morning. With no active dome light (there are overhead lights by the mirror, but I couldn’t see them in the dark), it was me learning the process still.
My problem here was that I drove up to my office and parked right behind the building, but I evidently failed to secure the charging outlet properly. That’s my fault for sure. Except the charging plug would go in, and the car would indicate through the dashboard it was charging. Clearly, if something says it’s charging you’d expect it to be. But it wasn’t. But I figured it must be fine based off this system feedback. Based on my prior experience of an instant text message alert saying how long I had used the service, I was worried when I didn’t get one this time. But I assumed maybe the first time’s speed of messaging was a lark. After 20 minutes I walked back outside to recheck it. This time having decided to move the car to another spot, I found it did “click” this time and I got a 26-minute charge for a car I used for about 5.
The third time, having learned the quirks, I was in much better shape. It was daylight and easy to see and use. The radio station and GPS systems in the Blue cars know who you are, so they show your name and carry over all your presets. A nice touch. This time I went much further: from 11th street to 96th to deliver a package and back. The total time was 62 minutes for a total cost of $16. That seems fair given the distance and time, considering I wasn’t responsible for insurance or “gas”. A similar bus trip to that particularly corner would have taken 2 hours. Here Blue Indy is cheaper than renting a car from Enterprise or Avis. (As an aside, Blue Indy’s math works in your favor up to about 4 hours of rental time. Beyond 4 hours and you’re better off with a full-day traditional rental car.)
There’s room for improvement
I certainly have my quibbles with the service. It’s the kind of service most people will really want to like and enjoy, but in many cases just can’t yet. Either because no stations are nearby now (or maybe ever) or priced out of reasonable usage for their needs.
- An account is tied to a single person, which flies in the face of how married couples work. A married couple would reasonably share fuel, insurance (factoring both driving records), and the price/payment of a private car. With Blue Indy it’s two accounts at two separate costs.
- Marion County’s supplemental vehicle rental tax of 6%, plus regular sales tax, are tacked on at the end. It’s a rental car, even for just a few minutes.
- The French conglomerate that owns the service is … French. So when you press the Blue button (which works like OnStar) in the car or at a kiosk, you get a French person speaking English. I speak from experience when I say standing under a highway overpass in the dark and trying to listen to a French woman with a thick accent, all through a speaker with the same quality as a McDonald’s drive-thru is not easy.
- The cars and kiosks often display on-screen language that seems borderline thoughtless. For example, when you check out a car it tells you it’s, “Attributing your car”. Which makes me feel like some American ogre using brutish words like “check out”. And the temperature gauge in the car’s main screen is in Celsius. I am glad, however, they changed the speedometer to miles per hour.
- Returning the car for the first time is something of a mystery since the kiosk isn’t ready to guide you as easily as it is to get out. You get out, plug it in, then lock the car. Not get out, lock, plug.
- The 20-minute minimum makes sense if you’re driving all around the city. But the concentration of stations in March 2016 makes it a bad value. It also encourages you to drive as fast as you can to get to your next station if your destination is over 20 minutes away. I’d prefer to see a 20-minute minimum spread across a 24-hour period. So a bus trip downtown + Blue Car for the last 1-2 miles uses 10 minutes in the morning and 10 minutes in reverse in the evening can complete a whole commute for the whole day. That’s a better value and more of an “assist” to existing transit.
- I’d be beyond pissed if I got stuck behind a car wreck or a train or a president or some other obstruction that forced me to sit and pay by the minute for a lengthy period of time. Blue Indy has done well to try and give free 30-minute bonuses on days with heavy snow. Ideally there should be a way to “appeal” unusual prices out of a person’s control.
- I wish at least some of the cars had bike racks. Bike + bus is a compelling transport mechanism. But Blue Indy is shut out of that without a way to carry a bike. A use case here: getting to Fort Benjamin Harrison on the northwest side. From my home on the southeast side, I could bus with my bike to Downtown, or bike straight there, and take a Blue Car to Ft. Ben with my bike to go mountain biking for the day. Currently this isn’t possible (also because there’s no station anywhere near Ft. Ben). I recognize I’m probably a minority here, but if you’re going to position yourself as a transit mechanism, or transit supplement, that includes all forms of transportation: cars, bikes, busses, and walking.
Blue Indy is certainly a service I want to like. I want it to succeed and be a model for other cities pursuing electric vehicles. I want it to make getting around Indianapolis easier. It has the means to save a lot of people a lot of money by not needing to own a car. Or as many cars in their household.
The cars are completely silent, and while quite small, don’t feel chintzy or unsafe. It gets more cars and Americans off reliance of foreign oil and fossil fuels. They move as quickly as any car on the road at just the same rate. The only learning curve while driving is getting used to hitting the acceleration without the tell-tale engine revs and start up sounds to guide you.
With any luck future expansion of the system into the “hard to reach” parts of Marion and the doughnut counties will happen quickly. The initial stations appeared almost overnight. Growth beyond that has slowed. A single station opening here or there lacks the punch of a fast drop of new stations. Phase 1 showed promise. Placing more stations in the rest of low-density Indianapolis and improving the user experience of the system and its costs for frugal Midwesterners is Phase 2. It’s early and still worth watching.