What kind of city do you want to live in?

Residents of Indianapolis, I have a simple question to ask that is rooted in some deep philosophical debates.

Ohio Street downtown (image credit: Curt Ailes)
Ohio Street downtown (image credit: Curt Ailes)

What kind of city do you want to live in? Is it the type of city where you get in your car to go get everything? Is it the type of city where you can walk out your front door, and walk across the entire city on foot without ever walking along a street and fearing a car mowing you down because there isn’t a sidewalk? Do you want light rail or would you prefer the bus system to go away completely? Do you value diversity of quality food choice inside the 465 loop vs outside?

These are the types of questions that ultimatley shape how transportation policy is written. By extension, it is another way of asking, “Would you pay an extra tax for additional transportation options?” Right now, our 25 year transportation plan is budgetted at $9 billion dollars. The vast majority of that budget is dedicated to roadway expansion, new roadways and maintenance of those roadways. Very little of it is dedicated to things such as operating funds for buses let alone improving or expanding the current state of system.

Budapest Tram (image credit: Mark Nelson)
Budapest Tram (image credit: Mark Nelson)

I really began to think about this question in depth when a co-worker of mine returned from a recent business trip to Hungary with a bunch of photos. I have included two of them from Budapest and they show a vibrant street life. They also indicate that this European city has figured it out when it comes to transportation. Note the bike track in the foreground of one picture and the tram running in the median of a busy automobile street in the other. It is also difficult to miss the classical architecture pretty much EVERYWHERE. Granted, Budapest is much older than Indianapolis, but it still demonstrates how vanilla today’s architectural offerings really are.

Budapest, note separate bike lane (image credit: Mark Nelson)
Budapest, note separate bike lane (image credit: Mark Nelson)

Sometimes I walk around Indy and I feel like we are beginning to see some change. Projects like the Cultural Trail, Georgia Street, bike lanes and such tell me that some change is coming our way. Then there are other times when I drive on a busy 3 lane street where all the lanes are headed in one direction, The Di Rimini and other crumby architectural plots.

Di Rimini (image credit: Curt Ailes)
Di Rimini (image credit: Curt Ailes)

Is this what we want for another generation or are we, as a collective urban citizenry, going to be able to affect change for the future sustainability of our city?

Comments 39

  • I’m glad you posted pictures from Budapest. You can go to any city comparable to Indy (in size) in central Europe and find very good (typically streetcar/bus dominated) transportation system in place. This is true for previously “iron-curtain” cities like Budapest or Prague, “western” cities like Vienna, or neither “western” nor “iron-curtain” cities like Zagreb. I’ve visited all four (and lived in one), and I’m in love with the streetcars. I will even go as far as saying that I prefer streetcars over any other kind of public transportation (even subway). Maybe we can’t have beautiful baroque architecture you will find in those cities, but I have no doubt that the investment that would follow along the streetcar line would be a giant step forward.
    Cincinnati is doing it (they defeated Issue 48 just recently…good for them). Indy cannot afford not to build a good public transit.

  • I’m all for transportation options, but Indy hasn’t embraced the bus system (I understand the downward spiral that the cuts in funding create), so the thought of increased taxes to fund something like rail that has a high start-up and infrastructure cost and then serves isolated pockets of the population makes no sense to me.

    If as a city we want mass transit, we need to revitalize that in steps. Bus routes that make sense (instead of me following empty buses around), express routes where the ridership can support it. Smaller buses where the route is important but volume isn’t yet there. Bus routes mean flexibility to adjust them based on ridership, population movements, etc. You can’t move a rail line.

    Give those of us outside the I-465 loop a safe way to bicycle into downtown and you’d likely find a lot of us using that. Getting from German Church Road to Shadeland (east side) to pick up part of the Pennsy Trail is a tough ride for even a confident rider.

    • If only the bus system was something that we COULD embrace! The IndyGo buses I’ve ridden are relatively clean and quiet inside. The routes – other than having stops every 400′ – work well only to get downtown and back out. I live less than 10 miles by car to my place of business. IndyGo would take almost 2 hours. Cycling (and I have done it about a dozen times) is EXTREMELY dangerous in certain spots – so much so that I will not do it again until bike lanes go in along 71st or 79th to Georgetown.

