Quantifying Transit Equality

A recent epiphany came to me when I was debating how we advocate for transit improvements. Often times, as an advocate, its hard to easily craft a message that everyday citizens can understand; especially when we live in a time where nearly everyone alive grew up during the rise and golden age of the automobile. It is the only frame of reference that most of us have when it comes to thinking about how we get from Point A to Point B. Heck, I drive every day to get to work, to school, to the grocery and to the doctor. I grew up this way and while I advocate for transit improvements, the state of things here in Indy are so poor, that I cannot make it work for me. My work and school are over 30 miles apart and transit doesn’t serve my day job.

What about this picture motivates lawmakers want to create more of it?
What about this picture motivates lawmakers want to create more of it?

This week, Mitch Daniels announced that he would like to see the closure of US31 to complete the freeway-ifictation of the stretch in a shorter time frame and for less money. The logic is sound, and while it sounds extreme, there has not been a large outcry of dissent over the notion. Even Carmel’s Mayor Jim Brainard has gone on record as supporting this.

Here is the rub. Why is it so easy for roads? Why can we waive our hand and make such a sweeping change that will affect thousands of daily commuters and nary the word of dissent?

If the Indianapolis Star announced Monday that a light rail corridor would begin construction from Broad Ripple to downtown, people would be having fits. How would we get to work? How much does it cost? Indiana conservatives just had a minor heart attack at the mere mention of such a thought.  (take that!)

465 on Indy's north side (image credit: Curt Ailes)
465 on Indy's north side (image credit: Curt Ailes)

There is a double standard that exists when it comes to transit and frankly, it shouldn’t exist. Why does it exist? I believe it is because people, and Indianapolis is a huge offender, view transit as a luxury. Despite rising gas prices, road rage, excessive repair bills, insurance, car payments and the overall drag on a household’s economy, people still firmly believe that using a car to serve their transportation needs is the only way. Sure, it provides first person control and the ability to change your mind, but look at what you pay for it. If we applied this logic to all facets of our lives, we’d all be wearing $400 suits, eating Fillet Mignon and drinking expensive French red wine for every meal. I think we can say without a doubt, that the population of people living that way is very small.

Furthermore, how much has our built environment reflected this and what are the downfalls to this? Wide roads, long sweeping curves, bulldozed natural habitats? Cul-de-sacs that kill connectivity. Lack of sidewalks to provide safe places for citizens (and children). Gasoline stations. Auto repair stations. Drive throughs. Strip malls. Mega parking lots and garages which generate little or no direct revenue and are often subsidized by tax payers and whos admission costs barely cover the bonds issued to pay for the initial structure. Just look how much we have given over to our automobile dominated choices and how messy it is.

Portland Streetcar - Would be nice to have this option in Indy (image credit: Curt Ailes)
Portland Streetcar - Would be nice to have this option in Indy (image credit: Curt Ailes)

Folks, this is not sustainable. Its dirty. It fouls up our air and our water. It puts garbage into our drinking supply and sacrifices farm land and natural beauty.

In contrast, public transit offers an option that takes every single one of the above listed factors, and lessens it’s affects on our every day lives. Less parking lots. Less gasoline stations. Less wide roads and destruction of the environment. Additionally, the resulting built forms that are generally associated with transit stops are far more efficient. They are dense, provide efficient living options, create more tax dollars per land used, promote social interaction. I could go on. Diesel buses and trains are not free of contributing to dirty air and water, but they certainley cut down on it when examined per capita.

IndyGo route 17 on Mass Ave (image credit: Curt Ailes)
IndyGo route 17 on Mass Ave (image credit: Curt Ailes)

I am a dreamer. I have been called a dreamer. I am also a realist and I never give up. I believe that there is a compromise somewhere in between these two models. The next time someone says a transit project is too expensive, just think about how much we pump into automobile related infrastructure and upkeep on a daily basis. You could be paying a lot less and supporting a more economical and environmentally sustainable mode of transportation. It is certainly difficult to equate the expenses of one mode to the other, but I believe I’ve made my point by listing some of the factors.

