Thursday, September 25th, 2008

Fast and Cheap Ways to Improve Public Transit in Indianapolis Right Now

I’m passionate about public transit. For those of you who know me primarily through my posting about rail transit being a bad idea for Indianapolis, you might not believe me. But I’ve long been a transit rider. In fact, in a previous life I published a transit newsletter for three years. I try to ride transit in every city I visit.

Where I differ from many transit advocates is that I believe that transit should be primarily about rider mobility, and I think we need to take a realistic approach that looks at the facts around development patterns, cost, likely ridership, etc. and not just rely on conventional wisdom from the transit hymnal and build it and they will come logic. As I said in my really, really cheap manifesto, it’s about results, not how much money one can spend.

In light of that, I will lay out a series of ideas about how to improve transit in Indianapolis today, not years from now, that won’t cost much money to implement. Some of them are conceivably even free and can be implemented with existing staff and budgets. I can’t say these are all the right things to do, but I believe all of them are worthy of serious consideration.

  • Run bus service every ten minutes to Fountain Square. To have real bus service, that is to say, where you can just show up and wait for the next bus without consulting a schedule, you need ten minute headways or better all day, maybe 15, but that’s pushing it. Indygo currently operates on 30 to 60 minute headways, which is a non-starter. To really start proving the transit concept locally, Indy needs to start piloting with enhanced service at ten minute headways to see how to make it work or if in fact it can be made to work. The perfect place to start is Fountain Square. This is one of the city’s official cultural districts. Its downtown area is already “transit oriented development” and there is plenty of opportunity for further infill. A segment of the population there is tightly connected to downtown. However, the distance is a bit too far to walk comfortably in bad weather (about 1 ½ miles to the core of the Mile Square). Today, Indygo’s web site tells me there are three routes that go through Fountain Square: the #12-Beechcrest, the #14-Prospect and the #22-Shelby. These three bus routes run on 30 minute headways. Today, they all get to Fountain Square at the exact same time. For example, the #12 arrives at Virginia/South at 7:13am, the #14 gets there at 7:14am, and the #22 also gets there at 7:14am. It looks to me like three buses come in a row, then there isn’t another bus for half an hour. That’s insane. If Indygo simply staggered the routes, a bus could come through Fountain Square every ten minutes – right now, today – without spending an extra dime to add any new service. Now perhaps things are set up this way to facilitate downtown transfers, so perhaps this isn’t a slam dunk decision to make. But I think it goes to show that you could make dramatic transit improvements in an emerging neighborhood that primed to take advantage of it today without spending anything other than the cost of printing new schedules. And for people in Fountain Square, you wouldn’t even need a schedule, which is the whole point.
  • Get a new domain name. has to go. A .net domain name is completely bush league. If you can’t spring for a real domain name, no one will take you seriously. If is too pricey, at least do or something. Dittos for for the Central Indiana Regional Transit Authority.
  • Implement mobile phone bus tracking. Chicago has a system called “Bus Tracker” that uses GPS in buses to feed an online service that tells you how long until the next bus arrives. Right now this is a mobile web app only, but soon they are rolling out a texting solution where you text your stop number to a special number and it texts you back the next buses arriving. This is hugely beneficial to riders on the go. What’s more, even large percentages of poor people have cell phones, so it isn’t just targeting the MacBook crowd. My idea: just contact with the CTA to ride their system. The cost is basically some GPS devices, route mapping, and setup. It’s a win-win. The CTA gets a revenue source to amortize their fixed investment over, and Indygo gets the advantages of economies of scale (i.e., lower unit cost) and speed to market. Imagine what a game changer this could be for Indy. With some buses running only once an hour, people have to get to the stop very early to avoid missing that bus. If you knew exactly when it was arriving, you could cut your wait time with confidence.
  • Leverage texting for emergency messaging. The CTA is also rolling out texting for communicating to riders about service disruptions and other problems. Again, just see if the CTA will let Indygo pay them on an incremental cost basis to ride that infrastructure. (By the way, one source of potential funding for Chicago transit improvements is simply to spin off some of these things into a service bureau / hosted service for other transit providers. Be the “Google Transit” of this stuff before Google is. Eventually they could even float the thing – or just plain sell it to Google for Big Buck$ to pour into capital improvements. Just my free business advice).
  • Start a “Friends of IndyGo” group if one doesn’t exist already. There are all these people who say we need better transit, why not give them the opportunity to see if their deeds match their words? Actually using transit, given the existing service levels, might be a bridge too far. But see if any transit advocates will actually step up to the plate and do something else tangible. A Friends of Indygo group could conceivably take on some of the items I have listed here as volunteer projects, with official sponsorship from the agency.
