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.

No one cares what millennials think, so stop saying they do

Kelly Hannon at NUVO has a letter to the editor wherein she talks about the ridiculousness of Indianapolis’ transportation network. It fills in a lot of the same talking points we’ve been hearing from the Indy Chamber and others about the need for more and better transit options in Indianapolis.

I find them to be pretty weak. Which has me concerned, because this is starting to appear and sound incredibly one-sided.

Here’s Kelly:

Currently, only 33 percent of jobs in Indianapolis can be reached via transit in 90 minutes. That’s ridiculous. It’s also ridiculous that the wait time to get on one of these buses for a 90-minute trip can be between 30-60 minutes. And what happens if you have to transfer, and the second bus is behind? Or it has already left? If you currently get around this city in your car, I ask you this: use Google maps and find out what your commute would be to work, or to your favorite spot across town, if you had to use IndyGo mass transit. I did.

I don’t dispute the numbers, and she’s not wrong about transfer times. I’ve learned the quirks of the system enough myself to know when a transfer is even remotely feasible. It’s usually easy if you’re heading someplace within a few miles of Downtown. Not so much if you’re heading out to the fringes of town. But it’s clear Kelly owns a car here, which is important. She doesn’t mention where she lives around town, either, even generally, so it’s hard to make a lot of judgments here.

Like I’ve always said: people who live in rural areas know what they’re signing up for. A lot of that goes for people building a home outside 465.

The fact is, getting around the city of Indianapolis is a privilege, and not a right. Our current system in inequitable. There are too many people in this city held back from employment opportunities, educational opportunities, as well as social services, health clinics, and grocery stores simply because our city has not invested in creating a transportation system that serves all.

Alright, you lost me. First, driving isn’t a right, either. Car ownership isn’t a right. This isn’t a fact at all. You just made that up. No one owes you or me anything. I do believe that reliable and efficient transportation can be the sort of “hand up, not a hand out” that drives a lot of our political discourse in 2016. I’ll never fault anyone for trying to get to work. But don’t call it a right or privilege. By this rationale, everyone is owed a bike share station near them, too. We have rights listed in the Constitution and that is it. What you’re talking about is a nice-to-have.

Kelly talks about upward mobility in Indianapolis, and it is true Indianapolis does not do well in regards to upward mobility. But much of the research on upward mobility point to problems in education, largely K-12 schools, as the bulk of the problem. That’s a complicated and multi-faceted issue. Transit is a small part of it, in that a parent could possibly earn more money through enhanced job access, or save money through reduced private vehicle expenditures, that can then be spent on a child. Doesn’t mean it will, and there are a lot of extra hand-waves involved. People have to be empowered to move around and be effectual, too.

I am tired of hearing the ol’ pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps ideology when it comes to getting jobs in this city. When it comes to opportunity, there is no hiding the fact this system continues to perpetuate the imbalance of power between the wealthy, white, and/or able-bodied population and the poor, of color, and/or disabled communities. For it to take an average of over 90 minutes to get to 67 percent of the jobs in the area is a leading reason why Indianapolis’s upward mobility ranking is so low. I am tired of hearing those who are unemployed be blamed for not trying hard enough, when in actuality, they are running a completely different race than those of us with the privilege and funds that allow us to own a personal vehicle.

Here’s where you run into a problem. A big problem. By saying you’re tired of getting people to “pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps”, you’re saying you have a problem with conservative principles. And it’s awfully hard for any electoral math to work in your favor, especially in Indiana, when you discount at least 50, and in the case of Indiana, about 60% of the voting public. Even if you say this is just a Marion County issue where there’s a majority of Democrat voters, this ultimately has to go into the suburbs to be effective with all the job access, particularly in the low-skill labor we’re talking about here.

And that’s the other half of this big problem: it’s clear Kelly owns a car and drives it regularly. That she’s never ridden a bus before, or so it reads. That’s her privilege and a choice. Because she could choose to do without. But she doesn’t because current options aren’t good enough for her. And that’s quite a slight to the people she’s championing. And it furthers this awful branding that our transit system has: it’s a service to the poor. A welfare mechanism. Whereas in other cities they treat buses and transit like a piece of infrastructure, no different than a bridge. For all the people claiming we need to be like other cities, perhaps the first step is to stop being unlike other cities and shift your cultural connotations about who uses a bus and why.

And to add to my earlier comment about disregarding conservatives in this context: every voter has a vote-moving issue. If you’ve ever wondered why your union-dues paying uncle votes Republican, perhaps it’s because he really loves to hunt and his gun ownership is his vote-moving issue. All else be damned. For some it’s their ability to homeschool, gay marriage rights, abortion, or any number of other issues.

