Broad Ripple to DT Lightrail Case Study

2008 Indianapolis Jobs (Possible LRT and commuter routes shown)
2008 Indianapolis Jobs (Possible LRT and commuter routes shown)

As a citizen of Indianapolis and a major supporter of mass transit, it should come as no surprise that I am always thinking about how we can pull off a successful light rail system. When I think about the key components that would create the best first step, there are many things to consider. First off, we must define the key characteristics of a transit line that will make it succeed:

  • Convenient
  • Connects activity centers
  • Rapid
  • Frequent service
  • Be on the Way

I have given a lot of lip service to the benefits of a Broad Ripple to downtown light rail service. Many people when asked where a light rail route would make the most sense in Indy also come up with the same answer. Geographically at it’s core, a Broad Ripple to downtown service would connect activity centers and connect dense neighborhoods that are on the way to employment centers. It is the other three criteria which, if mishandled, would make a route of such proportions a pointless endevour. So it is these three points I intend to examine and bolster in this post.


As I pointed out in my initial summary, a route that connected these two activity centers would provide access for thousands of people to thousands of jobs. If a primary goal of light rail is economic development and environmental justice, a route like this would take thousands of vehicle miles off the road daily while successfully transporting people to their jobs. Thousands of jobs lie within walking distance of a potential route that connects these two activity centers.


Rapid service must be offered so that a reasonable commuting time can be acheived. Why spend the money if the resulting service offers a travel time that is woeful in comparison to taking a car? Knowing that this is a priority can also assist in picking an appropriate travel route. Limiting mixed traffic operations and road crossings where possible will insure that the most rapid service can be offered while still providing as many stops as possible to promote development near stations and reach as many dense population centers as possible. Finding that mix can be the most difficult part of designing a route.

Frequent Service

If people are expected to abandon their cars and use transit, then a worthwhile level of service must be offered. Why won’t people wait for 30 to 45 minutes on a bus or train? Getting across Indianapolis in a car can be done in a half hour at a majority of times of the day. Thus, offering a service that arrives every 15 minutes or sooner must be designed. Anything more, will be the inflection point at which people opt to grab the keys when they leave for a trip.

The Proposed Route

Lower Portion, potential stops indicated
Lower Portion, potential stops indicated

Shown at the top of this post is a map that I created for my post, “Why Route Matters” from this past February. In that post, I laid out the basics of why a north/south route through midtown would provide a better return on investment compared to the NE Corridor currently under study by the MPO. Given the constraints that I have laid out above, lets look at the available geography afforded to the north and near north side of Indianapolis. Possible candidates for right of way include existing streets, private property and elevated tracks over existing roadways (ie: Clarian People Mover). In selecting the best route versus cost required to purchase right of way, existing streets offer a fantastic right of way. First, there is minimal need to purchase land from private property owners. Second, if the goal is to supplant cars from these areas, what better a way to do it then putting a train in place? Replacing cars with trains offers what may be the most politically difficult “sell” when it comes to planning a light rail system. However, that debate could be an entire post of it’s own. Furthermore, elevated tracks have become a thing of the past in most modern designs. Elevated tracks create barriers much like freeways do and are also unsightly and expensive.

I will divide my proposed route into multiple portions examining key focus areas. The lower portion will examine the Capitol & Illinois corridors. They provide excellent paths to the downtown job & activity centers. The upper portion will include a short jaunt on 38th street that would lead to College Ave. and ultimately Broad Ripple Ave/62nd Street.

Lower Portion

Capitol & Illinois are currently one way streets with 3 or more lanes for autos. Does asking for one lane for LRT upon each of these corridors seems like a good compromise between providing reasonable automobile access as it currently exists and creating an option for rail transit? I believe that they do. Furthermore, a route that utilizes these streets provides virtually front door access to the thousands of medical jobs from 16th street on south; an area poised to grow as an employment center thanks to the construction of the Neuroscience Center at 16th street and future investment via the Biocrossroads innitative.

 38th Street Portion

The 38th Street portion would utilize a short jaunt across 38th street between Capitol & College Ave. The least invasive way of doing this is by way of a median running transit route.

38th Street w/ Potential Stop Location
38th Street w/ Potential Stop Location

One station along this corridor would privide access to a number of apartment complexes as well as shopping centers and other locations in the neighborhood. Again, this is an area with a number of lanes in each direction in an existing wide right of way. Is asking for 1 dedicated lane each direction for this short portion asking a lot?