      I’m not alone. If the experience is pleasant – streetcar, light rail, cycling, walking, or bus – you would see a LOT more users. I personally think the majority of these users are inside of Marion County, but I am ready to stand up and fight for the referendum should it come to fruition.

    • How can anyone be asked to embrace a bus system that is so horrible? I was born and raised in Indianapolis, but moved away when I was 21. Since then I’ve lived in Chicago, Los Angeles and Miami, all cities with great transit systems (including buses). I am back in Indy as I type to visit my family and feel absolutely stranded here on the east side of town because the lack of of routes and extremely limited hours of operation. The bus system here is a complete joke.

  • Richard – I pretty much disagree with everything you wrote here. But I will keep my (counter)point very simple – Indy should focus on developing transit inside I-465. It would get the best bang for the buck if it focuses entirely on the city vs. larger metro area.

    • & the beauty is that we can disagree.

      Transportation is more than cars, buses, and trains. My personal belief is that properly maintained sidewalks, safe cycling options, and an efficient bus system would allow us to get where want to go very efficiently and cost-effectively.

  • We need to absolutely consolidate the bus system and integrate it with schools routes (get IPS out of the bus business). Then we need to hone in on light rail/tram routes and get this going via the College Ave. corridor and potentially the Michigan St (N/S) corridor. Both stopping at the 96th St. line (Marion county) or further north if the donut (Boone and Hamilton) counties become investors in the system. With the Washington St. line being a focus and 2 vital north south lines, we will have a great core. We can do this.

  • YES! Thank you for asking the question I’ve been asking my friends for some time: What kind of city do you want? In other words, what does the end result look like in 10, 15, or 20 years?

    Transportation is one thing. How large a city and its “sensibility” are two others. Do we want to have 2 million people in Marion County (as an example), reduce numbers, or have a growth rate of, say, an increase of 30-50,000 per year? What is our goal?

    Richard’s thought that “Indy hasn’t embraced the bus system” is a good one. As a professional who rides the 18 (Downtown to Nora) periodically because I believe in it, I can offer a couple of reasons why it isn’t being embraced by more than those who must use it.

    The first is the unpredictability of it all. Will the bus arrive on time or not? Should I plan an extra 15-20 minutes because it might be late? Will it arrive at all? Twice this past year (again, while only taking the bus 15-20 times since January), the bus simply never arrived. Waiting for an hour past the posted time in snow, rain, or even sun is not something that those with cars will stand for when clients count on timely arrivals.

    The second is, frankly, well-founded fear. While I have never had a problem with anyone (other than chattiness) while on the bus, some bus stops are simply frightening. Standing in front of the old Federal Courthouse on Ohio in the evening is not always a pleasant experience. Multiple fist-fights, competing boom-boxes, and loud verbal arguments are not the sort of marketing experience that will lure car-owners to the bus.

    All of this is sad, of course, because Indianapolis desperately needs reliable mass-transit. If I can feel reasonably safe, reasonably comfortable, and know that the train/bus/etc. has a 99% chance of arriving within five minutes of a designated time, I’m in. When things work well, I read a book, listen to a podcast or music on my earphone, or simply take a 15 minute nap. No parking, no wear and tear on my car, and, yes, at least a nod in the direction that I am using less energy.

    We subsidize the streets without making a profit. Why should mass-transit have to outperform that?

    • Amen! The lack of some sort of GPS-based tracking for the buses is STAGGERING and that there is no reliable mobile application or decent mobile website makes the entire experience much more frustrating. Standing at a stop wondering… did they change the schedule? Does the weekend route or the A alternate not stop here? Why is my bus 20 minutes behind and there is no tweet about it? The process needs to be EASY and pleasant. Phoenix? Easy. Boston? Easy. Denver? Easy. Don’t even get going on Europe. The fact that I can read, understand and track the mass transit in a country where I don’t speak the language BETTER than my hometown is ridiculous.

      • During the whole IndyGo “rescue” about 6 months ago, I remember IndyGo officials saying all buses are outfitted with GPS technology but they don’t have the funds to use them.

        • The story that we have heard is that the system is used for the automatic crossing street announcements. They do plan to roll out an application so that the GPS data is available for public use, but they are having problems finding funding to get the infrastructure up and going (being that they are already on a shoestring budget).

