Sunday, November 11th, 2007

Why Rail Transit Is a Bad Idea for Indianapolis

Update: You can find an overview of a more recent commuter rail proposal here. You can also see a list of pro-transit suggestions here.

[My thinking has evolved since writing this article. I would probably no longer call fixed rail transit a “bad idea”. The question isn’t whether it would be good or bad. Of course it would do good things. The question is, in a city facing enormous problems, is there where you would spend your limited funds? I would probably not do so absent the ability to leverage significant outside financing. Also, I remain skeptical that Indianapolis will ever embrace the land use changes that would be required make transit really work. That is actually the more important part to get right. If Indy make a big commitment to more dense development in a serious way, I’d be more supportive of rail transit. But my first priority would be to create a first class bus system for the core city. I think there are many ways to start doing this right now.]

It pains to me to write this article because I am such a huge fan of public transit and because I know it will put me at odds with many folks I’d normally agree with. Nevertheless, one thing I promised when I started this blog was not to just regurgitate the conventional wisdom, but to call them like I see them. Please note that everything I say here applies to essentially every other similar sized Midwest city.

There has been a lot of hand wringing lately about the impact that the election of Greg Ballard, a noted transit skeptic, as mayor of Indianapolis would have on the prospects for light rail. I’m actually with Ballard on this one. The case for rail transit is dubious at best.

The first thing to consider is the notion of “public transit” itself. What does that mean? If you ask me, it means exactly what it says: transportation for the public. That is, its goal is moving the general public – not just the poor, minorities, the disabled, etc. – from place to place. So many critics of public transit critique it simply because they don’t believe it is a public service but a social service. I do not agree.

But while critics miss on the “public” part, proponents are often equally as wide of the mark on the “transit” side of the equation. If you listen to almost any public transit advocate, the list of outcomes they give for a light rail system has little to do with actually meeting the mobility needs of people. Rather, there is a list of consequential effects that are touted as the real benefit of rail: reducing automobile congestion, renewal of inner city neighborhoods, transformation of suburban development, and helping the environment by reducing air pollution. In effect, rail transit is a means to an end, not an end in and of itself. This immediately puts me on heightened alert.

As someone who actually rode transit almost exclusively for years – I even published a transit newsletter for three years in a previous life – I firmly believe that transit is and should be for riders, full stop, not for all these extraneous outside reasons. I am convinced transit can be justified on that basis alone, even in Indianapolis, but certainly not an expensive rail transit system.

Given the dubious rationales for transit in the first place, it should come as no surprise that the case for it implodes after even a modest amount of thought.

1. Indianapolis follows a highly decentralized development pattern and very dispersed origins and destinations. This makes it a very bad for the point to point or hub and spoke model used by effectively all US rail transit systems and which is proposed in Indianapolis. A rail line from Noblesville to downtown would serve an incredibly limited market: peak period commuters from the northeast corridor to downtown Indianapolis. It would not help someone get from Greenwood to Park 100, for example. It would not link someone from 30th and MLK to the warehouse complexes at the Airport and Plainfield. It would serve Keystone Crossing (including the new Venu development) at all, nor would it cover the Meridian St. corridor in Carmel, which has the second largest office space market in Indiana, accounting for over 50% of growth. In fact, the list of places it would not serve is nearly infinite. The potential market a northeast corridor light rail line could serve would be very small relative to Indianapolis as a whole. Even if it were extended to other spoke lines – say, Franklin to downtown Indy – this would still serve only the downtown market.

2. Transit and the automobile are not good substitutes. Transit works best where autos work worst and vice versa. In fact, good transit adoption almost always requires an auto-hostile environment with extreme congestion, high density, high tolls, and expensive parking. Indianapolis is comparatively lacking in all of these, though congestion is on the increase. However, far from decreasing congestion, it would actually take increased congestion to drive people to transit.

This tension between autos and transit means there is also an inherent conflict between maximizing transit ridership and encouraging people to come downtown. For example, people take trains to downtown New York, Boston, Chicago, etc. because not only is traffic horrible, but it costs $20 to park. Office buildings in Manhattan are built without parking because it is assumed everyone will take the train. In Indianapolis, it has been a city goal to maintain cheap and plentiful parking downtown, including, for example, subsidized parking as low as $1 for Circle Centre Mall, and easy navigation in and out of downtown in order to make people want to come there. Unlike NYC, downtown Indy can’t rely on a mass influx of suburbanites and tourists despite huge inconveniences. Also, even if the city decided it wanted to drive up the cost of parking to make transit more attractive, this would really hurt downtown because even in the best-case scenario there would only be a limited number of rail corridors with service to downtown, unlike those other cities which enjoy 360 degree access to downtown.

