Why Route Matters for Indianapolis

When Indyconnect released their latest revised plan, “light rail” was gutted from the 25 year vision and “commuter rail” routes previously slated for the NE and S corridors, were lengthened from their originally proposed routes.  The basis for the removal of light rail wasn’t against the merits of commuter rail over light rail; it was for the geographic location in which each potential mode was planned to be routed and the associated costs with constructing in those locations. Not the mode itself. Property acquisition aside, traditional tie & ballast construction is cheaper than rail in a roadway as the proposed light rail lines are shown. There are also less political battles that need to be fought to secure right of way for the trains when routed where the commuter lines are planned; since they follow either existing or abandoned freight lines. However,  those routes give up a lot for this relative ease of construction. Geographic proximity to the population, employment and activity centers of the region are not optimum when compared to the routes of the proposed light rail lines.

Long Range Vision Map (image source: MPO report)
Long Range Vision Map (image source: MPO report)

Exhibit A:

See this map? This was taken from the Indianpolis MPO long range transit vision document. We can clearly see two light rail routes that have been envisioned. One that runs east/west along Washington Street and another that runs north/south from Broad Ripple to the University of Indianapolis via the existing thrufare streets of College, Capitol & Illinois, and Madison. These light rail routes easily offer superior access to the population, employment and activity centers in the Marion County area. Suffice to say, our planners know this, and that is why the potential routes are located along existing city streets. Most of the streets are already wide, and could accomodate losing a traffic lane for some sort of rail.

Indianapolis Job Centers

In looking at the employment centers of Indianapolis, I employed the LEHD (longitudinal employer-household dynamics) website which is supplied using 2008 Census Data. The map below, shows the distribution of job centers around the Indianapolis area. I have overlayed the two proposed light rail lines, as well as the NE Corridor commuter line. For all intents & purposes, the South Commuter line follows the southeast pointing leg of the south light rail line and continues from there. Aside from some employment centers on Keystone Ave near 46th street which the commuter line provides great access to, the light rail lines clearly offer superior access to jobs around the city; which is really what this is about. Economic development is stirred via jobs and to a lesser extent, activity centers. This is true from nearly every perspective that a transit agency can offer service from social justice to attracting choice riders. The N/S light rail route in particular provides easy walking distance from any point on it’s route to the vast majority of jobs in Indianapolis.

2008 Indy Job Centers (lt rail: red/grn comm rail: blue)
2008 Indy Job Centers (lt rail: red/grn comm rail: blue)

Indianapolis MSA (regional) Job Centers

This map shows the entire Indianapolis MSA. I have also highlighted the same potential routes on this map as the first one. With this map, we get a great sense of jobs distribution around the region. We can see that there are some jobs further out along the commuter route in the Fishers/Noblesville region. These places look to be well served by the commuter route if you are a resident of Indianapolis working there and need to reverse-commute. However, if we accept that a commuter route’s reason for existing is providing rapid service (vs. single occupant automobiles) for those living in suburbs to the urban cores, rhetorically speaking,  is the commuter route’s existence supporting this? Serving suburban job centers is a REAL problem for modern transportation planners of all disciplines; highway or transit. Additionally, if you consider the MSA map, the area represented by US31/465 justifiably has an argument for having some sort of rapid rail service. This point was echod by Mayor Jim Brainard of Carmel who recently complained that there was not enough rail in the plan.

2008 Indy MSA Job Centers (lt rail: red/grn comm rail: blue)
2008 Indy MSA Job Centers (lt rail: red/grn comm rail: blue)


It’s clearly obvious which routes offer the best potential for high ridership numbers. Simply looking at data points on a map and plotting transit routes through the dense city population where the job centers and activity centers are,  the decision is a no-brainer. Job’s aside, visiting the Indianapolis neighborhoods of Midtown, Irvington or Broad Ripple, one gets a sense that these are where the people of Indianapolis want to be. These are the neighborhoods where people are getting out and going places, and thus, activity centers have justification for service. One may be able to justify some visits to the Fishers town center area or perhaps Greenwood via the commuter routes, but the destinations in Indianapolis that I have highlighted provide a sense of place head and shoulders over the suburban points; at least in this writer’s opinion. At this point, it would be easy to simply say, “Why aren’t we building light rail instead of the commuter rail?” A lot of people, myself included, often fall into this argument from the jump off and forsake all logic for the dream of hopping on a light rail train from a sidewalk in Broad Ripple and riding it downtown. It is worth noting that the Indyconnect plan recommends Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) following both the N/S & Washington Street light rail routes. However, is this mode of transportation worthy of drawing as many people as light rail? I intend to fully lay out why we think this way, in my next post titled, “Why Mode Matters for Indianapolis”. In the meantime, I hope that I have provided some reasons why we think the way we do regarding light rail vs commuter rail vs BRT