          • Correct Graeme. Curt and I had a twitter conversation with IndyGo and they said that they currently have all the data, but lack the funds to create a firewall/API for the public to access the data.
            In that conversation, I recommended that they talk to Google, since Google is attempting to map out more and more data. If Google could help foot some of the bill, that would a pretty cool way to go about it.

  • What caught my eye was the starkness — the high-contrast world of downtown Indy vs the Budapest images.

    It reminds me of what makes a web page pleasing — to have good contrast, colors that don’t shout and avoiding extensive use of harsh light-on-dark patterns which (for me, anyway) is very tiring to look at.

    All those deep-shadowed holes in parking garages and buildings with dark tinted windows — they produce such busy and irritating surroundings. This is especially true when the narrow street ‘canyons’ are considered.

  • It seems your post is looking at this situation by looking only at the extremes. A more likely – and better solution for Indianapolis is probably somewhere in between the choices you presented. (No – I don’t want to get rid of our bus system and just have cars as the only option. No – I don’t necessarily want to be able to walk across the entire city either.) Even your pictures are a bit of a contradiction. You show a nice picture of Budapest with a bike cycle track – but you just as easily could have posted a very similar picture of an urban neighborhood with historic architecture in Indianapolis with a cycle track (Fountain Square). Our Cultural Trail looks nicer than the cement pathway in Budapest as well. You talk about the “vibrant” urban scene in Budapest – showing a picture of a very wide street with a streetcar in the middle of it – and no people. That looks a lot less vibrant than many places in and around downtown Indianapolis, in my opinion. Picking the Di Rimini as an example of poor architecture in Indianapolis is going about as far as possible to the worst example you could have provided. What about “The Avenue”, Mill No. 9, The Cosmopolitan, or a few other much better examples?

    Basically I’m just saying I don’t think your post was very realistic. There is a reason the long range plan can’t include the 10% of total funds going to transit improvement projects. This is because – although the regional transportation Council approved the general idea of having 10% of funds spent to improve transit services, the actual dollar amount can’t be included in the long range plan until the funding source has officially been made approved and made available. This is what the referendum is all about — approving the plan for raising those additional dollars. I think it is important to provide the real situation to the public when talking about this – and also to present more realistic options out there for people to consider. In other words — I don’t think it is appropriate to have a “fill the glass completely” scenario – full of all types of multimodal transportation options in every corner of the County along with fancy, architecturally fabulous infill development throughout the city. It is not financially possible to do this. I also do not think the “glass completely empty” scenario is appropriate either. We’re not going to get rid of our bus system and only have roads as an option for people to get around on. We’re also not going to have a city full of “Di Rimini’s” either – because they will not sell.

    We need to keep working on a cost effective, appropriate plan that reaches for the best possible solution for our city. Of course, it needs to be a plan that will not put our city into bankruptcy or raise taxes so high that people will flood out of the County. I think we are heading in the right direction. Thats pretty much what I wanted to say. We do need to stay tough on developers and city planners to make sure they are doing things correctly – but bashing most of the work done to date doesn’t seem like the best way to discuss this either – particularly if the post makes it seem like urban Indianapolis consists of nothing but manufactured cardboard housing and six lane wide roads with no sidewalks. Thanks for the post — but just a little too far off the charts in terms of realistically representing the situation for my taste.

  • I don’t think Curt’s pics are misleading. Budapest (without suburbs) has 1.7 million people. Well over 1 billion riders use its public transit every year. There are miles of city blocks that look just like the one showed on the second picture.
    I love Indianapolis, and I see a lot of potential here. I am an eternal optimist when it comes to our city’s future. However, we are far from Budapest’s walkability, public transit or block appeal. And we don’t need to be Budapest, but we should demand a better public transit.
    I don’t even want to keep on repeating all the reason why we should have better public transit, because the most vocal critics rarely listen. At this point, it is more important to mobilize like minded people behind things like the Downtown Indianapolis Streetcar initiative.

  • TJohn, thanks for adding a dose of reality to this blog. Living in a historic home within the city I enjoy this site greatly, but am always puzzled by the “build it and they will come/money is no object” attitude opined here when it comes to mass transit. The photos above show Budapest streets at least 4 lanes wide… and filled with cars. Having been in most of the major cities in Europe I know firsthand that the automobile is alive and well in cities everywhere and mass transit has not changed that.