3. Rail transit, especially on street light rail, despite the claims of its proponents, typically has very low average operating speeds and longer journey times than commuting by car. Check the Census Bureau stats if you don’t believe me. People look at top operating speeds but forget that a train is stopping frequently, dropping to a speed of zero, which greatly reduces average speed. That’s why commuters in New York and Chicago like to get on express trains and avoid the “milk runs” at all cost – but that usually requires a three or four track mainline to make work, and none of the Indy proposals includes that.

People also make the mistake of judging the speed of rail transit based solely on the time spent on the train. But that’s like saying it takes 45 minutes to fly from Indy to Chicago. That’s only the time in the air. It doesn’t include driving to the airport, parking, taking a shuttle to the terminal, checking in, going through security, waiting around the gate, delays, followed by a similar situation in reverse on landing. Add it all up and it is often faster to drive to downtown Chicago from Indy than it is to fly, because the 3 hour drive time is much closer to the real door to door time for the auto journey. Similarily for transit, you’ve got to get to the train station with some time to spare, then get from your stop to where ever it is you are going. This can often be lengthy. Even a five minute walk to a station – which is extremely close, btw – is about four and a half minutes longer than the walk out to your garage.

4. There is no political will for transit oriented development in Indianapolis. Transit typically best serves dense development within easy walking distance – one quarter to one half mile – of a station. Also, much of the touted neighborhood renewal benefit come from developments near the station. Yet Indianapolis is an extremely low density, auto oriented city. It is predominantly single family homes, with few of the traditional urban storefront districts found in larger cities. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. But it does mean there aren’t ready-made “mini-downtowns” near stations waiting to be redeveloped, thus it would require deliberate densification near stations. I do not believe there is any political will for this. Nothing inspires more fear and loathing in Indianapolis than even modest density. The record of neighborhood opposition to even small scale apartment and condo buildings, even in neighborhoods such as Broad Ripple, suggests neighbors will fight any densification tooth and nail. Even downtown itself, a large and influential segment of the population believes that even much of the regional center should be devoted only to single family homes. To date, these groups have largely gotten various city agencies like the IHPC to go along with their demands, either by rejecting developments outright or mandating reduced density.

Interestingly, the only place where significant densification is occuring is in central Carmel, where Mayor Brainard has withstood enormous heat to see through the approval of projects like the City Center and Gramercy. He believed that the extreme vocal complaining was from a minority, and was willing to bet his future at the ballot box that this was the case. Fortunately for him, and Carmel, he was right. However, Mayor Brainard appears to be alone in being willing to take the heat for something like this.

If the city is going to implement light rail, it must include overlay zoning to mandate transit oriented development – meaning medium to high density, pedestrian oriented development – along the route, with an extended transition area back to low density. I don’t know all the specifics of this, but I believe Charlotte was able to pull something like this off with its light rail line.

5. Indianapolis is not Portland – thank goodness. Much has been made of the Portland experience with light rail. Keep in mind that anything transit advocates believe Portland has accomplished has been done so at the cost of decades of nearly dictatorial government control, including urban growth boundaries, huge subsidies to transit, starvation of road funding, and subsidies to developers who engage in the city’s favored vision. The net result of this is that traffic is worse than in Indianapolis. Portland has come to terms with this and actually wants bad traffic in order to drive people into transit, but this is not the story being sold in Indianapolis. What’s more, Portland is expensive – very expensive. In fact, as far as I’ve been able to identify, it is by far the most expensive small city in the United States in which to live. Much of the highly touted liveability of Portland has come at the expense of making it unliveable, that is, unaffordable, to anyone without a six figure income. The creative and professional classes thrive in Portland because they are the only ones who can afford it, and they are the ones who appreciate the development style the city has tried to mandate. But what about the broad working class? Is there a role for the warehouse or factory worker in this city model? One of the great things about Indianapolis is its affordability to people with a wide range of incomes, and it would a shame to see that lost in a wave of transit oriented gentrification.

6. Indianapolis is not New York, Boston, Chicago, etc. Hoosiers visit Chicago and ooh and ahh the L train. But there area many, many differences between Indianapolis and places like that.