College Ave

College Ave/Broad Ripple Ave at a glance
College Ave/Broad Ripple Ave at a glance

Perhaps the crown jewel of transit for Indianapolis could be summed up as the College Avenue corridor and Broad Ripple Avenue. Contained along these two corridors are the best preserved legacy of the streetcars of yesterday. At many intersections along College Avenue, from downtown to 62nd street, are existing or relics of past dense retail nodes surrounded by dense housing. Broad Ripple Village is the top node of them all boasting a complete strip of shops still standing up to the street itself. Various apartment developments dot the surrounding area providing a dense retail and residential neighborhood. It is this dense form of yesterday that combines with the automobile culture of today that creates the toughest sitution to shoehorn light rail of some sort back into the mix. College Avenue itself is a 4 lane automobile corridor with parking along both sides for much of it’s length. It is also a busy automobile corridor. A rough dimension to describe it’s width is 55′ between existing street curbs. Finding the right balance of dedicated right of way for transit and automobiles is a huge challenge. So how might we approach this opportunity to excel? One approach is to try shoehorning two dedicated lanes in the median as I proposed for 38th street. This could create some difficult situations for island platforms and could also lead to a reduction in automobile right of way making this a politically dicy proposal. It is the opinion of this author that this idea would not be a bad one. However, I live in the reality that weening people off of cars is going to take some compromise.

College Ave Solution 

Example of Priority Lanes on College Ave
Example of Priority Lanes on College Ave

Taking a page from the Bus Rapid Transit dictionary, comes the notion of mixed operation with traffic with demand lanes at major street crossings. The number of potential stop lights from 38th street to Broad Ripple Avenue are 7 if we include the one at Broad Ripple Avenue. Traffic normally flows reasonably well along this path except at traffic signal crossings. Finding a way to manage rapid transit movement at these intersections could be a key opportunity to mixing trains with autos and still have an opportunity to offer a premium rapid transit service. Another option could be to only operate these demand lanes during peak commuting times giving lane priority to light rail. Locals should be used to what switching traffic patterns look like by travelling on Fall Creek Parkway during peak commuting times. There, the middle lane is changed in the mornings and evenings to give an extra lane to the direction of majority commuters; southbound priority in the morning and northbound priority in the evening.

By doing this, existing automobile traffic lanes could be maintained with a minimal obstruction while still being able to offer a premium transit service. In the end, negotiating something for transit where nothing currently exists, cannot be seen as a large request given the potential benefits.


Broad Ripple Ave Solution

The other difficult portion of a northside rail route is Broad Ripple Ave. In the early days of streetcar usage, Broad Ripple Ave. was the home of a street located rail in both directions where automobiles currently travel. If you have ever visited the Village on a warm summer day or a weekend, then you know that automobile congestion is already a difficult issue. How do we solve this? Part of the problem today is the search for free or cheap parking. Now that the parking meter deal is in place, this should help aleviate congestion. A large majority of all traffic congestion is caused by people circling the block (link to Primer on Parking) looking for available parking. With the new meters in place, turnover should increase and people looking for parking should decrease. If the reported parking garage is to be realized, then congestion for the village could be a problem of the past. However, for the purposes of this case study, I will assume that the existing congestion will remain.

Broad Ripple Ave Proposal
Broad Ripple Ave Proposal

In that respect, I offer the center lane which is currently reserved for turning, to be converted to a 2 way dedicated transit lane. This could be used by trains and by buses travelling through the village. It would only be 1 lane through the most dense portion of Broad Ripple Ave from College Ave, to just east of the Monon where some sort of 2 lane dedicated service could be installed that either uses the median or shifts automobile traffic in some fashion. An alternative to the single center transit lane, can be seen as the dashed line in the graphic. A 2nd lane could be added via this route to facilitate a true 2 way transit path through the village neighborhood. While this could hinder rapid transit through the village, it could also offer access to the side streets of the village with the added benefit of a 2nd dedicated transit lane. It should be noted that any transit lane that traverses the Broad Ripple village is likely to be subject to heated debate as business owners and residents are quite proud of the built environment. Anything that might upset that is likely to be a hotly contested debate. Finally, extending service to the Glendale area could provide what I propose be the only park and ride facility for such a transit route. There are ample surface lots on the property of the old Glendale Mall (now turned Target anchored shopping center) that could be used as park and ride for north side residents wishing to commute downtown for their day jobs.