Comments 19

  • I grew up in a city with excellent mass transit (never knew that before moving here). My brain is wired in such way that it is hard for me to understand someone has to be convinced that the city with good public transit is better than the car-centric city. However, considering that less than 5,000 people signed the petition to support dedicated funding, we as a group are clearly car-centric.
    I know this is not a political blog, but unfortunately, it will take a right person in the office to get this done. I would vote for a mayor that is pro mass transit even if I disagree with him/her on everything else. I don’t often praise the “Tea Party”, but there is something to be said about the grassroots movement that’s basically organized around one simple idea (i.e. lower taxes or smaller government). Of course, if you try to apply that radical and overly simplistic no-compromise approach to running the country, the end result is likely to be bad. But more importantly for this discussion, a minority was able to change and influence the public debate. There is a minority in Indy who wants public transportation, and that minority needs to at least get the mass transit on the discussion board. It’s not as hard as you might think when you look at the numbers. The turn out in the last mayoral election was roughly 180,000 with the margin of roughly 7,500 votes.

  • “There is a double standard that exists when it comes to transit and frankly, it shouldn’t exist. Why does it exist? I believe it is because people, and Indianapolis is a huge offender, view transit as a luxury. Despite rising gas prices, road rage, excessive repair bills, insurance, car payments and the overall drag on a household’s economy, people still firmly believe that using a car to serve their transportation needs is the only way. Sure, it provides first person control and the ability to change your mind, but look at what you pay for it.”

    I see your point to an extent, but the real issue is much bigger. First we have to understand that having a car was necessary because of white flight. Yes, we have to admit that the suburban sprawl, to include not just the outer townships of Marion County, but the surrounding counties, had a lot to do with white people not wanting to live close to black people.

    I do think that race relations are much better than in the past, but as folks with money moved to various areas away from the urban core, those areas became the areas to go to. So now folks move to Fishers, Avon, Greenwood, etc., for reasons outside of race. This is because those were the areas to go to back in the late 70s, and through the 80s. The build-up just continued into the 90s and still going today. Unfortunately this has caused another issue, there is no way to provide a true mass transit system needed to support a family lifestyle issue. Well, we could provide it, if folks were willing to pay $1,000/month in additional taxes.

    This is the biggest issue transit has to overcome in Indy, and it just can’t given the huge amount of space our residents live in. Parents need the flexibility a car brings them. When your kid is sick at school, it would take lots of buses or rail lines to go from say downtown to New Palestine or Greenwood to the NW side of Indy in any meaningful time frame. The routes actually wouldn’t be too bad, plenty of direction, but folks are going to want to be able to leave their office, get on a bus within ten minutes, and be home within 20 minutes. You add up all the places of work and where people, and there are just too many to cover. So you offer a plan that focuses on the most dense areas, but then you have lots of people complaining about paying for something and getting nothing. Not only do your neighbors 10 miles north get a nice bus line, they pay the same as you are paying and they get to save all that money on car repairs, gas, etc.. Unfortunately, to provide the same service to everyone in the metro area would require just too much taxation, no one would want to pay what is required.

    For someone like me, married with no kids, transit is something I wouldn’t mind. However, for my friends with kids, there is no way I see them riding a bus to work. Maybe one of them could, but one would have to have a car available given all the things that come up with kids, especially younger kids.

  • Having a double standard makes sense, since building roads and running a transit line have entirely different cost structures and users. A light rail line, a bus line, etc serve a relatively small number of passengers for a large cost per mile. A road can serve a far larger number of passengers/drivers for a much smaller cost per mile.
    I know that for what people spend on cars and road taxes that they receive much more flexibility in the distances, directions, and times that they can commute verses spending the same amount on fares and public transit taxes which would limit them to commuting only along the transit lines for the hours of operation. For a three week period, I tried replacing my car with the city bus for my commute from Nora to down town. I bought a monthly bus pass (very cheap) and found that my home-to-work transit time went from 30 minutes to 1 hour each way (I live and work a short walking distance from the closest bus stops). I saved about a gallon of gas per day plus some wear and tear on my car. I gave it up because of the additional commute time (about one hour per day), the lack of flexibility to leave work earlier or later, the lack of ability to run an errand during the day, and needing to stay at work after the bus stopped running for the day.
    Unless public transit offers similar commute times and offers comparable flexibility, I won’t consider it again.

    • Looking purely economically at the society as a whole, the cost of car driving should almost always come higher than the mass transit simply because it’s less efficient. However, life is always more complicated than economics, so there are many factors that “cloud” our judgement — i.e. public subsidies, environmental cost transferred to society, sunk cost (existing infrastructure), opportunity cost (comfort, flexibility), etc. I don’t even want to get into the economics of less dense (byproduct of car centric culture) vs. more dense cities.
      Let’s put it this way, if car driving was entirely “privatized” (no government subsidies), there would probably be very little car driving…and no, I am not against government building roads.