  • Downtown Chicago has well over 100 million square feet of office space, dwarfing downtown Indianapolis in its based of employees and visitors.
  • It is served by the L from all areas of the city, as well as commuter rail lines from all directions into the suburbs. You can safely assume anyone in the metro area can get downtown by transit, something that will not be true in Indianapolis unless 6-8 radial lines were built.
  • The rail lines of Chicago were largely built 100 years ago, when labor was cheap, the ADA didn’t exist, and you didn’t have to spend years creating environmental impact statements. They just went out and built the things. In fact, much of it was built by private money from real estate developmers who wanted their new “sprawl” developments on the fringe opened to transport access. This system could never be replicated today.
  • Office buildings in downtown Chicago are built without parking since it is assumed everyone rides transit. Much commercial development likewise lacks onsite parking, and even residential has fewer parking spots that Indianapolis would feature.
  • Chicago has horrific traffic congestion and expensive downtown parking – and parking tickets.
  • Chicago’s transit system, like that of many other cities, is operationally a shambles and in a perpetual state of crisis. As I write this, the CTA has announced yet another “doomsday” scenario if it doesn’t get more state funding.
  • Chicago is exceptionally dense compared to Indianapolis, and has many neighborhoods that are highly transit oriented, including many where owning a car is almost prohibitive because of the difficulty of parking.
  • Excellent transit service makes it in fact easy to live without a car at all in many places, or for a family to have just one car, saving thousands of dollars per year. Without convenient, walkable neighborhood services – grocery, drugstore, hardware store, etc – the likelihood of this happening in Indianapolis is far less.
  • Notwithstanding its famed L system, more people actually ride city buses than the L, a little known fact.

Also, those citing the South Shore Line as a reason Hoosiers will take transit should keep in mind that the destination of almost all of these people is downtown Chicago. This is not Indiana to Indiana commuting.

7. Effectively anything that can be accomplished through rail transit could be accomplished better, faster, easier, and cheaper through buses. Note how quickly express bus service from Fishers to downtown started up. If it succeeds, it can easily be expanded. If it fails, it can be shut down with little financial loss. Note that the Fishers bus is an express service, something rail would not be able to provide.

Buses do not require the massive up front capital cost of rail. Operating costs of buses are higher, but not as much as you might expect because rail lines require a large number of track and signal maintenance people, etc. that aren’t necessarily visible to the rider. Buses are strategically flexible. If a new development like Venu pops up, or a new area of town starts seeing development, you can easily adjust routes to compensate. That’s almost impossible with rail. They are also operationally flexible. If the bus ahead of you breaks down, your bus can easily navigate around. Or re-route to avoid a construction zone. These are difficult to do with rail lines. It is easier to flex capacity with bus than rail.

What buses don’t give you is the sexiness factor. I believe this is actually a lot of what drives the desire for rail transit. It has a lot to make politicians like it. It is a big, splashy, grand projet. There is lots of money to dole out to the connected lawyers, consultants, and contractors. Like actual pro sports teams, it gives an up and coming town the trappings of a big league city. You can be see to be keeping up with the Jones’. Now I’ve advocated that Indianapolis often fails by not looking at the trends going on in the world. But that doesn’t mean I think the city should mindlessly adopt them. Rather, it needs to understand the trend and what is driving it, look at how it applies or doesn’t in its own case, and consciously, deliberately make a decision on which way to go.

8. Rail transit will not reduce traffic congestion. As I’ve said, effective transit often requires bad traffic to make it work. Even without that, the low ridership projections* and high growth in the northeast corridor means that any diversions from auto to rail would end up little more than a rounding error. Things to keep in mind when contrasting rail and road figures are that transit daily ridership is typically stated as the daily individual boardings cumulatively for the entire line whereas AADT measures only vehicles at a single point on the freeway. AADT does not account for there being an average occupancy per vehicle greater than one, nor does it include any car that ever enters or exits the highway at any point, as the comparable transit number does. What’s more, when rail transit is implemented, the existing bus system is often converted into a feeder network for rail (almost all lightrail systems in the depend on good bus feed and distribution), and at least some of the ridership of rail is people who switched from bus, or induced demand, not new ridership resulting from people leaving their cars behind. And while I’d fully expect the majority of light rail demand to be peak period commuters, since that market to downtown is the only one served, there would still be some off-peak ridership, which would probably contribute little to nothing in congestion relief.

Add it all up and the case for rail transit in Indianapolis is very, very weak. It appears to be mostly a political program, not a transportation one. If the city wants to burn up a couple of billion to build a light rail line just to have one, then I guess that is a choice that can be made. But I’d at least like to see people come to grips with the reality of the situation, including the types of changes the city would have be committed to undertaking to even given rail the chance of being successful. I just don’t see any indication of that happening.

