Sunday, January 20th, 2013

The Strategic Case for Mass Transit in Indianapolis

Andrea Neal had a column in the Indianapolis Star last week called “Mass transit just isn’t a good fit for Indy.” This piece argues, basically, that because Indianapolis is low density, transit won’t work there.

Let me first say that I agree Indy is low density and transit is not something that’s needed to address a serious, near term transport issue, save for the embarrassing state of the basic bus network.

However, for a place like Indianapolis, the real case for transit is strategic. In a nutshell, the urban core of Indianapolis is collapsing because it offers an “urban lite” environment that is almost entirely automobile oriented and thus in direct competition with suburbs that are newer, of higher quality contemporary designs that meet the market demand of today, and which have better public services and lower taxes to boot.

That’s not a winning combination, and I made the argument a few years ago that if something was not done to change this, Indianapolis might simply implode.

Let’s take a look at the stark reality. Indianapolis has long boasted of having one of the best downtowns for a city its size in America – and with justification. From nothing, Downtown Indy has been successfully revitalized as a world class events and entertainment center, something all Hoosiers can be immensely proud of.

But the successful side of revitalization has hidden the less pleasant truth that downtown Indianapolis has been losing large numbers of private sector jobs and has been a national laggard when it comes to attracting residents. More troublingly, the larger urban core is in an advanced state of collapse.

After nearly two decades in which attracting residents and employment have been key goals of nearly every civic initiative, it is time to face the fact that these efforts have not worked. Without a change in direction, there is no reason to believe that they will succeed in the future either. Given the decline that has started to affect the township areas of outer Marion County, reversing urban core collapse is imperative if local leaders wish to avoid the real risk that Indianapolis becomes a failed city.

Unigov has disguised the degree to which the old city of Indianapolis has experienced a collapse in population and investment similar to some of America’s most notorious cities.

Data is no longer reported for the pre-Unigov city limits, but Center Township offers a reasonable proxy. When compared to non-Unigov municipalities elsewhere in the Midwest, Center Township’s population loss in the last decade was worse than St. Louis and comparable to Cleveland. One has to look at a Gary or Detroit to find a city with significantly worse core population loss.

These other declining cities all suffered from being in regions with almost no population growth, or even population decline. But metro Indy grew very strongly, which makes its large urban core losses even worse.

Even downtown Indy – defined as the area inside the inner loop and White River – has far fewer residents than is generally advertised. There are less than 10,000 downtown residents after the jail population is subtracted. This in what is, at 5 ½ square miles, one of America’s geographically biggest downtowns.

And despite frequent press accounts of residential construction, downtown added less than 1,000 total people in the last decade. This anemic population growth badly trailed regional peer cities – even Cleveland and Milwaukee.

Downtown Indianapolis (zip codes 46202 and 46204) has also struggled to retain its job base, losing 15% of its private sector jobs in the last ten years. And Marion County as a whole lost a large number of jobs as well:

Other cities have also experienced downtown private sector job losses, but that is cold comfort for Indianapolis.

It is difficult to look at these numbers after the extensive efforts – including large amount of public investment – put into the downtown and urban core and conclude otherwise but that these have not yet delivered on their goal of reversing population and job declines, except for population in the core of downtown – and even that has failed on a competitive basis.

The key problem, as I noted at the beginning of this post, is strategic. When you offer an older, inferior version of the same basic auto-oriented product as the suburbs, but with higher taxes, don’t expect many takers.

It’s likely that population losses will abate as Center Township runs out of choice consumers who can leave. But rebuilding to any material degree is going to require different policies.

To their credit, the civic leadership has stepped up with a number of initiatives designed not to just spend money propping things up, but to try to change the game on both the product definition (moving away from a purely auto-centric, urban-lite environment), and quality of services. Some of these, such as the Mayor’s charter schools or the Cultural Trail are already implemented. But major transformative efforts, such as reforming IPS, remain outstanding.

Transit is one of those outstanding items. I certainly wouldn’t rate a major investment in transit as the most pressing need. But it is something that is a key facilitator of things that need to happen in order to differentiate the urban core residential and commercial product so that it is not just in direct competition with the auto-oriented suburbs. That direct competition, as I noted, is doomed to fail. Only producing a distinctive product that you can’t get in the suburbs and that people are willing to buy on its own merits, will change these numbers.

Andrea Neal and other transit critics might have an idea of what to do here. If so, I’d enjoy hearing their take. But simply criticizing transit without offering an alternative set of proposals to reverse urban core decline isn’t credible.

And neither is acting like the urban core doesn’t matter. Neal’s point of view is that the battle’s over and the suburbs won. But just ask places like Cleveland and Detroit if you can have a thriving metro area once your core goes down the tubes. Metro growth will certainly not continue on pace as the #1 metro in the Midwest without improvement in the urban core. Indeed, there are already indications that the metro area as a whole is starting to stumble a bit, with troubling stats like labor force declines.

The simple case for transit is that it is a key piece of the puzzle in creating the differentiated product it needs to compete for residents. It’s not the only piece, but it is a piece. (Certainly a lot more courageous change is required). As a regional system, the IndyConnect transit proposal also facilitates regional travel to the central business district, and links inner city residents who need jobs but may not have cars with employers in the suburbs who need workers. That business impact is one reason the business community is so keen on transit.