Final Thoughts

2007 Census Estimated Population Density
2007 Census Estimated Population Density

One last thought on the routes chosen for commuter rail. Should we continue to incentivize suburban interest by first choosing routes that serve these communities? A quick glance at the 2010 Census survey (below) shows how population shift has occured over the past 10 years. Blue indicates a positive shift while red indicates a negative shift. It is clear where people are voting with their feet in terms of where they want to live. Is this a result of cheap property? Or is it part of our land-use and transportation policy making it difficult to live in the urban core? You can see from the map above, based upon 2007 Census estimates, the population densities still favor the inner core of Marion County. However, continuing to provide options for citizens that promote suburban living will only weaken the core of our region as time goes on. Planners tell us today that it costs to much to invest in the light rail routes. I say it costs too much NOT to. THIS is why route matters for Indianapolis.

Population Change 2000-2010 (image source: 2010 Census)
Population Change 2000-2010 (image source: 2010 Census)

Comments 9

  • This discussion relates to what I said in a prior post. Catering to suburbanites with commuter rail seems to be a 21st century version of building more and more freeways for those same suburbanites in mid 20th century America. And we saw how that worked out………the freeways bisected many neighborhoods and encouraged people to move farther from the city, leading to serious decline in many American cities. People who live in the suburbs quit the city or never ever considered it a living priority……….so why should their concerns take precedence over city residents?

    I said in an earlier post that Indianapolis needs to rebuild for itself……..do what turns it on and not what others outside the city might want or think,,,,,,,,,and that includes putting city residents first before those who have chosen to live in the suburbs. I know that’s a novel idea…..after all, suburbanites tend to have more money and more clout. Nonetheless, I continue to believe city residents need to be given their due. And over time we have seen that city residents prefer lite rail over buses and most new lite rail lines lead to new investment around LT stops and increased densities along a line’s right of way……….something apparently the central part of Indianapolis [outside the CBD] is badly needing given its population losses. After all, its your existing residents who are most committed to the city so why shouldn’t they get first preference……or at least equal preference.

    Indianapolis has solid economics, a healthy downtown core, a small minority population and is generally attractive. There is no excuse for the city to be losing so many people from its heart. Again, I think if Indianapolis rebuilds with the concept that what pleases its residents is given top priority, the city will be far more attractive to everyone.

  • I used to be opposed to rail mass transit, but perhaps it makes some sense if limited to the near-downtown area. Suppose there were easy transit from, say, the Lockerbie area to IUPUI? This might be an attractive “short commute” that would increase downtown density, and would certainly cost less than running double-track rail lines and stations out to Fishers.

  • Except for principal cities of the United States – NYC, Chicago, SF, LA – commuter rail has been a bust everywhere. Few commuter rail routes in mid-size cities attract even 10,000 trips a day. Even Portland’s Westside MAX, in a city that’s very inclined to use rail transit, gets fewer than 2,000 riders a day. Light rail lines there get 15,000 – 30,000 trips a day. It’s stupid to make a major investment just to capture work trips; they’re only 20% of all trips today.

    Indy rail advocates should focus on a modern streetcar on a 3-5 mille route, demonstrate results from a moderate investment and move from there to electric light rail. Building commuter rail will simply prove the critics are right when they say, “No one rides trains.”

  • Good post.

    I’m not that familiar with Indiana politics, but my understanding is that IndyConnect is essentially a regional entity, not a downtown-focused one; and that the bulk of political power in the Indiana metro area is to be found in the suburban parts of the region, not the central city. Given that, a suburban-focused outcome isn’t unsurprising. Even in Portland, where I’m from, our transit system cannot ignore the suburbs (we have a strong regional MPO and a regional transit agency), and indeed, most of the light rail lines planned or operating extend beyond the city limits. (And more than a handful of urbanists dislike the system for that reason).