  • Get integrated with Google Transit – right now. (Potential Friends of Indygo project)
  • Create a better “How to Ride the Bus” guide. I suggested this one in my Pecha Kucha presentation. I’m a hardened transit guy, but even I don’t like to ride buses in cities I haven’t ridden in before because I’m afraid I won’t know how it works and will end up a mark for criminals, or, at a minimum, just plain look like an idiot. What’s needed is a very simple, explicit, step-by-step how to ride guide – both a brochure and a video – that shows exactly how it works, exactly how to put the money in the box, how to signal for a stop, etc. No question is too stupid or obvious to cover. (Potential Friends of Indygo project).
  • Get serious about design. Indygo has a terrible image problem with the public. Transit is stigmatized in Indy in a way that it isn’t in NYC. Great design is something that is, in my opinion, absolutely necessary to create the customer experience and impressions to get people to even consider Indygo. This includes everything from the color scheme, the logos, the web site, signage and shelter design, everything. Consider Indygo’s colors. Who thought that color green looked good on anything? I get the “green” thing, but is that consistent with any other colors used in Indy? (Heck, it isn’t even consistent with the color palette used on the bus shelters downtown). The web site design is mediocre. Even things like good letterhead and a well-chosen font can make a difference. Some of the things are serviceable already (the “I” logo isn’t bad, for example), but could be better. (There’s no reason Indygo couldn’t create a logo that became as iconic as the Boston “T” for example). The large bus shelters are quite nice, but could be tweaked a bit. And the neighborhood shelters are not very nice. Good design frankly doesn’t cost much if anything more than merely serviceable design. It just takes an absolute commitment to creating something that is a) world class and b) both unique to and an expression of Indianapolis. JC Decaux, which usually gives cities bus shelters for free in return for advertising rights (or even pays for the privilege of putting them out there), has an entire subsidiary that designs these, including unique designs for many European cities. Indygo could work with them and insist on a totally world class design that is consistent with Indygo’s revised branding scheme (i.e., good colors). Also, it seems like every other person I stumble across on the internet in Indy these days is a graphic designer or artist. They could do a Friends of Indygo project to do this for free in return for an official credential or something. Similarly, why can’t Indy’s aspiring fashion community design a kick-ass bus driver’s uniform?
  • Own the green agenda, live it internally. Don’t just talk about the sustainability of the bus as a transport mechanism. Look at every aspect of your operation and try to become the signature government agency in the state and a leader nationally in green operational practices. As a small government agency, Indy is positioned to more rapidly change. I sense another Friends of Indygo project coming on. Some local green enthusiasts could review operations, even things like office supplies, and look for areas to improve. Source that locally designed bus drivers uniform I mentioned from a small local producer and use sustainable materials (provided the economics are there, of course).
  • Look for operational synergies with the rest of Marion County government. Is Indygo buying its own fuel, running its on HR policies, etc.? Some things are obviously unique to them, but as the Mayor’s 100 Day Report indicated, there are still duplicative services all over Marion County. Every dime that can be saved through economies of scale or reduction of duplication is a dime that can be invested into the on-field product.
  • Evaluate outsourcing of all functions. Perhaps Indygo could eventually not operate any services directly at all. Privatization isn’t a slam dunk, but it works well for the management of the water utility, so why not here? Again, every dollar saved is a dollar that can go back into core services. London’s famed double-decker buses are contracted out to private companies. If they can do it, so can Indy.
  • Run transit every ten minutes on College Ave. I figured I’d bookend this list with another service improvement. Unlike the Fountain Square idea, this one would require increasing service hours. However, College already has the best service out there, every 15 minutes at rush hour. All you need to do is to increase this to every ten minutes all day (maybe a bit more frequent at the 7am and 5pm hours). Indygo could have already done this with money they got earlier this year. On Feb 7th they issued a press release touting 20,000 new hours of transit service paid for by a $1.6 million state grant. Almost all of this went into point extensions of route at the existing awful service levels. It’s time to stop the “more of the same” approach and start changing the game. If Indy can’t make high quality bus service work on College Ave, it has no business trying to do anything else. Start this ASAP and you can start figuring out what it is going to take from a routing, service, and marketing perspective to get people on the bus. Also, the route should be adjusted to go from downtown to Broad Ripple to Glendale to Keystone Crossing. This links several destination districts with the residential in between. Combine the new service with the new design elements and rider notification systems and you have something to really start showing off.

