Regional Transit and the Trip Not Taken

The past year and some change has been an exciting time for transit in Indianapolis. I feel like we may be moving from the decades of study, study, study to something actually taking place. Proof of that is the current undertaking of the NE Corridor AA/EIS which is also accompanied by a land use study which will not only strengthen Indianapolis’ bid to get federal funding for the project but also lay out a plan for what we would like the areas around the stations to look and feel like.

Portand MAX Light Rail at the airport (image credit: Curt Ailes)
Portand MAX Light Rail at the airport (image credit: Curt Ailes)

As of late, both the Republican and Democratic mayoral candidates have been supportive of improved mass transit. Both have been very vague about how that mass transit should LOOK deferring to the ongoing study of the long range transit plan and how to pay for it; a matter which will hit a key milestone in the upcoming state legislative session. However, one thing that both candidates have been clear about is that whatever plan is adopted into a funded plan, it should be regional in nature. I asked Melina Kennedy in a recent meeting with her team, just what IS regional transit? Her reply was that whatever transit plan is put into place, should engage all the surrounding counties within the region; something that Indyconnect has done.

Within the same breath, I attended the Urban Summit at the IMA which served to air out a lot of ideas about the Indianapolis region; transit being one of the key topics. One of the speakers on stage, John Schneider from Cincinnati, talked about the Cincinnati Streetcar and pinpointed an interesting notion. We all talk about improved rail transit, bus rapid transit and local bus service. At the same time, we talk about how stations along rail corridors can serve as magnets for robust urban themed development in the form of multi-story buildings, retail, residential and reduced parking. Indeed, we talk about all these themes quite often here. One thing that often gets swept under the rug, is how increased mobility in the form of the aforementioned rapid transit, can actually lead to a reduction in people travelling around the region; that the very areas we advocate be created around rapid transit stops could serve to keep the people who are attracted TO them, from travelling AWAY from them.

Cultural Trail (image credit: Curt Ailes)
Cultural Trail (image credit: Curt Ailes)

I suppose an introspective look at this tells me that I have been a little lax in mentioning this notion, but it is 100% true. I think it is a paradigm I see in my head and accept that everyone understands this already. This behavior also has a term attached to it and in the transit world it is called, “The Trip Not Taken”. It is also often used as a term to describe the automobile trip eliminated by transit. For you readers NOT from Indy, this notion may be easy to see since you may experience it on a daily basis. But for those of us in Indy without quality rapid transit, it is a foreign lifestyle. The vast majority of us get in a car to go where we need to. Want to go to Broad Ripple? Sure you can take the 17 if you don’t mind waiting 45 minutes for it to show up. Sometimes we take bikes, but even I am guilty of using an automobile for the majority of my trips. There is simply no service established that I can use to move around as quickly as I need to from work, to school and back home. Corridors such as the Monon, the Cultural Trail, bike lanes, etc help to speed bicycle trips but even for me, riding across the county is not a time saving option. For localized trips though, it is a form of an auto trip not taken.

So what do we use quality rapid transit to get to, once these new urbanized station locations are created? If we don’t work around them, we use them to get to work or to visit oher exciting station areas. I have blogged at length (here, here) about the importance of connecting the existing job, population & activity centers. The major ones being downtown Indy, Broad Ripple & Carmel (along US31); Carmel qualifies as a regional transit destination for those of you keeping score.

Cycling on the Central Canal (image credit: Curt Ailes)
Cycling on the Central Canal (image credit: Curt Ailes)

I guess the point of the blog post is that we shouldn’t lose track of what we are all trying to create. We are likely to hear a lot of rhetoric from our mayoral candidates about regional transit, but what will regional transit deliver? Would it be nice to have half a dozen light rail routes across the region? I can say 100% that it would be convenient,  a great service and also a bragging point for the city. But in the end, we should also think about what we want to create around these stops which are great spots for our residents to live, work & play in as well as keeping an eye towards building (or rebuilding) areas to be conducive to these themes as well as environmental justice. Can we create these themes in all parts of the region; urban & suburban? That may be the next conversation for Indianapolis once we figure out how to pay for regional transit.