Locally, a person’s vote-moving issue in transit is likely to be: “Can I benefit from this directly?” If we keep promoting this idea that the current system is only for icky welfare types, don’t be surprised when they vote against it. If we keep promoting this idea that “it’s what millennials want”, don’t be surprised when everyone else over the age of 35 says “Screw them” and vote against it. If we keep promoting this idea that transit is what business wants, don’t be surprised when a bunch of people say, “I’m not a business, screw them, they can pay for it” and vote against it.

These are all vote-moving issues. The environment may be one for another block of people, but not a lot of people.

Years of marketing work has taught me one thing: people want to see themselves and see their own benefits. The easy, low-hanging fruit is, “You won’t have to spend money on a car.” Because in the US the regulations we have on cars make it impossible to build a new, reliable, car that’s under, say, $5,000. It can’t be done. Regulations add $7,000 to the cost of a new car alone. Some of this is for safety features. But did you know the US now requires all new cars to have back-up cameras? I’d gladly trade a lot of “features” like that for a dry box with wheels where I can just turn my head around and look behind me. I bet a lot of other people would, too. That leaves used cars, which I find a waste of money. For $5,000 a used car is just going to fall apart in a year or two, or be somewhat unreliable in short order. Thus, it’s all a waste of my money and I don’t want to spend it. That’s my vote-moving issue and choice.

I’d rather spend the extra $20 a month IndyGo is after in taxes (plus fares) on a robust transit network than $250 a month, or likely more, on a car. That’s just good math. And, I think, the one vote-moving issue that most people are likely to warm up to. It’s also the one getting the least play.

No one gives a crap about what millennials want or think. No one owes anything to anyone. But I do like to take care of myself, and so does everyone else.

Don’t discount the value of the conservative notion of helping people get to work AND the ability to reduce overall budget expenditures for ever-widening roads and highways AND the ability to give people a real option to increase their household earnings through efficiency and savings. That’s a perk, not a right. And it’s a perk that most people can be comfortable with and support.

Indiana’s printing presses and the wheels on the bus

Did you know that Indiana state government once had about half a dozen printing departments? Within itself. All with their own staff and presses and supplies. Did I mention there were several of these? Sometimes one would be busy while others were sitting around doing nothing. That went away during the Daniels administration.

I was thinking about that anecdote this weekend as I placed some trash bags in the garage. Because as I was putting those bags into the trash cart, I thought, “I wonder how much the City pays for this? And why do we contract with Republic Services for so much of the city?”

This is how my brain works.

So I went digging around and I can’t say I can tell. Indianapolis’ budget [PDF] is usually around $35 million a year for solid waste collection (that doesn’t include disposal). I’m in one of the districts that gets served by Indianapolis DPW for trash collection, and we pay an extra $6 a month for recycling pickup via Republic Services. I’ve never had a problem with either.

Republic actually provides collection for much of the city. While I can’t figure out how much is paid where, it does lead to the obvious question: should a city ever collects its own trash? Some cursory Googling would suggest it’s rarely cost-efficient, as municipal workers tend to get paid more. And if you squint, you can make the suggestion that the extra pay makes them behave a little safer.

Like Mitch Daniels and Indiana’s monkeying with the print works, the rationale there was, “If we can open the yellow pages and find at least three companies doing the same thing, we should just hire one of them to do that thing.” It saves money and no one much noticed or cared when they went away. Trash collection seems all the same. No ever complains that their trash guy – city or private – is a problem.

Which brings me to the center of this government nougat: why don’t cities ever consider privatizing their bus systems?

There are plenty of private busing companies. Lots of school districts find it useful to hire a contractor for their school buses and drivers, so why not city buses? If schools do it and people are okay with that, and they’re no more or less safe than a publicly-owned bus, why wouldn’t we?

Indianapolis is set to vote in November on the Marion County Transit Plan, which includes a .025 percent increase on income taxes to pay for expanded bus service (FYI: we pay .093 for trash collection). This doesn’t include the Red Line, which is already paid for by federal money. This plan expands the “typical” service on more city streets, longer hours, and higher frequency (the magic sauce of a successful system).

IndyGo being Indianapolis’ bus provider would receive that money and put it to work. IndyGo exists in a weird place alongside narrow company. They’re a municipal corporation, meaning they can receive public money, but largely operate on their own with their own oversight, governance, boards, and leadership. The Indianapolis Airport Authority and the Indianapolis-Marion County Public Library are the other two.

