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.