Comments 29

  • Nicely said Curt. I know that there are many days where my car never leaves its spot on the street. We’ll improve as a city if more people were able to say the same thing.

  • I agree. My car sits for weeks at a time. If we had a truly comprehensive regional system……my car would be gone. I ride my bike about anywhere I need and the motorists that pass by me love it. Actually, there are times when, at a red light, a 4-wheeled friend will ask what my commute distance or time may be and then state how he or she would like to ride more, but aren’t sure of a route or safety. I believe there is a lot of pent up demand, but we are so beaten down and so poorly educated on transit benefits that it almost doesn’t matter to most and quite a few even get angry because they feel god has provided them liberty for the car and all resources must flow to them. I think if we show that it is possible even in the worst system, then more people will feel positive towards providing a useable system………

    Then again, maybe not. Fortunately if my efforts are unseen by the decision making bodies, I still save money, stay healthy and enjoy my commute!

  • I am so excited about transit in Indianapolis! After looking through everything I have found I am concerned about getting ‘regional’ people to ride ‘regional’ transit. Currently in the downtown you have to walk or taxi from one side of downtown to the other. It is a personal opinion but I would like to see the first phase of transit be a downtown circulator so people that do not live in the urban areas of Indianapolis can see how beneficial transportation can be. I believe a downtown circulator will go a long way to removing stereo types people have about transit and encourage the group of a regional transportation system. I believe we really only have one shoot to ‘sell’ mass transit to this city and I want to make sure we prove how great it can be!

  • “…it should be regional in nature.”

    What this really means: It should be regionally funded in nature. For my county, I get a bus, and some “trails” and “pathways.” They blanket the western 1/3rd of Hancock County with these alledged “trails” and “pathways,” so I guess land confiscation, a/k/a eminent domain, will be used heavily here? I guess this promise of a massive trail and pathway system is somehow supposed to bribe us into begging for a tax increase?

    This current Indy Connect plan is too light on tax details. You aren’t going to get the bulk of the taxpayers to give Fishers and downtown Indy a rail system. I don’t for a second believe that the “proposed” trails and pathways that are to come to my county will ever happen. I guess I have to give Indy Connect credit, as they used the word “proposed.” Twenty years from now, when not one inch of those trails and pathways have been built, they can just tell us complainers “We didn’t say we would build them, we just proposed them. Sorry, we don’t have the money. All our money has to go in bailing out the Fishers to Downtown Indy train.”

    I would be all for a tax to provide expanded bus service. I have never liked the hub and spoke design of IndyGo. To me, some streets should have buses running then entire road way as the roads pass through Marion County: Emerson Ave., 38th Street, Raymond St., Shadeland Ave., 82nd/86th St., 96th St., German Church, etc.. I would rather see a grid pattern emerge with Indy Go. Secondly, the buses should stop at intersections and every half-mile. There should be no two stops closer than a half mile.

    I’m not paying for a train to bus folks from Fishers to Downtown Indy. They chose their lifestyle of living there, they can deal with the traffic if they want to work downtown. Propose a cool bus system and I’m all on board, keep the current system, and I will fight tooth and nail against it.

    • Tim, you have a valid gripe. If you look at the Indyconnect map, all that Hancock county would get, would be express bus, and proposed trails. Additionally, the recently proposed Central Indiana Bike Plan, doesnt paint that much for Hancock county.
      However, what this says, is that your local (in Hancock Cty) officials have not dedicated the money for the trails. It isnt going to magically flow from Indy to Greenfield. Even though the plan is regional in nature, it requires local officials dedicating the money. It takes folks like you picking up the phone, sending emails, etc, telling them you want to see more.
      Moreover, I would challenge you with this question. Why do you live in the metro area? Is it to take advantage of the opportunities that are presented by living in proximity to a large metro area? Indy’s economic advantages extend to Hancock County so in affect, when Indy does well, YOU do well. Whether that is with more jobs, BETTER jobs, better shopping options or one of the other million reasons living in or close to a city provides a social advantage, shouldn’t the best interests of that City also be in your best interests? I agree, it doesnt seem equal that you should have to pay the same percentage that someone in say Hamilton County might have to. But then again, Hancock is a little more rural in nature and that has its advantages as well through less congestion and lower local taxes.
      Just something to chew on