The airport does well with this. But they also have things to sell. Gate fees and usage fees for airlines and other companies keeps them flush. The library is much less so, but they can rent out space and presumably sell some tickets for events. And, luckily, you buy a book once and it’s pretty much okay forever.

IndyGo, however, is not in this fortunate position. Fare boxes can collect ticket revenue, but a bus’ fare box collects about enough money to pay for its gas. The bus itself, the driver, maintenance, and other infrastructure is reliant on public money.

I don’t think anyone with a rational bit of sense can look at IndyGo in its current state and say, “They’re inefficient with money.” If anything, they’re inefficient because they lack enough money to buy reasonably. Like when they buy a used bus from another city, usually Columbus, Ohio, and we run them until they’re powered by everyone’s feet sticking out the bottom. Like your dad who always bought $1,000 cars twice a year because it was “cheaper”.

But when folks walk out and say, “Hey, let’s levy a .025 income tax to pay for such-n-such”, this gets to be a really hard sell for a lot of reasonable people. There are places in Marion County that will pay for this and not see service. Probably ever. No one’s going to drive 4 miles just to take a bus for another 5. And no amount of squinting is ever going to make this valuable to them.

There are people, like me, who won’t see much difference because their current route’s frequency isn’t going up or down in the new plan, and I’m unlikely to ride a bus at 11 pm.

There are also rational people who will say, “Yeah, but for how long?” We pay .025 this year, and the next, but what about in 5? 10? Those costs have to go up sometime. What happens then must either be an increase or a reduction in services. This is true of trash service and lots of things, but it doesn’t seem to come up much. Plus, people are naturally inclined to assume whatever someone says about any public expenditure is likely not true. It’s almost impossible to accurately estimate anything at the scale of an entire city,anyway, but years of stories of really bad government spending has taken its toll.

I’m generally in the corner of privatized services because no one likes a monopoly, and government shouldn’t be allowed to run a monopoly on anything except military and police/justice matters.

And I know lots of great folks working at IndyGo. Like I said, no one can question their ability to make something out of nothing. But what would a private service look like? How come there isn’t a private company that takes on a large city’s bus service? We did it for the Commuter Express busses that served Carmel and Fishers, which was later doomed by low service frequency. Is it because it’s like education, where it inherently has to lose money, but we get a bunch of other things in return that makes that okay?

And if we did privatize it and regulate it like a utility, would that allow for more service through different hours, efficiency, savings, routes, or all of the above? I can imagine the biggest problem may be in loss of significant federal funding sources, which is a problem entirely in and of itself.

Indianapolis likes to lay claim to a bunch of successful public-private partnerships. We do this for school buses, trash collection, water, and electricity. Transportation seems like a reasonable place to look, too.

I ask these questions because I genuinely just don’t know. If anyone can point me to some guidance, please do.

On that story about opposing Indy’s Red Line

The Indy Star has a story up right now about opposition to the proposed Red Line. Proposed is a key word because nothing but planning and some grant proposals have been done yet. No one’s torn up a single inch of dirt on this thing.

For those of you not following along, the Red Line is a change from the current IUPUI/Downtown Red Line circulator that will be ending this year. The new Red Line is a proposed electric Bus Rapid Transit line that would, eventually, span almost all of Indianapolis’s north-to-south corridor from Carmel to Greenwood.

The initial chunk is a line stretching from about halfway up Marion County in Broad Ripple south to the University of Indianapolis. So about half way up and down from Downtown.

It would also be America’s first and largest all-electric BRT line (that’s actually World Class!). BRT differs from traditional buses in that they’re designed to move faster. There are fewer stops, people pay in advance, they look more like trains than busses, and they have dedicated lanes.

And therein lies the rub.

Northside residents who live near College Avenue have attended meetings and circulated an online petition to voice concern about the Red Line electric buses that would run as often as every 10 minutes from 66th Street in Broad Ripple to the University of Indianapolis on the Southside.

They are worried the route will devour parking spaces, consume turn lanes and entice drivers to speed through side streets to avoid  caravans of lane-hogging buses.

All for an eco-friendly, mass transit service they fear may attract few riders.

To be fair, Indianapolis is not a transit-centric city. But this reminds me of a conversation I had years ago with a counselor at IU when I said, “How come there aren’t more classes at night so working adults can complete degrees after work?” The response: “We have a more traditional student population that goes to class in the day.” Gee, you think if you at least offered something else that maybe people would do it? Turns out, they offer a metric ton more evening classes now. Same here: we’re not a transit city because IndyGo’s current operations to most people are unpalatable, with 60 minute wait times on most routes most of the day and few cross-town options.