    As an active volunteer in the historic preservation arena I too am eager to have a public discussion about mass transit. But unlike some of my peers, I don’t think light rail or any of the options that include massive infrastructure spending is the holy grail. A high quality bus service that employs modern technology is a dramatically more flexible approach than building a railed system and then hoping the ridership will be there. If we want more people to use mass transit it needs to be convenient, dependable, clean and safe. Buses and a rail service can both fit those requirements, but a quality bus service is much more flexible to changing customer needs and dispersed and therefore will always prove to be more convenient to those not living along rail lines.

    And then there’s the cost…. Is it not fair to say that large public works projects rarely end up costing what was originally projected? Ditto for operating costs. And yes, the taxes that will pay for all that will have an impact on job creation. Some might argue otherwise, but I believe that a city with with an attractive tax structure is much more likely to attract job creators than one with a great light rail line that only some people live near enough to use.

    • Provide me with data that says buses have a positive impact on community rebuilding and I will relent with my light rail and streetcar advocacy. That is one of the key components of my argument. You say the pictures above show a busy street and trams in the center. That is true, but at least the corridor is multimodal. Who can say what the rest of the corridor looks like.
      And as for paying for it, I can be quoted several times as saying I am supportive of raising taxes to pay for transit. Ive done the math. I would even be supportive of a .7% income tax increase to pay for it. Frankly, I pay more PER WEEK IN GASOLINE than what I would pay IN A MONTH of that income tax. To me, it defies logic once you see the math to keep spending money the way we do when a potential windfall like that is obvious. It would take some growing pain to get there initially, but everyone adapts. So I don’t agree a bit with your assertion that we think this should come at little or now cost.
      Not only that, you say massive spending should support one corridor. I also argue that the same logic defines how roads are built now. I don’t all the roads in this county. I live on the north side and I certainly do not use the mess of roads on the south or west side but I understand it’s part of an entire transportation network which aids commerce and getting people around. The same thinking should apply to rail lines. While they may serve a narrow corridor, the potential return on investment is astronomical in terms of economic return, community redevelopment as well as sense of place. Try getting that out of a 3 lane surface street….

    • I think you misunderstood some of Urban Indy’s goals. We are not anti-car, just pro-transit. We are definitely not anti-bus either, we support IndyGo and are advocating hard for upgrades in dependability, communication, and service.

      Yes, there have been cases where rail infrastructure has been more expensive than originally proposed. But this does not mean that the investment was unwise. Even the worst examples often become a serious part of the urban transportation solution that pays off amazingly well by attracting jobs and lowering the impact of transportation.

      Rail infrastructure has historically offered a better payback on investment and has attracted more urban development, but we support all forms of urban transit that are well implemented.

    • This is exactly why I advocate for putting rails down where people already ride the bus in large numbers: east-west and north-south core lines. Not Fishers. No demand needs to be induced or created on the core lines…it merely needs to be served better, and an “iron cross” of core rail would be an excellent foundation upon which to build a bus network/grid.

      • I’m actually of a similar thought. Extending it beyond the county will encourage more sprawl. EX: If a person only wants to live 30 minutes from his Downtown destination, he will not go further than Fishers/Carmel, etc. If, however, the light rail reduces traffic time by 10-15 minutes (there being no stoplights, traffic congestion, etc. — just a few passenger stops), this person will then consider building a home even further out. If one doubts this, remember what the area was like before I-465. I’m 49 and I do. Areas within 465 (at least on the Northside) would have developed differently and efficiently with a bit more density than half-acre lots. I’m not saying that 465 hasn’t been helpful, but it (and uncertain school situations) directly led to sprawl.

        • I follow you guys as well. I have long thought we should focus transit growth on the city only. Extend the lines out to specific points where infrastructure exists and demand is present. This would encourage mor epeople living closer to where they work and shop, the ultimate goal, and those that wanted to locate 20 miles away for an unecessarily large home could still do that….at their own cost.

  • I have to say I really enjoy the discourse here. The logical well thought out arguments lead me to believe in the potential of this city. Then I read the comments on the Indy Star on a similar article, and am afraid it will be a huge up hill battle getting any thing passed.