  • Sorry folks I strongly believe this is an issue of racism. When “clean white people” drive down Ohio Street they see mostly brown and black people waiting for the bus. Nothing will change until middle class white people start riding the buses in large numbers. I often get on the bus and realize I am the only white person on board. I have come to believe that many people see mass transit funding as a social welfare program. Yet those same people expect their streets to be in good repair so they can drive their cars.
    Get out of your car, and get on the bus, or your bike!

    • Appleq and IndyRob are both spot on. The service must be appealing to convince people to try it out. It then must be practical for the individual so that it continues to be used.

      1. Non-stop buses, rail, whatever — it must get to the destination sooner than if it were a car in traffic. It must have a regular schedule that doesn’t leave you waiting for more than an hour or force you to transfer 2, 3, or 4 times.
      2. The mode of travel (buses, rail, etc.) must be visually appealing, safe, and also have the PERCEPTION (in addition to the reality) of being crime-free. It must have some sort of “cool-factor” that is also lasting and real.

      The thought that mass transit is seen as some sort of social welfare program for “others” is precisely what kills it for the “professional class.” One could liken it to that short period in the 90s when soccer was being promoted because it was “good for you.” Such an approach doesn’t work. People do things because they want to.

    • Totally agree. Also the whole safety factor. I wonder how many times a week IMPD is called out to somewhere along Ohio for a fight or some sort of disturbance at the bus stops.

      • IMPD is likely called out daily to the bigger bus stops on fights. And there is likely a few calls a day. The actions of a few can really affect others. Why save $3,000/year in commuting cost if that means possibly getting beat down and spending $5,000 in medical cost?

  • I would agree with the article. This city does not understand what rail transit would actually be like. Outside Marion County I would imagine the understanding of rail transit would be even harder for the people to grasp. It’s hard to imagine riding transit in your own city if one has never experienced it for themselves. Sadly Indianapolis is now very car centric 🙁

  • I wanted to comment that about the nice picture of public transit in Portland… but there are some differences between Portland and Indianapolis. Portland has more than twice the population density compared to Indianapolis which means that costs for comparable public transit systems are about half in Portland, that Trimet (the Portland Transit agency) gets more than half of operational funding from Payroll taxes, that another quarter of the budget comes from fares ,about 70,000 riders use the system frequency, compared to about 390,000 that continue to use their cars, that about 320,000 people pay about $770 per year in payroll taxes for the system.

    • IndyRob,
      You bring up a good point about Portland having much higher density, but that is due to the mass transit. Due to the transit lines they are able to require less parking which allows more space for living, working and shopping. This creates a much more desirable place to live and influences more people to live near the major transit lines. Indianapolis has to have public transit to achieve the density that leaders say they want, but that likely won’t happen until streets start to become clogged and commute times rise. Downtown has already dedicated way too much downtown space to parking, but that hasn’t seemed to influence them to do something that will allow for more development in the mile square.

    • I think your take on cost of transportation is overly simplistic. I suggest you read the paper titled “Do roads pay for themselves?” by US PIRG Education Fund or if you don’t want to read the entire paper, skip to the section “How best to price transportation” which offers an interesting perspective. The question I would ask about transportation is “which transportation investment will deliver the greatest benefits for the nation in the future?”. Looking at just Portland by itself is not enough. And looking at just Trimet’s budget by itself will not tell you much either.

  • Speaking of “you have lots of people complaining about paying for something and getting nothing”.. when will us transit-minded folks start getting vocally upset about projects like turning US31 into a freeway (or any of a dozen other high priced freeway projects in the last few years)?

    More to the point, why am I paying (via state and federal taxes) to build this road I’ll probably use once or twice in my lifetime? Get pissed, people.

    So I agree with the other commenters that the underlying problem is allocation of road construction/maintenance costs. If the few tens of thousands of daily users of this stretch of US31 had to bear the full cost of its construction and maintenance (e.g. via tolls or a local gas tax) I suppose it would be a lot less popular a project.

  • While agree with most points made by the author, I have to say I was left waiting for the revelation of the his recent epiphany about how to craft a massage that “everyday citizens can understand.”