    Commuter rail has its places, but where it works best is linking cities with exurbs, not with suburbs. At Portland Transport, we recently did an article on the future prospects of commuter rail in Portland, including more analysis of the WES (Westside Express Service) commuter line. (The prior commenter misidentified WES as MAX–MAX is Portland’s light rail system, which gets 120k+ boarding rides per day on four lines and 52 miles of track, not the 15-30k figure cited).

    I look forward to your next article!

  • The regional focus of the MPO shifted the plan towards helping commuters from fishers, noblesville, etc. through the bottleneck of 465-69, rather than spurring economic development within Indy with light rail.

    Suggesting light rail as only a future expansion is a joke. When it comes to light rail in Indy, the city needs to start taking the lead and acting on its own if this is ever going to happen because the suburbs have no interest along Meridian St. FYI, Detroit is breaking ground on light rail along a corridor very similar to Meridian next year using private-public funds. So if Detroit can do it, I would hope Indy could.

  • “(The prior commenter misidentified WES as MAX–MAX is Portland’s light rail system, which gets 120k+ boarding rides per day on four lines and 52 miles of track, not the 15-30k figure cited).”

    My mistake in calling WES the Westside MAX, especially since I use the latter to get to Hillsboro often. And the 15,000 – 30,000 per day number, what I meant by that was that’s the range that’s needed today for a new light rail line, not a complete system, to meet FTA’s Cost-Effectiveness Criteria. Norfolk’s new system will probably be at the low end of that range. Phoenix, with 40,000 riders a day, far exceeds it. I’m guessing Portland’s Banfield Line to Gresham probably exceeds 30,000 riders a day now too. Sure seems like it when I’m on it in the PM peak.

    And I agree with the poster above, cities may need to go it alone for a while, at least until gas prices rise substantially from where they are now.

  • Route doesn’t matter nearly as much as politics and funding.
    Interestingly, the majority of Metro Indy residents still live in the core county. Barely…but still a majority. The problem is that there is still an “urban-suburban” divide within the county even though there is unified government.
    Add to that the fact that Indianapolis lacks home rule. Indianapolis’ powers are defined in state laws pertaining to “first class cities”…of which there is exactly one in Indiana. So it’s not a big stretch to say that when it comes to self-funding urban improvements, Indianapolis has a two-house city council of 150 (the Indiana House and Senate); there is a significant anti-urban sentiment among the 110 or so representatives who are not from the metro area, and even some from the 20 or so suburban representatives. The Legislature is from the “no tax increases” school, which extends to “even in Indianapolis”.
    Further, Indiana’s local income tax is levied where one lives, not where one works. So there is no way for Indianapolis to tax the wages of commuters without a new state law. And again, the chance of that is about the same as a snowstorm in South Beach. No new taxes, especially if it looks like a grab by Indianapolis and the other cities that are employment magnets for exurban/rural folks.
    It is hard to be optimistic about good urban-form transit in Indy. The deck is really stacked against it.

    • Any US city can find an excuse as to why transit is difficult to implement. Keep your eyes on the prize and start getting creative.

      • This comment wasn’t intended as an excuse. I have highlighted the key structural issue identified in the IndyConnect study: the metro area needs the ability to raise funds to pay for an improved transit system. Indianapolis can’t impose new taxes without state government authority, nor can the regional authority (CIRTA) do so. State and Federal subsidies are unlikely in the current budget climate. Financing is where the creativity is needed.
        Alas, there is only so much local “financial engineering” possible; the city’s TIF and bonding ability is pretty well tapped out with the sports palaces, convention center expansion, JW, and the new downtown developments now on the boards (North of South, IU Health Admin, Bank One Ops Center).
        I have previously advocated ignoring the ‘burbs and generating and spending transit funding wholly within Marion County. That gets rid of a whole layer of regional politics; if the suburbs don’t perceive Indy’s hand in their wallets, their legislators might be willing to go along with creating a new funding stream. Then, the routes can follow the money instead of following the freeways to the suburbs.

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