This is the second post in the series from citizens who support the Indy Connect Referendum:
As an undergraduate at Ball State University I participated in a summer-long study abroad in the summer of 2010 near Munich, Germany, and lived with a host family there. Not a day went by that summer without interaction with public transportation as my primary means of getting around â€“ with some ease I might add. This was a lesson that stuck with me upon my return to Indiana.
In 2013, I was working as a post-undergraduate intern at the Indiana State Senate and the issues surrounding central Indiana public transit prospects were being discussed for the first time I had seen, per the introduction of a public transit bill. That session the language died, and I was sure why: Americans will never choose to use public transit opposed to their automobile, the service will be a huge waste of money, and taking away roadway for transit will just worsen traffic congestion â€“ legislators knew these facts, too.
Fast forward to 2014; I began my Masters studies in January, and in March, public transit legislation was approved for central Indiana, and in May I was accepted for a graduate fellowship to study a German-American comparison topic of my choosing. Despite my first-hand experience of the usefulness public transit has to a society in another part of the world, I was still convinced in 2014 that transit wouldnâ€™t work here. So, I decided to challenge myself and I chose to study German-American metropolitan public transportation as a comparison study for my fellowship. I wrote the report with the intent to describe how public transit costs and benefits can be objectively viewed. In other words, I include the â€œgoodâ€ and the â€œbadâ€.
To my amusement, the public transit literature for US cities is rampant with variation. The reason for this is the great freedom that exists within every State to develop public services as a direct reflection of how the State is able to organize itself politically.
That kind of freedom leaves a tremendous void in the societal expectations on how public transit relates to urban form in the US. Metropolitan regions study one another in the US for best practices in many ways that include public transit provision, but it is not possible to expect a pick of two random cities in the US to have similarly robust transit systems.
The result is cities in the US have moved forward with public transit expansions at different time periods and are therefore at different stages in development. The pro/con transit literature feeds off this disparity by producing reports that lack historical or demographical context. They fail to account for time, space, and path dependencies in the development of transit systems and the land-use policies required to support public transit riders. This is just something to keep in mind when individuals cite studies as the concrete, factual analysis they need to prove their point. It is accurate that some US transit systems operate poorly and have for some time, while others are very useful and have been for some time, but if you torture the numbers long enough, they will tell you anything you want to know.
In Germany, however, the development of public transportation from a societal expectation is far more homogenous than what is found to be common in the US. Citizens expect good transportation to be available across the country like the Deutsche Bahn regional train shown above near Munich. The reasons for this are based in political history, economic principles, and demographic differences. After the economic devastation of World War Two, public transportation services in many metropolitan areas were critical to the reconstruction process and were relied upon heavily for years afterward.
Later, when the country recovered and more people were able to purchase automobiles closer to the rates found in the US â€“ which led to declining ridership rates for transit firms – the response wasnâ€™t to tear up the infrastructure that existed for mass transportation like in most US cities during 1940â€™s and 1950â€™s. The response in Germany was to unify private and public transit firms in metropolitan regions behind the banner of public regulation in order to retain high societal benefits that ridership on public transit can create. The public organization model they used to do this has since been replicated in virtually all major German metropolitan regions. For a truly remarkable organization example, look no further than Berlin, Germany. Also a city-state, Berlinâ€™s public transit system unites over forty public and private systems into a single coordinated regional transit system!
The benefits that German policymakers recognized were anchored in the reality that public transit is directly connect to land-use policy. That is, if a region favors more spread out development that requires more automobiles due to a lack of substantial public transportation options, the region is essentially favoring more growth in congestion. German policymakers also have implemented a drastically different tax and fee requirement on automobile usage.
The analysis is grounded in empirical evidence but the thought makes some sense intuitively; if public money subsidizing public transit infrastructure in the form of higher quality service and shorter vehicle wait times leads to higher public transit ridership around development, then maybe public subsidies to private automobile travel in the form of expanded roadways and ease of automobile ownership around development leads to higher automobile usage?
The graph below is derived from data obtained from the Texas A&M Transportation Instituteâ€™s Mobility Scorecard. It shows Indianapolis population growth from 1984 to 2014 on the X-axis in logarithmic form and increasing annual hours of delay on all roads on the Y-axis during the same period of time. As Indianapolis has grown in population, so too has congestion; but the connection to be made here is that that growth has been met with the scale heavily tilted towards road expansion and in turn leaves an additional burden of car ownership on different income groups in our region at different effective rates.
If one is willing to take a step back and think objectively about public transportation, you realize the debate ought not to be centered on whether or not public transit is useful, the debate should be centered on what the right balance is between automobile usage and public transit alternatives with accurate and un-biased information as to the specificity to the region. And this is exactly what is found in much of the literature in Germany; the sense that the debate is on how much ought to be spent towards public transit to achieve the benefits to society as opposed to whether or not the service alternative is useful exists. The debate on usefulness in the US is just one thread of literature; other threads include tax revenue versus expenditure equity towards financing public transit, political and administrative fragmentation issues, organization and service delivery, and supportive policies just to name a few. The need for accurate information is pungent.
Despite a vast picture the debate about public transit creates, it is my hope that the residents of central Indiana take seriously the opportunity to decide whether or not they feel the need to add better public transit to the region this year. There are plenty of deficiencies and lessons to be learned from around the world in the public transit sector. There will be challenges along the way, but the best outcome can be realized when we decide to move forward together. To try and find a mutually beneficial outcome should be the reach or, in other words, minimize the negatives and maximize the benefits of expanded transit options.
Ten months of researching, traveling to interview individuals, and writing provided me with a substantial backing on the economic and financial realities of how the sector operates. But perhaps the most impactful realization for me towards studying German-American public transportation was how it led me to question how public services are provided generally. The German Basic Law (their constitution) provides that the country establish public services that provide for equity in their provision. Essentially, the financing of public services is to be set up as to avoid excessive burdens on some taxpayers to the primary benefit of others. Our public transit plan isnâ€™t perfect, but it would be a start.
Something to keep in mind that next time you pass someone that chose to use public transport on Meridian Street who has to sit on a bench next to traffic, or worse yet stand next to a pole in the grass or mud because the facilities arenâ€™t there. Knowing now the full extent to which we subsidize private automobile travel here, as well as legislate low public barriers to entry for private automobile use, Iâ€™m not sure we should be then asking riders who choose to use (or have to use) public transit to pay taxes toward the service, the ticket price, and their dignity along with it.
It is my hope that we realize and understand in our region that there is a direct connection between quality of life and public transportation by saying, this is my city and I care about how it functions now, and in the future. As one of the most automobile centric cities in the US, perhaps some lessons can be understood and implemented on what we want the urban form to look like over the future decades. As someone that lives relatively close to downtown at the edge of the Old Northside Neighborhood, Iâ€™ve enjoyed reading about the history here, but Iâ€™ll be passionate about the future.