As I said, I do believe there could be a bright future for bus service in Indianapolis. In fact, bus would make a nice pilot for rail. I always advise my clients that they should do a small scale pilot of the business change they want to make before making major capital investments in order to prove the business case. If bus is so wildly popular that rail becomes necessary, then it should be no problem getting the justification and funding to build it. I will leave my ideas for bus transit in Indy for a future posting.

* The studies I downloaded showed 17-18,000 boarding per day for a northeast corridor line, but even if double that, the story wouldn’t change.

Topics: Transportation
Cities: Indianapolis

27 Responses to “Why Rail Transit Is a Bad Idea for Indianapolis”

  1. Kevin says:

    I blame our lack of geographical barriers…mountains, lake, ocean…etc.

    I do wish we were more like Portland in a lot of respects. Their prospects for long-term sustainability are much better. If oil rationing or a price spike hits (which I believe will happen in the next few years), this city will fall on its face. Portland will have other options. Of course they’ll still be affected, but they will be much better off to deal with a society where oil is no longer cheap and plentiful.

    Aside from that depressing thought, though, I have to agree with much of what you say. Let’s get our bus system up to par first.

  2. Anonymous says:

    An excellent analysis Urb.

  3. David says:

    Thank you for writing this, you’re spot on as always. I cringe when reading all the posts on the Skyscraper City forums about how Ballard is the devil because he might not go ahead with light rail. People just assume that rail transit would be a good thing for Indy. Usually, like you mentioned, just so people can brag about how big their city’s collective manhood is.

    The one and only place in Indy where rail transit should be built right now is from the airport to downtown. With this big fancy convention center being built, there needs to be a better way of moving visitors downtown.

  4. bhorg says:

    I definitely think bus transit needs to be improved and more widely used before a rail line is installed, but the city needs to look ahead and plan for it because eventually I think it will be necessary.

  5. The Urbanophile says:

    Thanks for the comments – I must say, more positive so far than I was expecting.

    bhord, I definitely support preserving ROW where needed for rail transit. Local government already owns the Nickel Plate, and other key routes such as the L&I and Greenwood still have the ROW intact. I definitely support corridor preservation to enable rail in the future. We should certainly avoid precluding future options.

    David, the airport is ten minutes from downtown by taxi. Even the new airport will be extremely close to downtown. The problem with rail to the airport is that you either need a highly circuitous route or you have to dig an expensive tunnel under the crosswind runway. Anything a light rail line could accomplish could be done just as well with an express bus.

  6. David says:

    I guess you’re right about the airport. A bus would probably be a good thing to have there. Most cities at least have some other option for getting into the city from the airport besides an expensive cab ride.

    I guess you’re planning to follow up on bus transit, but suffice it to say that making IndyGo not totally pathetic would go a long way. A woman I worked with a couple years ago often had to ride the bus to work, and she usually showed up 45 minutes early because it was either that or be late.

  7. The Urbanophile says:

    Express bus is actually the preferred method of connecting from the airport to central city in many places. Lots of people take the bus from Narita in Tokyo, for example.

    Express bus service from the IND terminal non-stop to downtown would be far preferrably to what is typical in the US, which is usually a slow, all stops train (a la the Blue Line from O’Hare) or worse yet includes transfers (a la JFK – which is why many people still take the express bus to Grand Central).

    I don’t know any cities in the US that have the equivalent of something like the Arlanda Express in Stockholm.

  8. Anonymous says:

    You say that Indy doesn’t have the developmental patterns to support light-rail. Well, those development patterns are the result of government engineering and zoning laws. They can just as easily be changed.

    An additioal benefit of light-rail is to densify development along its routes. LA has seen a boom of high desnity developments along its subway and LTR corridors

    LA invested squat in mass transit and built more and more freeways before it became choked in congestion and smog. It took a continued and significant investment in mass transit to improve the quality of life in the Valley. Average commute times have DECLINED in LA since 1990, which is the exception rather than the rule.

    Indy had several Know-zone days over the summer due to poor air quality caused by-surprise!- automibile emissions.

    Oil will not last forever and global warming is a very real consequence of autocentrism so now is the time to diversify transportation options. There is plenty of money for light rail- the federal government just needs to get its funding priorities together.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Given the opposition of the near northeast side to I-169, why would they be less opposed to the construction required to build light rail in the same route?

    The reason Ballard probably faces more criticism about his opposition to light rail is that he gives a traditional Republican answer of “too much money/more taxes.” Constructive answers would help, such as your post.

