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.

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.