    • Garrison’s show on WIBC from yesterday won’t help either. Cited a bunch of cases and studies that show light rail is detrimental in many ways, and he (wasn’t Garrison) pushed on and on about how adding more highways and road miles was the real answer. EVERY caller supported him (of course the call screener controls that). No balance in regards to transportation options beyond the car – just a lot of bashing of anything that wasn’t a personal car- said “they” want to take away our freedom to go where we want, when we want.

      • The “said “they” want to take away our freedom to go where we want, when we want” is so ludicrous. No one is taking away anyone’s right to drive anywhere. They’re trying to bestow those rights on other people who don’t have the luxury of a car.

        It’s so hypocritical that these people are so concerned with their freedoms, yet refuse to acknowledge how their transit views infringe upon the freedoms of others.

  • What kind of city do I want to live in?……………

    Ultimately, a city focused on the people who live there. A city focused on providing the best services to mesh people with the built and natural environment. If we focus on moving people as efficiently as possible, I have no doubt transit will win that arguement, but tthat hasn’t been our goal. If we focus on developing in the most sustainable manner, I have no doubt we would see much gretaer infill and reuse as well as more inspiring new development. Again, this has not been our goal. If we focus on providing the healthiest environment possible for residents, I have no doubt that we would see an extreme growth in alternative transportation, smarter buildings, reduction in energy usage, greater access to parks and open space as well as clean water and a quality of place unmatched in the region. As you might have guessed, this has not been our goal. We have instead focused on the status quo. Any possibility for advancement in this city has been bogged down by the desire to go with what’s known.

    I am optimistic about the city’s potential, but I can’t see through the stubborn political cloud that hangs over Indy………maybe some day.

  • I want to live in the City of indianapolis if: the people who live here can see the potential in developing all of the open spaces (no, not the idyllic green specs you see on maps) which simply leaves the majority of our suburban dwellers content and our future urban dwellers searching for that sense of community, a reason to walk for our daily needs, a chance to ride to work w-out a car…etc. Future infill development and density will directly affect the way Indianapolis becomes a more diverse city. And it needs to start from the core of our city out.

  • I appreciate that the focus of this blog lately is transportation issues, but if the goal of the discussion is how to build a better city, the first order of business is to fix the public education system. Poor public education is the #1 reason most young professionals leave the city. Paying $5-20,000 per child at a private school is simply unaffordable for most people, hence the migration to the suburbs.

    Fixing IPS would lead to more people moving back to the central core, which would raise tax revenues for capital improvements, improve the transportation dilemma, and attract more companies to relocate to the city. That should come first… and if IPS can’t fix itself then the Governor should step in and do it for them. We shouldn’t have to wait another decade while they nibble around the edges.

    • I was presented a recent study on preferences for home buyers and these were the top results in order.

      Most important factors in purchasing a home:
      –privacy from neighbors
      –short commute to work
      –high quality public schools
      –access to sidewalks
      –places to walk to

      As you can see, schools are important, but there are a lot of other quality of lace indicators on there including proximity and infrastructure. It is obviously important to provide quality schools, but it shouldn’t be the only focus.

      • Joe Smoker’s study, while valid to a point, undoubtedly included of ALL people, not just those with children. Schools are almost always at the TOP of the list when only PARENTS are asked.

        Schools mean little (other than for resale value) to those who do not have children. If, however, we really want a diverse and thriving city that doesn’t exclude a large consuming demographic, schools ARE at the top of the list. Those of us who actually deal with people at the very moment when they select a home know what parents are saying. And it has been very clear. What school systems are growing? Zionsville, Carmel, Fishers, Greenwood, etc. Perceived good schools without private school tuition. 30 and 40 years ago, these children attended Shortridge, Arlington, Northwest, Howe, Manual, etc. The difficulties with IPS as a system (there are some good individual schools that are difficult to get into) are both real and perceived. For the record, most of my work is within the IPS district and I attended both IPS and private schools. This is the elephant in the room.

        We can say that it is wrong to select/not select a system based only on test scores or an incident that occurred last year. But the reality is this is what most parents do. So let’s deal with the reality and figure out a way to turn that around. Do we simply divide IPS into separate, more neighborhood-oriented districts? Do we cede areas of IPS to a corresponding township system? Does each school in IPS simply become a charter school? I realize these are hot-button questions and people are apt to just say “no.” But we need to do something. Otherwise, Marion County will soon consist of children who are either well-off or poor — with very little in between.