    In a roundabout way, you touched on the fact that not ALL of the jobs in Indy are downtown. I’d suggest that not even 50% of the jobs are there. I think that Indy could work on building better places to live NEAR where you work. Carmel is certainly trying to do this, and Anson is attempting to do much of the same. It’s the same concept as having “mini cities” near rail transit stops, except near the major workplace areas. Downtown should not excluded, but clearly the “condo glut” is going in that direction already. If the density could be increased in areas around Park 100/Pyramids, for example, I think it would achieve the same result, and likely with better success.

  10. Donna says:

    Very bold commentary, Urbanophile, and I am almost in complete agreement.

    You said: “The creative and professional classes thrive in Portland because they are the only ones who can afford it…But what about the broad working class? Is there a role for the warehouse or factory worker in this city model?”

    A big question would be whether there is a role for a factory worker in ANY American city in the coming 50 years. One thing we can be sure of, however, as the class division in our society continues to grow, there will always be jobs for service workers, and the well-heeled “creative” class, with their long working hours, love of restaurants, etc. will always need waiters and people to clean their houses. I hate to sound elitist, but I think it’s a reality.

    As you said in the article, these workers will be vastly decentralized, and thus a wonderful bus system could serve them. If the buses can be electric/hydrogen/whatever powered, then our existing road infrastructure will be utilized, and when gas tops $8/gallon even the upper middle class will jump on board. Imagine buses running every ten minutes like clockwork on College, Spring Mill, Grandview, etc., every five minutes on Meridian and Michigan, and equal numbers on the east-west streets.

    Lots more to say on this article, but I need to get to working on my “creative” job! Thanks for publishing this article and I hope a good discussion can continue.

  11. Doug M says:

    For the most part, I can see why you stand behind your arguments, and it’s good to finally see the rationale behind your logic.

    Looking ahead to the future, the first thing Indy needs is an express bus to the airport. Anyone who visits Indy for the first time and has to take a $20 taxi to downtown is going to have a bad taste in their mouth about our city.

    I don’t think light rail is the option, but I do think a medium/heavy rail system similar to St. Louis is a wonderful idea. That city is experiencing higher ridership on their public rail than ever imagined, and they’ve even expanded it into Illinois and parts of southwest St. Louis as well.

    Indy MPO should constantly be evaluating other cities such as STL and try to come up with a system that is just as good if not faster than theirs. We must end our addiction to oil.

  12. cityfan says:

    Urbanophile, nice commentary. What are your thoughts on actual commuter rail, say starting from Muncie with limited stops in areas along the Northeast corridor, rather high-frequency stopping light rail? This type of transit would probably attract more riders from the Northeast suburbs than a less direct light-rail would

  13. Anonymous says:

    I do agree with all what Doug M says and I also believe we need to reduce our dependency on oil. Driving your SUV from Fishers or Greenwood to DT is probably the most ineffecient way to travel.
    I have been on St. Louis’ rail line and have enjoyed it.
    My question is to anyone, what would it take to get rail (with connecting bus service) to the Indianapolis area? What is the line to cross to make it a viable choice? When 12 laned I-69 or 10 laned I-465 has a LOS OF E? Gas prices hitting $5 a gallon? Air quality hazardous?
    I may never see rail around Indy in my lifetime, but will my 11 month old son?

  14. Mark says:

    The simple fact of the matter is that this city needs to do SOMETHING about it’s public transit. The bus system is terrible, and we’re wasting FAR too much money and resources constantly widening I-465 and bridges instead of, instead, finding ways to provide transit service independent of personal car traffic.
    What better alternative to gas-powered, smog creating cars is there than electric rail transit?

  15. The Urbanophile says:

    Thanks for the continued comments.

    Various transit systems have gotten riders onto trains. There is a question of how many of them are new riders versus existing bus riders who switch modes, but some are getting on the trains. Having said that, I’ve yet to see any evidence that transit in St. Louis or anywhere else has reduced traffic congestion. Yes, St. Louis has experienced an urban condo mini-boom and other inner city revitalization that they attribute to their rail line. But how does that explain the urban redevelopment in cities like, oh, for example, Indianapolis, that don’t have rail lines? This type of redevelopment is a feature of the times, not transit. Also look at the cost per new rider of these systems and I think you’ll find it staggering.

    donna, I worry about just that and have commented on it in this blog. Cities were once the factories of the nation, not urban playgrounds for yuppies. Now certainly any city that aspired to stay competitive needs gentrified, playground neighborhoods. But that’s not a basis for an entire city. There’s a name for a place where there is an educated, wealty elite catered to by an underclass – it’s call the third world. Thinking about people who aren’t part of the “new elite” is something that has gone into precious few urban plans.

    anon 6:30, planning and zoning can be changed, but they sure can’t be easily changed. That’s my key argument – there is no political will to make this happen.

    cityfan, regarding commuter rail, it has pretty much all the downsides of light rail. I can support commuter rail where it can be done at limited cost. This would imply using existing active rail lines. There is only one such line that would qualify: this is the CSX mainline through downtown. That line does, incidentally, serve Muncie. It also goes west to Terre Haute and Avon, Danville, etc. The problem with this line is that it is extremely busy with freight and I seriously doubt CSX would entertain the idea of letting allowing commuter rail on it.