    I have read other articles written by Mr. Ailes, I don’t think he just recently realized that automobile-centric development is inefficient, harms the environment and entails huge built-in costs. Nor did he just come to understand that the traditional view of public transit in Central Indiana (which is changing) is that public transit is a “luxury” while owning a car is a “necessity.” None of the arguments he makes for better transit in Central Indiana are new, and they have all been made before (in some cases more eloquently) by local transit advocates.

    If the problem is getting the message out to the public, then I am afraid a rambling post about “quantifying transit equality” is not the way to do it.

    These message boards are great for preaching to the choir, but few people who read this blog need to be persuaded to support public transit. I would suggest distilling down the pro-transit arguments to a few key points about why public transit is more cost-effective and equitable investment of taxpayer funds as opposed to pouring more public money into expanding street and highway capacity.

    • I agree, most people just need to simply be informed of the benefits. Sadly people will form opinions without any concrete knowledge on the topic. People need to be aware at least of both the pros and cons of rail transit.

  • Travis,
    I think that you are confusing cause and effect by stating that Portland’s growth is due to its mass transit system.
    In the last 40 years (based on 1970 & 2010 census figures), it does not appear that Portland’s population has grown any faster than the surrounding state of Washington.
    Mass transit is much more economically viable in Portland’s due to the population density. The operating costs of a similar system in Indianapolis would probably be at least double the amount of Portland’s. If Portland’s funding formula is used in Indianapolis, average payroll taxes would be at least $1500 to fund the mass transit system.

  • “surrounding state of Oregon”, not Washington.

  • IndyRob,

    Portland enacted a policy known as an Urban Growth Boundary in the late ’70s. This had many effects including denser development, higher home prices and conservation of rural lands. I am not here to debate the merits of the UGB, but it is without a doubt one of the main reasons for Portland’s transit feasability. It should also be noted that Tri-met, Portland areas operation arm for transit, has purchased large tracts of land around proposed stations to develop in a ccordance with TOD based design. This means they can concentrate development at the stops they design while ensuring a better chance of ridership and also possibly gaining revenue from land transactions.

    Portland’s density is also aided by natural features such as the river and a hilly terrain. Indianapolis has had decades of well documented sprawl that would make any reasonable UGB ineffective. This is why I, and many others on this forum, would advocate for an USB, or Urban Service Boundary. These are much less restrictive on general living patterns, but would allow for a more focused urban development environment. Indy needs to develop a mass transit system within the confines of established urban core areas. Indy also needs to control its utilities as many know, utilities are often the driver of development around this area. If the city was able to focus these aspects of development, transit would be much mroe viable.

  • I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit recently as well, but there’s another factor that should also be considered: the game theory of car ownership. In a dense urban environment with little car access (as in c. 1945) car ownership allows much greater flexibility and range of options for commercial, residential, and employment opportunities. Consequently, the individual at the margin will want to purchase residential land on the fringes of development, as that’s cheapest — the cornerstone of greenfield economics. However, as land continues to be developed, it smears the residential area across the countryside at sufficiently low densities as to reduce the overall residential, commercial, and employment options. As a result, on aggregate the consumer has the same options as he or she had before cars were a viable option, with the added cost of supporting a car and accompanying infrastructure costs.
    Now, this isn’t to say that cars are a bad thing at all – they add dramatically increased flexibility to transportation in rural areas, where mass transit would be infeasible. However, a poor car/city interface inevitably makes both worse off, as land prices in urban environments make surface parking lots (the cheapest form of parking infrastructure) a poor investment. Meanwhile, fringe-dwellers need some form of interface with the city, otherwise they’re locked out of the city’s options (as meter-watchers are wont to do).
    Going back to the idea of cars settling into a net-zero equilibrium compared to walking: how could we blend the two systems to take advantage both the flexibility of cars without necessarily depending on them for transport in urban environments? Park-and-rides are definitely an option that have been pursued to great success in cities like Washington to enable suburb-dwellers to commute to the city, but what about the other way around? “Ride-and-drives” could enable city-dwellers to access cheaper land to park their cars outside of the city, so they can avoid paying hefty monthly parking fees in downtown environments. For a majority of trips, though, these cars would be unused, so it may make more sense for car-shares to operate such businesses, if the market supports such a thing.
    I don’t think cars will ever go away, even in urban environments. As much as I dislike parking garages, there will always be people who need quick rather than cheap access to urban environments. However, there are still advances to be made in car-city transportation interfaces to make more efficient use of the different transportation options.

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