      • Those who benefit the most should pay the most. I don’t have “lower local taxes” to my knowledge. My property taxes are right at the 1% cap of my assessed value. In fact, if I’m still here next year, I will likely fight my assessment as I think it is now $10K over valued. I have no doubt that a rail line will cause growth in areas close to the stations. This means Fishers (possibly Noblesville) will see even more growth. Their housing values will increase, and the other counties may even see their housing values decrease further. Right now there isn’t much growth in terms of home building or home buying, which means a rail line could really push a huge % of the available and willing buyers to the Fishers/Noblesville area only, at the sacrifice of the rest of the metro area. I’m not willing to pay the same taxes when I will likely lose and they will likely gain. Not only that, the people in Hamilton County have a lot more money (on average) than the people in Hancock County….should they pay their “fair share,” which would be more than people of more modest means?

        The trail from Greenfield to Cumberland will eventually get completed, but it may be a long ways away, especially given the state of the economy. Still, I don’t want to pay for things I think are silly, while others get a huge, huge boost for their area. Growth in downtown Indy or Fishers really won’t help my area. My county won’t see any growth, as it will all be along the rail line. Thus people willing to buy homes won’t want to buy here, as they will want to be near the line. At least give me a huge break in taxes so I have something to help sell my home, as “If you buy this home, you pay $3,000 less a year in taxes than if you lived in Fishers or Marion County.” A savings of only $100 or so won’t do me, or my neighbors any good at all.

        • Seriously? You want to fight your assessment for the $100 you’d save (1% of your $10K possible over-assessment). But then in your final statement you talk about how a $100 savings won’t do anyone any good.

  • I was in Portland recently and the transit authroties there had mentioned that some of the most frequent routes were the crosstown ones that went across certain parts of town, as well as providing a connection with the local light rail stop. Even if we do implement the light rail trails to Fishers and Greenwood and wherever else, if we do not provide any crosstown connections (the current IndyConnect plan I believe does have some, such as 38th and 10th Streets) then we have wasted a good train.

  • 2 things that are critical is the fares need to pay for most if not all the maintenance and upkeep cost. 2nd We need to find a balanced tax increase that can pay for it which will be hard due to Lucas Oil Stadium and you know what i mean by that.

    • “…fares need to pay for most if not all the maintenance and upkeep cost.”
      Why do fares need to pay for that? What I would prefer would be to make the routes to downtown have some sort of surcharge (toll road?). These tolls would fund the maintenance and upkeep cost. Make the fares for mass transit as low as possible in this scenario. Would you rather pay $5 in tolls to drive downtown (not to mention gas and parking) or would you rather spend $1.50 to ride transit? With proper monitoring, it should be relatively easy to adjust the tolls/fares balance to keep things in balance.
      All the transit in the world isn’t going to make a different if there simply isn’t enough friction to using a car. The more friction to using a car, the more attractive transit becomes.

      • Thanks for the back-up Andy! I was thinking about an accurate reply to this last night and you are absolutely correct. I would be all about letting fares cover upkeep and maintenance. However, to do that there needs to be an incentive to get enough people on the trains. Doing that, means getting people out of their cars. Getting out of their cars means valuing parking at it’s true market rates such as $3 or $4 an hour (or more) and then letting people decide whether or not they want to pay that to park downtown vs taking the train or the bus. Additionally, if we can capture the value generated around stations by development, much like we do today with TIF districts on properties that have been improved around new roads, then that too could cover costs. There are a hundred ways out there to make transit “pay for itself” as Evan has put it. Simply saying that we are going to plop a train down in the current environment and say that it can compete is setting it up for failure from the get go.
        Additionally, while we are at it, if we are going to level the playing field, I would also advocate that any existing right of way out there right now, is fair game for a transit project. Light rail from Broad Ripple to downtown needs to pay for itself? Alright, well we are taking two lanes of existing automobile travel lane to build the train tracks in.
        Food for thought before the “transit must pay for itself” crowd gets too proud.