  16. Anonymous says:

    Great discussion … It may take $15 per gallon gas, but our living patterns will drive transportation needs and eventually mass transit for this sprawling city will once again take shape. It’s funny that 100 years ago Indy (and the state) had an established rail transportation system throughout the city and surrounding communities like Muncie, Lafayette and Cincinnati and many more. Street car tracks could probably still be found under the asphalt in front of my home on College Ave. I recently took the train to Chicago for the weekend – yes it can be done. It took 6 1/2 hours to get there because Amtrak is low priority on the tracks due to freight traffic. It was still worth the experience. You can ride up on Saturday morning and return on Sunday night. Check it out.

  17. Anonymous says:

    Short sighted in my view. Indinapolis needs to be laying the ground work to high destiny areas like the northeast corridor and Greenwood into a downtown hub( I read once that the south stree Post Office was tagged for this use) with a combination rail/bus spoke system and downtown people movers in the mix.

    This city is only going to get bigger(just in case you missed it…we have done a great job of building a great downtown) Rail it a great way to go for the Northeast and Greenwood areas…if we don’t start now…look down the road, or hopefully rail, twenty years down the road. Wonder what gas will be then $20.00 a gallon and I have serious doubts that we can grow enough corn to get ourselves out of this fuels mess and still feed ourselves.

    I think this article is very short on sight.

  18. Anonymous says:

    ^ I agree. This article is incredibly shortsighted and does not take into account that the age of cheap oil is over.

    As for the points made, one can make a counter argument for each and every single one:

    1. This argument assumes that only one transit line will be built. As more and more transit lines are built and come on line, the network effect takes place. With increased transit funding (and the current thought in Washington DC is turning this way), more and more people will be able to utilize a wide range transportation network. It takes political will to build the first transit line, but once it starts, demand will rise in other parts of the city for one in their area. Salt Lake City, Seattle, Denver, and Minneapolis are a few such examples

    2. Cities should be built for people not for cars. Indianapolis will benefit greatly, from aesthetics to public health, once human scaled development makes a come back through increased transit investment.

    3. Parking is always a main issue in car oriented cities. One of the reason why companies leave downtowns is because of employee concerns about paying for parking. Why stay downtown when you can just build a new site with free and plentiful parking? Transit helps to take care of this problem by bringing many workers into a concentrated site for business. Granted, there are other considerations for business retention, but transit is one of the key items.

    Also, with Indiana’s obesity rate, more people walking is a good thing and transit will help make walking a necessary part in people’s lives.

    4. Political will can certainly change, and a good PR effort can help rectify this issue, if it is indeed an issue. Bart Peterson showed signs that he was going to move on public transit, and even if there are questions about the current mayor, I’m sure future mayors will move on this issue, especially if the transit push in Washington is successful.

    5. So the logic here is that we shouldn’t do rail transit because it will make areas with transit more attractive and increase property values? The city needs an increased and prosperous tax base to help lift up low income areas through re-investment and/or other types of public investment.

    6. Chicago is a world class city while Indianapolis is working towards it. Chicago would not be a great city without its public transit infrastructure (rail and bus working in tandem) and to begrudge a city because it has public transit and not at all auto oriented is myopic.

    7. Buses should definitely be part of any public transportation infrastructure, but why limit a city to just this one type though? Buses are cost effective in some areas and rail are cost effective in others. Both should work together to make an area more human oriented.

    Also, rail triggers more wide ranging TOD because people perceive it as more permanent. When promoting a product – in this case, public transit, perception is very important.

    Finally, buses carry a negative stigma with it that rail does not. You shouldn’t fall into the logical fallacy that bus and rail attractiveness are equal and attract the same amount of people through commensurate funding increases. Moreover, to help change people’s behavior in a car oriented city, it requires big plans that can turn heads and make it socially acceptable to ride public transit. Remember the old adage, “make no small plans.”

    8. That is why we want to change cities to become more people oriented and not reflexively accommodate cars. Besides, taking people out of single occupancy cars into public transit like rail and bus will help reduce our energy needs and help combat global climate change. With public transit, people’s lives will improve because the cities they will live in will become car optional instead of car dependent.