        • I understand your logic behind the report and it may be possible that more people without kids responded than with kids, but it was a national survey by the board of realtors or whatever, so I think it stands to reason that if a large segment of the population is less concerned about schools, then schools alone are not the huge driving force behind home location.

          • To be more correct: Schools alone are not the huge driving force for people without children. But they ARE of extreme importance to those who do. Since most of the other items on the list you noted are already covered in the IPS district (sidewalks, walking distance, short commute to work, etc.) the problem with the schools sticks out. By not addressing it first, a city is saying that it doesn’t care if families live here or not. Since families account for 46% of households in the US (2009), that’s a LOT of people who we are encouraging to sprawl out there.

            Clearly, the thousands of families who moved to Carmel, Zionsville, Fishers, Noblesville, etc. didn’t find sidewalks and short commutes to be the big factor.

    • Chicken or the egg?
      Are these school suffering because all the good students are moving away to the suburbs or are they moving to the suburbs because the schools stink?

  • What good are schools with NO SENSE OF PLACE???

  • Let me explain the above comment. I’ve heard numerous times from friends and family that they can’t wait to move away from these so called ‘elite, star rated schools’ in the burbs their children are subjected to. It’s one thing to base education from new shiny buildings, the newest technology, or comfortable homogenous populations. But when it comes to educating children…is it really worth basing it off of status? Totally over rated IMPO. Parents need to be held accountable for their children and Indianapolis needs to develop a better sense of community. Plain and simple.

    • I hate to post the comment I am about to type out, but this is a real story about an old contact of mine.
      Guy got married. He lived in Pike Township. Owned a nice home in a nice neighborhood. He and his wife had a kid. He used to talk about the great things of living in a subdivision. Then, the house next to his was foreclosed on. It was sold cheaply to a Mexican family who moved in. He used to complain DAILY about his new neighbor’s lifestyle and how it bothered him. They would leave vehicles out on the street. Not mow the grass, etc.
      Eventually, he and his wife got had a second child. They had put their house up for sale before this and as justification, said that they were tired of living in Pike Township where their kids would go to school with Mexicans and black people. They ended up moving to a subdivision in Carmel where, I assume, they are happy about their choice to move into a better school zone.
      The disappointing part though was that they moved because of the perceptions created by minorities moving into their neighorhood and the affect it would have on the schools they would be sending their children to.

  • I live close to IPS school 84. It appears to be a very good school (the problem is it has a waiting list unless you live very close to the school). There are other IPS schools that are decent. But we need to see more of that. This issue is quite difficult to discuss in a short post, because you have many people that would argue that parenting/home environment has a lot more to do with the academic success than the perceived quality of schools (i.e. kid from a family that places high value on education — typically more affluent home — will do good in IPS or Carmel school and vice verse). We could spend days discussing this topic, but I agree with Joe, it’s just one of many factors.

    • I forgot to mention, JP, that you are spot-on when it comes to whether the home environment or school has more to do with academic success. Given the reality of parent perception, however, we need to figure out how to guide the proactive parents to live in the IPS district AND send their children to those schools. They won’t do it if the perception is negative. So we need to figure out how to overcome this. Frankly, I’m not sure if there is a school system in the country that has gone “down” and then risen back to a formerly-high level. But I’m an optimist.

  • JP, 84 is actually one of the schools I regularly tout to newcomers. I live in Butler-Tarkington. But is it hard to get into because of the rules, waiting lists, etc. Does a newcomer to the area want to “hope” that they “might” get into 84 when they buy a house or actually know that they will go to a certain school in Carmel? Again, for most parents — schools ARE the main topic and NOT “just one of many factors.” Not to get that is a key reason why our sprawl has continued and the IPS area will continue even more to become LESS diverse.

    Yes, there are anecdotal reports from friends, etc. who have chosen to get away from supposedly “elite” “4-star” schools. But clearly more people don’t. Those schools are GROWING. IPS is not. That is the reality. We need to address it head-on — and we aren’t.

    Curt has certainly hit on one part of the problem. Clearly there is some racism at the bottom of some who choose to add to the sprawl. But I think there is more to it. And it is the “more” that needs to be addressed.

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