Have I presented an air tight case for a northside light rail route? No. However, I think I have presented a fair assesement of the geography and some possible solutions to one of the tantalizing rail routes of our region. If done correctly, a rail route through the midtown area could capture thousands of daily vehicle trips, provide economic development potential along old streetcar routes, provide access to jobs and activity centers for thousands of residents as well as conventioners/tourists who visit the downtown area as well as potentially relieve congestion. This case study also highlights a route that could set Indianapolis down a path that could stimulate the rehabilitation of multiple neighborhoods along it’s route which are currently bearing the brunt of disinvestment thanks to suburban sprawl which the recent census has indicated is still on a runaway pace in this region. My analysis also suggests a route that is 100% contained within current automobile right of way; a notion which has not been taken up very often in America. Phoenix, AZ has come the closest with nearly the entire portion of its 20 mile light rail line running along existing auto right of way. This case study is not an airtight one, however it is one that I believe truly offers an ENOURMOUS potential to outperform any commuter rail or BRT route currently drawn on a map by Indyconnect.

Special thanks to fellow Urban Indy writer Graeme Sharpe for some concepts applied in this case study

Comments 24

  • 🙂
    The 38th Street issue could be avoided by using 34th over to Fairfield, then to College. It is further from the office and residential concentration around 38th & Meridian, but it is also the historic route and there’s plenty of ROW and less tangling with heavy traffic.
    I think I would also run the line further east on South to catch Rolls Royce, Lilly, and Anthem, then southeast to Fountain Square. A future extension could then go south to UIndy, and one could go north from Glendale to Keystone Crossing and Carmel.

  • Yes Chris, we could haggle for years over small changes, extensions, further and what not. I just wanted to point out the difficulties for “Broad Ripple light rail” that everyone is always excited about.

    Thanks for the comments 🙂 I do agree, 34th/Fairfield isnt a bad idea.

    Also, reaching the other employment centers not caught by such a line as I proposed could be handled by robust circulators in the DT area.

  • I believe the new parking meter deal somewhat restricts city’s ability to displace existing meters. Maybe there won’t be any need to displace the meters (along the route), but just thinking outloud.

    Anyway, I am glad you took the time to do this. I think “Broad Ripple – Midtown – Downtown” desperately need a mass transit project (especially Midtown) to stop losing residents.

    I lived in a city in Europe with an extensive streetcar network, and they had streetcars/light rail mixed with car traffic in streets that were like College Ave. or smaller (in which case it was one way rail). It worked well in my opinion.

  • Excellent write up by the Overhead Wire today that supports my case study.

  • Very nice. You’ve obviously done your homework…great job!

    I created a similar map about a year ago based on my own analysis…,-86.156502&spn=0.094183,0.154324&z=13

  • It’s nice to see that Spring turns a young man’s fancy to light rail… : )

    This is a provocative post, Curt, and demonstrates a boldness of vision lacking in the IndyConnect proposal. Given the many obstacles facing such a project, it’s no wonder the powers that be shrink from proposing (much less funding and building) such a necessary upgrade to the City’s transit system. A few observations: to remove parked cars along the College Ave. corridor the City will have to upgrade alleys to encourage alternative parking arrangements. At some point a ban on parking along College might have to be implemented (I can already hear the controversy brewing!) As tempting as it might be, we cannot use Phoenix/Tempe as a model of LRT sharing ROW w/ autos. Having visited family there and used the system, I can report that the LRT street ROWs are more like Keystone than College (I apologize for inadvertently supporting IndyConnect’s designation of Keystone as the LRT corridor rather than College.) Having also lived in Europe, I can validate JP’s observation that European streets w/ ROW widths similar to College accommodate trolleys & cars (and mopeds and scooters and bikes and buses). There is, however, the American auto-centric mindset to combat which includes the perception (at least in Broad Ripple) that unless one can park right in front of one’s destination, there is insufficient parking. Another aspect of Phoenix/Tempe’s system (which can also be borne out by construction of the Cultural Trail’s East End of Mass Ave section) is that construction took years, creating traffic havoc and ruining many businesses. Since the proposed route utilizes a dense corridor, construction along College Ave. would result in a major disruption for several years. Perhaps closing off College at certain segments (say between 38th & 42nd, then 42nd & 49th, etc. on up to BRV) and offering the construction firm incentives for fast-tracking each segment we might minimize the pain. JP is correct that the City’s deal w/ ACS provides penalty payments to ACS if/when meters are moved or taken out of service. BRAVE is a tough one and your proposal to run a transit line down the Center lane is interesting but would probably only work if parking were removed from both sides of the street in BRV’s central business core. Also, delivery trucks love to use the center lane and since the adjacent alleys are too small to accommodate them, they could cause increased congestion along the Avenue. On a recent Channel 16 program, a town hall discussion between 5 Indy Mayors (Lugar, Hudnut, Goldsmith, Peterson & Ballard) transit was a hot topic. Peterson put it this way, “Who’s going to ask for the tax increase?” [to pay for transit.] No one could answer. So, yeah, there are challenges but I would LOVE to figure out how to make this happen sooner rather than later. This post is a great catalyst.