  • College Avenue Streetcar combined with Downtown Circulator seems like it could get most people excited and educated about possible transit in Indy

  • Micah, that all depends on where you live. I think an east-west light-rail line on Washington (from at least Eastgate to Airport) would get a lot of people excited, too. Maybe if it went all the way to Cumberland, even Tim Stevens (comments above) would support it.

    • Out of every route mentioned, I cannot understand why an airport to downtown isn’t the first thing to happen. Sure people who live in Fishers and work in downtown support our city, but that is nothing compared to the inflow of cash from conferences and sporting events. Getting those people from the airport to downtown should be a primary concern.
      I frequent Toronto and I’m always flabbergasted that a world-class city like that with a pretty incredible transit system, has no train from its downtown to the airport. That seems like it would be priority number 1.

      • Re Toronto: still??? I was there the first time on business about 30 years ago, stayed at a near-airport hotel, and had to drive to the west end of the subway-surface line to visit downtown “carless”. Not unlike DC/Dulles.
        I guess the airport taxi and shuttle van operators have a strong lobby everywhere.
        Re Washington St. line: it needs the eastside. Airport-to-downtown doesn’t connect nearly enough people and destinations and is not really much better than Fishers-to-downtown in that regard.

        • Yep. Bus to Bloor and then subway from there. What a waste.
          Another favorite of mine was Seattle. Back in the days before the lightrail, SeaTac cab companies weren’t allowed to pick up passengers in Seattle and Seattle cab companies weren’t allowed to pick up passengers at SeaTac. That mean cabs were only full on one way of their 40 mile round trip. The lightrail has since killed that boondoggle as cabs can pick up and drop off at either.

      • Airport to downtown light rail routes are not terribly productive.

        When Cincinnati was planning light rail in the early part of the past decade, one of the routes was from the Greater Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky Airport to the CBD. This is when the Delta hub at Cincinnati was the second largest in its system with almost 500 flights a day and non-stops to five or six cities in Europe. Cincinnati’s downtown business community, where there are, I dunno, five or six Fortune 500 companies clustered near Fountain Square, wanted the airport service.

        When the planners cranked up the model for its first run, the result suggested there would be about 2,000 boardings a day at the airport station, almost all of them airport workers. The planners changed some of the assumptions and ran it again — no improvement. They made more alterations, still not much improvement. It surprised everyone.

        Later we learned that this situation is not unique. Unless you have really high airport parking rates, really high downtown parking rates and really high rental car and taxi rates, LRT’s to airports are not big winners. They will mainly move workers but very few fliers. From what I understand, it’s just the way it is in most places that are not principal cities.

        • John is right. But herein lies some possible means of creating some interesting ways to build said lines. Portland for instance, allowed a private developer to construct most of the link to their airport. In return, the developer got certain rights to property along the line. I am not sure on the specifics, but that is sort of how that worked out. In the end, travelers in and out got what they wanted, and a private developer was able to assume the financial burden for building the ret of the line in return for some concessions.

        • Interesting John.
          I’m not familiar with Cincinnati, but looking at a map, it appears that a route from the airport to downtown Cincinnati would pass through some lower density communities across the river or to the west of downtown while most of Cincinnati’s more dense urban neighborhoods are to the north.
          In Indy, if you sent the light rail down Washington, you would likely hit far more density from what I can tell.
          I’d be interested to see how many people per mile would be along the Cincinnati route compared to an Indy route.