  19. thundermutt says:

    I finally got around to re-reading this old post and comments. In light of the recent streetcar announcement, it’s pertinent again.

    On a grand scale, Indianapolis’ development pattern is (finally) beginning to mimic older and larger US cities: a gold-plated core, with a decaying “donut” of inner-ring suburbs around it, with fringe/exurban gold-plated suburbs.

    Yet there are only about 100,000 jobs downtown, in a metro area of almost 1.6 million. That seems to suggest Indy’s jobs are pretty well dispersed.

    There is an excellent book on historical development patterns called “City: Urbanism and its End” by Douglas Rae which I would recommend to all here. It is fairly critical of planner-directed grand-scheme “urban renewal” from its origins in the 50s right up to today.

    Economics and millions of personal choices have led us to where we are today, and only economics and millions more personal decisions will lead us to the future, whatever that is.

    Planned societies, such as Portland, often collapse under the weight of mistaken assumptions. An “urban growth limit” will ALWAYS drive up real estate values and crowd out affordable (in the economic sense, not in the HUD sense) housing options.

    I agree that a single light rail line in the Northeast Corridor is a bad idea. I think a much better idea is to start using rail in the urban core to provide a better experience for the tourists and conventioneers that we attract, as well as for those with multiple activities downtown: homes, jobs, school at IUPUI, etc.

    A limited downtown streetcar system, in tandem with the Airport Express bus, would first have an identifiable market (and provide a marketable advantage for the Convention and Visitors Bureau and Indianapolis Downtown, Inc.).

    If a downtown streetcar system later tied in a significant number of local job and activity drivers (IUPUI and the health complexes, the central business district, Ivy Tech, Children’s Museum and both Lilly clusters) then eventually a radial bus rapid transit system served by a central station would make sense.

    Over the long term (10-25 years), high-ridership bus lines could be considered for rail extensions but not before a “transit culture” change takes effect.

    It seems that the biggest disagreement on this blog is whether to force that change abruptly because planners know best, or to allow the free market to drive the change (perhaps with some clever economic incentives).

    I think I ride with the economists on this one. Pull change, don’t push it.

  20. Anonymous says:

    The timne has come. Indy needs to be thinking in terms of what to do about mass transit now. Lite rail whatever. $5.00 a gallon gas this summer will begin to move people toward demanding an upgrade to our public transit system. Even the new elite will fill the pinch of the coming engry crunch.

  21. Anonymous says:

    I just stumbled upon this post, and as someone who grew up in Carmel and now lives in Chicago, I figured I’d chime in.

    I always thought light rail for metro Indy would be great, but I must reluctantly agree with this excellent post. Getting people to downtown would be one thing. But what about, say, someone who wants to get off in Castleton and shop? How is that person getting to the mall from the train?

    Even in Chicago, public transit has its limits. Having all the rail lines meet downtown is great, but more jobs are moving to the suburbs, and not necessarily close to train lines. Rail is great for me because I live only a few miles from a Metra stop and work at a building right by a El Red Line stop, so train transportation makes sense. If I had to go suburb-to-suburb, it has to be a car. Yeah, there’s a suburban bus system, but that’s great only if you have no other option because you’ll take three times as long to get there.

    Plus, on the city bus line, cuts upon cuts have been made for years, reflecting population changes yes, but also the never-ending budget woes of a bloated bureaucracy.

    The express-bus idea sounds great, but I suspect it would be used less by Carmelites headed downtown then by low-wage workers heading the other direction. Not a problem, as long as those are the expectations. A larger system of express buses from hub to hub might be a good solution. Why not give local buses shorter routes to go a hub location, rather than a long, local route? I don’t know if that would work, but maybe a version of the airlines’ hub-and-spoke system could make public bus transportation more workable in a spread-out city like Indianapolis.

    If there IS a place for rail to work in Indianapolis, it would be downtown. It’s already fairly dense — one of the appeals for conventions and sports events is that you can walk to most everywhere you need to. But what about if you’re around the Circle and want to get to Mass Ave? Or the zoo? Or IUPUI? Or the new Colts’ stadium?

    Maybe a people-mover system like Clarian built could work. That way, nobody has to drive from destination to destination, so it makes the downtown area more accessible.