  • Curt, the article from OVERHEAD WIRE makes a lot of sense. Could you imagine College Avenue being ‘THE GUT’ of Indy’s transit revolution? Carmel to Broad Ripple to Downtown to Fountain Square…makes sense to me. It seems to be the only real solution, yet so unreal because of local politics, of course. It seems that as a worse case scenario, the many wide, one way streets like Central and Illinois seem to pose less construction problems with the existing ROW and land use. But, it’s still very clear Indy’s gut is COLLEGE AVENUE.

  • Give us those glass and steel boxes that roll on rubber tyres.

    Broad Ripple to City and back again.

  • Great Post Curt!

    I hope this gains some good grass roots effort by the local neighborhood groups and businesses that could benefit. With a critical mass of grassroots effort our politicians could be persuaded to make this happen.

    A few more points I would like to see addressed;

    A) What is the average distance one would walk to catch a train?
    B) How many people live and work with in the the target area?
    C) Would it be feasible to turn Broad Ripple Ave. in to a ped mall with light rail running through and allow service vehicles?
    D) How would this benefit the tourist economy?

  • Both College Ave. and Broad Ripple Ave average 5 lanes with 2 taken as parking.
    Consider this ;
    The line runs adjacent to the sidewalks with the entering and exit platforms sharing the sidewalk space. Thus the 2 outer lanes will be used exclusively for the LRT with headways less than 15 min ea.

    Use 2 of the 3 lanes for regular traffic and the extra one for alternate side time dependent parking and an extra traffic lane during rush hour. This will give us a net loss of 1 side for parking. More parking could be made by using the extra right of way that exists as a grassy buffer between the sidewalk and existing street mid block.

  • This would benefit the tourist economy by connecting Downtown to The Children’s Museum and Broad Ripple, two of the top additional destinations for tourists staying downtown.
    In fact, the reason for the westward jog in the line is that the Capitol/Illinois corridor hits the commercial/institutional/tourist core of the city, from TCM down past Methodist, the Stutz, and the office-tower concentration to the hotels and Convention Center/LOS complex. It also comes very close to the apartment cluster on North Meridian. An “all College” line just runs past low-density residential and a few c-stores from 38th to Michigan.

  • IND Line, the questions in your first replay are difficult to answer. Frankly, it depends on the geographic area that a line goes through. Traditionally, a transit stop has a 1/4 mile radius or sphere of influence. However, lots of things can affect that. If the route goes along a river or highway for instance, people are either geographically limited or flat out dont want to cross a highway to get to the stop. You can see instances of this in places like Chicago and Denver where transit stops have been located in the median of freeways. Great place to route a train, horrible place to capture the potential value.

    As for turning Broad Ripple Ave into a pedestrian mall, that is a great idea. I think it would receive massive push back from business owners, area residents and visitors though. We live in the Midwest, not Europe. In Europe, this would be done already. It makes that much sense. Furthermore, there is the dastardly parking meter lease which imposes penalties for removing meters unless others are added to take their place. There could be a potential trade involved in there. There are other ways of getting rail through the village though. There is always 65th street past the brew pub and back to Broad Ripple Ave via the grass flood embankment on Westfield Blvd. Obviously, this would require moving some pumping facilities and reinforcing the flood wall. I also feel that, the small side street that runs past Bazbeaux’s Pizza could be converted for two way light rail usage with removal of parking spaces. Since the garage would be located across the canal, a case could be made that existing spots are relocated across the street. Plus, they are not currently metered. The point is, there are plenty of possibilities but they all require some sort of negotiation, relocation of utilities or property purchase to make it happen.

  • Curt – given the similar routing suggested by a certain suburban Mayor, have you thought about potentially avoiding being on BR Avenue and continuing north – either along College or Westfield? The density suffers quickly with either one, but the political prowess and support to connect up to Carmel could prove beneficial. Plus, the connection further north would serve BR and Indianapolis much more than it would the suburbs.