But we know what ridership does on lines that aren’t 60+ minutes. They go up. Because on high-frequency lines that IndyGo now operates, like 8, 10, and 39, ridership is way up thanks to 20 minute frequency.

I don’t need to talk much about the planning aspects of this. Kevin Kastner has you covered there.

But there are a few lines I want to point out. First:

But some skeptics say the project would unnecessarily make over the streetscape of a booming residential and business corridor on College north of 38th Street, and they fear the Red Line could be a boondoggle that car-happy Indianapolis residents will rarely use.

Someone in a comment said they wanted to know what “booming corridor” that is. This is where semantics matter. If I said, “College north of 38th”, you think: “Poor black people.” If I said, “College, along SoBro (South Broad Ripple)”, you think, “Oh, the trendy place all the restaurants are going to.” It’s the same corridor. One just makes you a little more racist than the other.

Also: no one is “car-happy” in a Volvo. Go knock on the window of anyone sitting at a light anywhere in this city and ask, “Are you happy in your car?”

You’re “destination happy”, because you like having control of your time. No working Hoosier relishes their car payment. No one.

Next:

But the detractors find those estimates overly optimistic, given the city’s historic love affair with car travel and relatively congestion-free streets. They note that the College Avenue bus lines and other lines that run through the Northside, such as the No. 18 Nora and No. 19 Castleton, are often empty or half-full.

“Other than rush hour, that College bus runs empty all day long,” McGuire said, adding that expectations of new dwellings to “create ridership” are far-fetched. “Are they going to pull 11,000 riders out of midair?”

Is the bus half empty or half full?

Also, I hereby declare not one of these people can EVER AGAIN complain about 465. Ever. Not 69, not 70, not 65, or even 74 or 31 or 36 or any of the other dozen highways coming through here. Not ever. Because you are “car-lovers on congestion-free streets.”

And back to those “half empty busses”. You know what I see on my way to work in the morning, and on my way to lunch, and on my way home? Most of Downtown Indy’s 35,000+ parking spaces are empty.

This isn’t about which is better: cars or buses or bikes or walking or monorails or hover boards. This is about what kind of city Indy can be. It’s either a city that invests in efficient mechanisms to move people and save them money, or not. Because even if the estimates of $13/house/month to cover ALL of the other proposed IndyConnect expansions is off by 100%, it’s still $5,600 cheaper, on average, than owning a car per year. Mitch Daniels’ (you remember him, right? The adult we had before the doofus we have now?) biggest goal in his governorship was “raising the average earning of Hoosiers”. Would you like an extra $5,600 in your pocket ever year?

Otherwise you’re saying it’s fine to pay a bunch of money so you can afford to get to work. You’re saying there are enough people living here already, no one else needs to move in. You’re saying it’s fine that you have to drive your butt half a mile down the road for bread. You’re saying it’s fine that you never speak to your neighbors or walk across the street or let your kids play outside because the cars are there. You’re saying you’d rather College Ave. been a 45 MPH speed scape that lets people get out of town than a 30 MPH zone that supports businesses that in turn support your property value.

This is about recognizing there are better ways to build a city that save people money, their health, and their property values (is there a city that introduced a transit line that lowered property values?). It’s about recognizing that building all of the car infrastructure is just as dumb as a lot of other things cities build. Parking lots that sit empty, garages that look awful and create heat islands with no value beynd car storage, and roads that have fallen into disrepair because we built too damn many are dumb. It’s dumb that every person needs 2 tons of steel, aluminum, and plastic to move them 20 minutes down the road every day. Do you realize that every one of Indy’s Culural Districts, the places people really like, are really shitty towards cars? Parking in Fountain Square is awful. Mass Ave.’s parking is crap. Broad Ripple’s isn’t great along the strip. Could it be that when you take away all the car storage, it makes it a better place to actually walk around and be in?

It’s also dumb to say you don’t want or need this because you don’t want or need it. It’s like saying I’ve never been to Columbia City, Indiana, so let’s not pay for the roads to get there.

I’ve not once ever been inside Lucas Oil Stadium, but I pay for that, and I didn’t sign a damn petition about it.

I’ve never watched a race at IMS, but I didn’t complain about noise when I lived on that side of town.

Because that’s what nice people do.

I seem to remember people saying the same things about the Pacers Bike Share, and that’s done well. BlueIndy is still a thorn in people’s sides and it’s reported they’re having better success at this stage than they did in Paris.

No one’s coming for your damn parking spot, and even if they did, there’s literally about 50,000 more leftover.

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.