Waiting around for three years to start a commuter oriented, peak period only rail service with limited stops on one corridor – and that’s in the best case – is a very limited and modest way for Indianapolis to start playing at a different level in the transit game. There is a whole lot that can be done in the mean time to make Indygo better and start delivering benefits to riders, starting right now. It doesn’t take a lot of money, it just takes creative thinking and the help of the community to pitch in and make it happen. Waiting around for some big regional taxing authority to make transit happen is the equivalent of saying transit is somebody else’s problems. If motivated citizens were willing to step up and actually pitch in to make things better, along with targeted improvements paid for by Indygo, the city could start down the transit path faster.

To wrap up, I’ll share one quote out of Curitba, Brazil. They likewise thought that they needed a modern rail system to be in the transit game. There was just one problem, they couldn’t pay for it. So they ended up getting creative with the bus system and built something that actually offers better service than a subway would have. I’m not saying rail is terrible by any means, but it is only one answer among many, and Indianapolis can have a first rate, excellent public transport system without it.

“It was said for so many decades that a good system of transportation should be underground. But when you don’t have the financial resources to build such infrastructure, it helps you to have more creativity. The tube, a less expensive option, gives the buses of Curitiba the same performance as a subway. We started to study this about 30 years ago and knew what was needed to create a good system of transport: it had to be fast, reliable comfortable, and with good frequency. This means not only putting buses in exclusive lanes like in many cities of the world, but also allowing boarding on the same level and paying before getting on the bus. The tube supports both. In 1974, we moved 25,000 passengers per day with buses running in an exclusive lane. The system was improved regularly and now we are transporting more than two million passengers per day.

“On surface, we can have better frequency and the connections are faster. Underground, you can travel faster, but it’s technically impossible to have a frequency less than two minutes and the connections take longer; sometimes it takes 15 minutes or more to walk underground alone. I have nothing against subways, but the problem is that it’s hard to have a complete network of underground systems. Even cities that have a few subway lines need an effective surface system. The future of mobility has to be considered in terms of integrated systems, where each piece – bikes, cars, taxis, subways, buses, never competes in the space of another.” – Jaime Lerner, architect in Curitiba, Brazil, designer of the tube boarding system for buses, quoted in Massive Change by Bruce Mau

Topics: Transportation
Cities: Indianapolis

14 Responses to “Fast and Cheap Ways to Improve Public Transit in Indianapolis Right Now”

  1. Jefferey says:

    Good point about headways. I think thats what kills transit. It’s not a realistic option if buses run every half hour or hour. Miss a transfer and your screwed.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again…you need to be mayor:-)

  3. thundermutt says:

    By and large I agree with your post. However, IndyGo is a union operation, and flexibility (and speed to market) with things like uniforms, scheduling, and outsourcing are subject to the union contract.

    I also think the central corridor (the four-block stretch from Delaware to Capitol) between downtown and 38th St. has the “best” service in town. But a rider still has to carry around a half-dozen schedules to know where and when the next bus will be.

    Because the system is “hub and spoke”, that front-to-back problem exists on the major arteries like Virginia and Meridian. If the system were more of a “web” or “grid” (either of which would be facilitated by the rail line), then every trip wouldn’t have to include a transfer downtown and the schedules wouldn’t have to push a mass of humanity into the “loop” all at once during rush hours.

    And finally…to create a transit culture, the damn bus has to run late evenings and on Saturday and Sunday. I live too far to walk to Lucas Oil, but “my” bus doesn’t run on weekends. So if I want to go to games or events downtown or even dinner with friends without worrying about drinking and driving, my choices are limited to designated drivers and taxis.