    • Makes more sense to run from BR to Glendale and up to Keystone Crossing: better residential density and more jobs, shopping, and employment centers.
      Or (as Slick Leonard would say) go right up Meridian: use the old Interurban ROW along College, then cut back to Meridian at 86th to catch the big employment stretch between 88th and 136th.
      College/Westfield alignment through to Carmel would be a poor third from a Marion County perspective.

  • It is a possibility. The land exists to make it happen however, fighting the north Washington Township NIMBYs could prove even harder than convincing state reps that we need transit to begin with. Ive offered to sit in on such conversations and offer advise as a resident and someone who is actively researching.
    Frankly, it comes down to a lot of money for the majority of the line to lie within low density outer ring suburban tracts; no matter where it is routed. I cannot deny how nice it would be to connect Broad Ripple and Carmel Art’s District. But until something happens with the glut of the low density land in between, it would be a realtively underperforming line in my opinion.

  • More fodder for deate on The Transport Politic. Again, another independant national blog of significant opinion shines the spotlight on Indy….

  • From The Transport Politic:
    “From the perspective of a central city mayor or city councilperson, focusing on their city’s transportation needs alone may be more productive, since urban-scale transit lines like metro rail, light rail, or bus rapid transit offer connections between a variety of destinations within the densest areas of the region — and they attract many more users in the process than do commuter rail lines. It is true that transit use even within central cities is also heavily dependent on the strength of downtown employment, but even a weak core, like strong ones, is more likely to attract riders from the surrounding neighborhoods than from far-out suburbs. We should be planning our public transportation systems accordingly. Can regions perform that type of planning?”
    Just what I’ve been saying since “they” took light rail out of IndyConnect: Marion County should focus on rail and bus improvements for Marion County and forget about supporting the commuter rail line to Fishers.

  • Since we kind of touched on mixed car/rail street use, and if College is wide enough to accomodate car and rail traffic, I wanted to show two youtube videos (both less than a minute long). Both show streetcars in action (Lisbon and Zagreb).

    Someone shot this one from the streetcar. It is a two way rail, narrow street, mixed train/car use. There is a little bit of craziness with people crossing the street everywhere, but check out the building density and sidewalks full of people.

    The second video illustrates that a street really doesn’t have to be very wide to have a mixed use. Ok, even for my standards this seems little too narrow. Of course, most European cities are very old and have much greater density.

    I am not suggesting that this is how Indy’s rail should look like, but I think we should not make too many excuses and compromises when it comes to where the streetcar rail should be build. My mindset is less “how do we accomodate car traffic”, and more “how do we replace car traffic”. Take Jersey City for example, where I some parts (those with good public transit) have car ownership at less than 50%.

  • Quite possibly the best proposed light rail route for Indy I have seen so far.

    I have two possible solutions to the congestion during the stretch through broadripple. The first would be to have a split in the route. For example eastbound trains would utilize BR ave and would use westfield blvd. Or vice versa.

    The other option could be to only have one track through the most congested area, between college and compton. This would only allow one train through the area at a time, but I feel even with semi rapid scheduling this could be managed to keep trains from waiting on the other.

  • *for example eastbound trains would utilize BR ave and westbound would utilize westfield*

    -too many wests

  • JP those videos are fantastic. The first one was pretty intense with all those trams moving past each other. If I had my druthers College Ave and Broad Ripple Ave would both have service like that. Mixed with autos I mean.

    I just know how difficult that would be politically here.

  • I agree, politically it would be close to impossible. You can look no farther than Cincinnati to see the kind of upheel battle ahead. They had a project pretty much ready to go with “money in the bank”, mayor on board, and even a state expert body identifying it as the state’s highest ranking transportation project. But Ohio’s newly elected governor managed to derail the project by simply shifting federal funds from streetcar project to road projects. No expert opinions, studies, reasons…

  • So what’s wrong with improving the bus system instead? Bus route. 17 already goes from downtown along College through Broad Ripple and over to Glendale, which connects to the Keystone route. The 38th st routes provide connections to some of the other N/S routes, if you don’t want to go all the way back downtown. What’s wrong with adding busses to run oftener than once an hour, and later into the evening?

  • Great idea. Good plan. Should also have dedicated service to airport. Sadly reactionary GOP strokes cannot see the “profit” in any transit. Quality of life, reduced congestion and less pollution are unimportant. Poor people should buy cars and join the gridlock–afterall poverty is a choice as we all know. NOT

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