  22. Roy says:

    I’m currently looking at the cost of some train sets and will be building a line with my own money. I plan on working some deals with other businesses and local government (outside Marion). The plan I have will finally give some people options of parking the cars and save their hard earned money from being sucked away towards $5-7gallon. People will listen when it comes to their wallets and not the excuses the MPO keeps making. It’s time for the revival of privatized transit companies to take back transportation. The wait is over. No more red tape. Look at the billboards for my alternative promotion project for the people due to increasing high fuel prices. While MPO will do it’s thing I’m going to do my own with this time the support of the citizens. Details of the private rail co. project is confidential at this time. Rail is coming folks.

  23. serial catowner says:

    The Urbanophile deserves a more detailed response when I have the time, but for starters…Indianapolis was built on rail transportation. Since then, of curse, it has been rebuilt- but with the end of the oil age, it will need to be rebuilt again!

  24. serial catowner says:

    To a Puget Sounder, the proclivity of the Urbanophile to live in Indianapolis, instead of Portland Oregon, is an indication of an almost unbridgeable cultural gap.

    Initially, I was inclined to comment on the post in terms of cities and urban life. However, on reflection, Indianapolis appears to be, not a city, but a state capital surrounded by prosperous suburbs. Indeed, this appears to have been the meaning of the Unigov development effectively putting control of the “city” in the hands of suburban voters.

    So we have the appearance that the Urbanophile appears to live in a “city” that largely consists of suburbs, and perhaps unsurprisingly believes the key to developing downtown is to provide lots of parking.

    Perhaps this is understandable, considering there are no edges to the city and no apparent reason to live there aside from making a living and having dinner. There are no sharp geographical constraints, such as those that constrict NY, SF, Portland, Seattle, or even, by comparison with Indianapolis, Chicago. There is no worldly flow of goods and people such as we see in our major ports. There are no overwhelming views establishing edges, such as the mountains seen from Seattle and Portland, or a center, such as the view of Chicago or NY.

    In fact, for the average resident of Indianapolis, there would appear to be no reason to do anything at all for the “city”. The only thing that distinguishes it from anywhere else is the fact that there is nothing that distinguishes it from anywhere else, and that surely is a quality which might be easily discounted if circumstances dictated a move.

    To be sure, there appear to be some visionary businessmen who dream of a streetcar and vital urban core type stuff. However, state capitals are usually pretty good at preventing vital urbanity, for a variety of reasons, and they usually get a little help from nearby vital urbanity that doesn’t want competition.

    So, on the balance, I think the Urbanophile got it about right- Indianapolis is a nice suburban area with a current use and historical memory centered on the automobile, and, to the extent that suburbs remain viable, Indianapolis will continue to be a nice suburban area, without rail transit, smart growth, and new urbanism. All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.

    As I said, this is all very much different from how we think about these things in the PNW.

  25. adam says:

    Everyone is forgetting a key factor of a light rail line that would be effective, money. Money doesn’t grow on trees and the city isn’t exactly rolling in it. Also remember that it is illegal for the city to go into debt. The urbanophile is right, IndyGo needs to be fixed first. Make IndyGo a world class bus system. Expand it into the northern suburbs. If the direct line from fishers works, add more. Like he said, busses are very flexible and if gas becomes too expensive busses are already in use in diffrent parts of the ocuntry that run on hydrogen. Any sort of rail should be a sort of people mover system between the key points in downtown: circle center, converntion center, the luke, IUPUI, Lilly, the airport, ect. And if Indy truely needs rail it will come through what Roy is doing, an all private, or private public partnership. We are forgetting history, remember last time Indy invested heavily in the future? No one was alive then but the canal project bankrupted the city.

  26. Karl says:

    As someone who grew up in the NYC area and lived a decade in the SF Bay Area – taking “public transit” almost everyday, I completely disagree with your analysis. I do applaud your thoughtful effort. Just because the current development ethos for Indy (and much of the US) is to gobble surrounding greenfields doesn’t mean we should continue to encourage this through poor regional “planning” (using the term VERY loosely); transit or otherwise – especially true in light of skyrocketing fuel costs. Buses are highly inefficient compared to streetcars/lightrail (number of passengers) and only add to our growing pollution problem (unless your all bus proposal includes electric buses…which would then require capital outlays for the electric lines). Denver, Charlotte and Atlanta are decentralized as well, yet each has a successful transit system (Charlotte’s Lynx line has far surpassed inital ridership projections). Midwestern cities – especially Indianapolis – were built via the InterUrban lines. Sometimes, old ideas are the best. Nice blog though – but a little shortsighted IMO.

  27. Anonymous says:

    My favorite comment is “Indianapolis is not Portland, thank goodness.” Portland is thankfully not to be Indianapolis with the kind of narrow mentality that sees rail-based transit as a bad idea.

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