        • Indy has more jobs in the airport vicinity than Cinti, between the airport itself, now-full-again former United maintenance hub, Republic Air, FedEx, the regional ATC center for the eastern Great Lakes area, and the distribution-center plantation west of the county line. Indy also has an order of magnitude higher convention business, largely people who would not rent a car when coming to town.
          ahow’s right: density between downtown and 465 on Washington is far higher, and the area more urban, than between Cincinnati’s airport and its downtown. But no one wants to run a Washington St. line only from Downtown-airport. It needs to go east at least as far as Irvington, and that entire distance east is some of the most-dense area of Indy which already has pretty high transit ridership.

          • I wasn’t necessarily saying only build it from downtown to the airport, but it would certainly make the most attractive first leg, in my opinion. Moreso than an Irvington/Lawrence to downtown line, Fishers to downtown, or even BRip to downtown.
            I would be interesting what the demographics of those four routes (east/airport, west, Fishers, BRip) in terms of income. It seems that in addition to hitting the airport, you could hit a nice chunk of the poorest, that would be a huge boost. Anyone have any recent stats on this? Some older (circa 2006) stuff I found on it shows the east and west sides being in similar boats income-wise, but it seems to be before Irvington took off.

        • It depends what is along the route though, right? When I take the MARTA from the airport in Atlanta, the trains are consistently full. Same thing with the MAX in Portland. And given the increased cost of a cab from DT Indy to the new terminal’s location, a train fare might be far more attractive.

  • Either the BR/DT or Washington St routes are likely to results in many more automobile trips reduced compared to a commuter style NE Corridor line. Although, it could be said that there is tremendous potential along the NE Corridor since its pretty much a clean sheet along most of the corridor.

  • So do we, as an urbanist though community, want to condone sucking further life out of existing (relatively) dense urban corridors in favor of locations along a new rail line? Or do we want to strengthen areas that are already densely populated with people and jobs?
    As someone who lives and works near each of Indy’s “alpha” streets (Washington and Meridian), the answer’s easy for me: strengthen the core. Turn the Fishers line into a dedicated busway and put bus rapid transit on it. When enough people ride the bus there, grind up the pavement and restore the rails.
    At its peak, the Fishers Express served only a few hundred people a day. People already ride the bus east-west through the urban core (#3 and #8 lines) in greater numbers.
    Same song fifth verse…

  • typo…urbanist THOUGHT community…

  • Yah Chris, I agree with Washington Street Corridor being the top priority combined with a downtown circulator. College Avenue should be the second phase. This way, downtown Indy could develop more naturally…ONLY if the line runs from Irvington to the Airport, like mentioned above. This would definitely put indy on the map for future planning for Midwest cites.

  • To Tim from Hancock County: So far what I have heard as far as the referendum next Spring is – it will be voted on County by County. If Hancock County residents vote it down – there will be no new transit service extended into Hancock County. (And they won’t have to pay for a “Fishers to downtown Indy transit line.) If Hamilton County votes to pay for it – the transit plans will be built into Hamilton County. It is necessary for Marion County to vote to approve the referendum first, however. Hamilton County will not get transit even if they vote in support of funding – if Marion County votes it down. The core County needs to have it in order for Hamilton County to link into the core. If Johnson and Hendricks County also vote to fund it — they will also be linked into the system. There will not be a regionwide vote on the referendum.

  • So, here is a mind blowing idea… Why doesn’t Indy forget the region and take care of its self. Improved public transit will increase the desirability of Marion county and then the other counties may want to join in. Don’t convince people that it’s what they want to do. Make them beg for it. Then if the culture of an area isn’t fit for mass transit then it is not holding back the rest of the region.
    On another note… Mass transit works when it goes from node to node which is a simplified way of saying what Curt was about having to have entertainment, living, and work stops along the line. The problem is that the old rail line they have looked at using hardly has any of those options since the old rail is a brownfield. The cost is dramatically less for starting the system and for new development to build up around the stations. It’s easy to build apartments and condos with some mixed use for daily needs near rail stations but immensely harder to have an entertainment or office node created so it is important to run through existing entertainment and business nodes.

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