    No one will become “transit-dependent” unless it’s a reliable first choice, and it’s not. Right now you have to (a) work really hard at it, (b) live in the right place, and (c) tolerate long waits and long trips.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Commuter rail is not the only component of successful public transportation. This is not a zero sum gane arenn.

    And rail has to be a significant feature of any public transit system in Greater Indianapolis. THat is what Portland, Denver, Salt Lake City, Charlotte, Dallas, and Saint Louis have all done and their rail systems are experiencing record ridership and expansions are underway as we speak.

  5. The Urbanophile says:

    anon 10:16 – thanks so much for the kind words.

    thunder, all good points. Transit is regulated beyond belief. Paratransit requirements, fare rules, unionization, no-layoff rules, restricted grants, etc. make for treacherous waters to be sure. But I believe they can be successfully navigated. It’s easy to use things like this as excuses not to accomplish things rather than as hurdles to jump on the way to the finish line.

    The point is, let’s get creative and make things happen. The specific list isn’t as critical as just moving forward and not just staying at the status quo.

  6. The Urbanophile says:

    anon 12:17, I agree that none of my suggestions imply not doing rail. It is an AND not an OR. The plan approved today by the IRTC would, in the most optimistic scenario, have something like five round trips per day on one line three years from now. Rail is a long lead time item and possibly can’t be sped up. However, we can start building the transit culture now without waiting for it to get here, and then when/if it does, it will be even more successful.

  7. thundermutt says:

    I’m generally an optimist, Urbanophile, and one who focuses on continuous improvement and seemingly insurmountable tasks.
    (You know where I work and what I do…I’m definitely no stranger to pushing big stones uphill.)

    This one is big. Steve Goldsmith couldn’t get it done (that’s when “Metro” became “IndyGo”…and attempt to re-brand) at a time when he reorganized almost everything else about City government.

  8. mordant says:

    I’ve read a number of criticisms of the hub and spoke bus system that focuses on downtown, and tend to agree with them.

    What are some options? Should we run a whole series of east-west lines and north-south lines, with myriad connection points? Or should there be a system of mini-hubs spread around the city? Would it make sense to use express buses to connect those mini-hubs? Are privately-run jitney-type services an option here?

    If rail ever gets going I like the idea others have described of bus lines that feed the rail stations.

    Anyway, I really liked the analysis of the Fountain Square lines, and especially like the idea of buses every ten minutes. That “simple” change could do a lot for FS.

  9. Anonymous says:

    The article in the Star this week about propsed “stations” basically showed no station in the city…hmmm intereting. I will not support a rail line that is built to provide service just ot the suburbs. (PERIOD)

  10. thundermutt says:

    Distributed bus hubs could drive TOD, or strengthen/reinforce existing employment clusters. For instance, why not have one near the Clarian Monorail at Methodist Hospital? That would provide service to all three Clarian locations as well as IUPUI.

  11. Anonymous says:

    I think this plan being pushed out by CIRTA is complete “inside the box” approach. I think these people have the easiest jobs I have ever seen.

    My guess is they all live in Noblesville, Fishers…well you get the point

  12. Anonymous says:

    You are pretty much on target — I like the fountain square concept –but I think the essential gist of your post is that 1) we need to get creative with bus transit, and 2) it will be much cheaper and more flexible than the fixed rail (ne corridor) that our planners seem fixed on. As a frequent rider of the Carmel express, I have come to appreciate the flexibility that buses afford a region’s transportation needs. Keep up the good work

  13. Anonymous says:

    Surface is great, but Curitiba’s system has slowed to a crawl because it’s way over capacity. They’re now trying to convert the lines to light rail.

    Bacause a single light rail train can hold a lot more passengers than a double-articulated bus, can board them faster, can stop faster, accelerate faster, drive faster, etc. etc. etc.

    Oh, and can run on headways well under one minute.

    I agree that better headways come first. If you have packed buses or they’re stuck in traffic, or (better) both, then you have to start thinking rail.

  14. Anonymous says:

    Or to make what I said simpler, good buses are great, but “same performance as a subway” is an outright lie.

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