I should also note that I’ve been a critic of rail transit in Indy. That’s why I am pleased to see that the IndyConnect transit proposal has very little rail, only one line to the northeast that’s clearly a political fillip to Fishers and Noblesville. The rest of the system is much more cost effective bus, which is a big plus for it. This is not a massive investment in fixed guideway capital, but a lower cost service that can be deployed incrementally and is flexible enough to be adjusted if market conditions change.

Pace Andrea Neal, the General Assembly should step up to the plate and give local residents a chance to decide for themselves whether or not they want to invest their own money in a transit system.

Topics: Public Policy, Sustainability, Transportation
Cities: Indianapolis

51 Responses to “The Strategic Case for Mass Transit in Indianapolis”

  1. Paul K. Ogden says:

    The “very little rail” is from what I understand far and away the most expensive part of the project. Further they plan to make the rail corridor into a TIF district, further eroding the tax base of the city. Indianapolis is already filled with TIF districts that are failing to pay for themselves.

    The bottom line while people like yourself has an honorable motive about doing something to improve the city, Indianapolis has a considerable history of diverting public dollars into private pockets. This will be a massive public works project that makes politically-connected lawyers, engineers, construction companies and others a fortune while taxpayers get stuck with the bill. And the .3% increase in local income taxes is just a beginning. They always low ball these projects, then once the thing gets constructed, they’ll say they need more money to run it. That’s what they did on Lucas Oil Stadium and that’s what they’ll do here.

  2. Paul, I’d probably whack the rail myself. It’s not the greatest transit corridor IMO. I also agree on the directing of funds for less than noble endeavors. Alas, the Northeast Corridor rail is probably the price to pay for getting Hamilton County on board with the system.

  3. aim says:

    To follow-up on the decline of downtown Indy, even Detroit, with its massive population loss, saw growth in its downtown area in the 2010 census. With the push that Dan Gilbert has been making to move employers and employees downtown, that trend has likely continued even with all of Detroit’s problems.

  4. Chris Barnett says:

    Aaron, I couldn’t agree more.

    Interestingly, the most recent version of IndyConnect suggests that the NE Corridor could be BRT instead of rail. That is a good idea: BRT on a fully-dedicated busway with traffic-signal preference would be as “special” (distinct from “city bus”) and as fast as a train.

    Eliminating commuter rail would reduce the capital cost immensely and add flexibility for everyday fleet deployment and maintenance. The NE line would be heavily rush-hour biased; its BRT equipment could be utilized to make frequent airport runs through the day for travelers and after PM rush to serve the overnight FedEx employees.

  5. aim, I used the NYT site to examine central Detroit census tracts. There were some tracts with growth, but others declined such that I added up net population loss in Downtown Detroit.

  6. Chris, that would be good news if it happens. You highlight a key attribute of the bus: the ability to move the rolling stock around for different purposes at different times of the day.

  7. Chris Barnett says:

    I should add that an upgraded transit system would provide the first-ring suburbs a competitive distinction. As you point out, “the townships” at the edges of the county don’t compete well with newer, shinier outlying suburbs and exurbs.

    Indy’s new DMD director Adam Thies emphasizes that Unigov territory (Marion County) offers a diverse range of living choices from downtown to streetcar-suburban to large-lot and semi-rural. A solid bus-based transit network would provide a “middle way” for those who want to be in ‘burbs but not 20 niles out.

  8. Mike Kole says:

    Solid, solid point about the role taxes play, but be sure to crime (real or perceived) and school districts. Because on all counts, the suburbs are significantly out-competing Indianapolis/Marion County.

    But then this becomes a perplexing collision of views for me. I mean, which is it? Is it that we want people to live downtown? Or, do we want highly developed transit so that people can live in the suburbs and get downtown?

    In any case, I also wish the light rail on the Nickel Plate would be dropped. I live in Fishers, and would much, much rather see the line converted to a trail a la Monon, if it must be taken away from the Transportation Museum.

  9. Ryan Puckett says:

    Aaron, thanks for this thought-provoking, rational piece. Indy-based transit advocates like myself sometimes need this type of 10K-foot-level perspective that offers support while balancing some fair critique.

  10. jbcmh81 says:

    Indianapolis and Columbus are probably the two most similar metros of any in the nation. Columbus also lacks mass transit beyond the standard city bus (although it will be getting BRT over the next couple years). Yet Columbus had 2x the Downtown growth and is poised for much stronger growth this decade. Well over 10,000 residential units are currently planned or under construction within the Downtown and immediate urban core neighborhoods. Downtown Columbus has long been the weak spot of the city, unlike in Indy where it was one of its strongest. Now that that seems to be rapidly changing, it makes one wonder if the differences go well beyond lack of mass transit.

  11. George Mattei says:

    jbcmh81 & Aaron:

    -While Indianapolis and Columbus look very similar, in my (admittedly somewhat limited for Indy) experience, they are somewhat different culturally. Columbus is one of the largest college towns in the U.S., with the second highest concentration of college students after Boston (according to the Chamber of Commerce). Columbus also has significant competition from other large in-state metros Cleveland and Cincinnati. Without OSU (and to a lesser degree the State Capitol), it’s safe to say Columbus wouldn’t be anything near what it is.

    Indianapolis doesn’t have that large college presence, but it is THE metro in the State. This I think has been one of its prime advantages-unless you want to move out of state, Indianapolis is the virtually only choice for access to any kind of large city, and many people take it, for lifestyle and/or economic reasons.

    I wonder if the trajectories of the two cities’ urban centers have something to do with the cultures of the people moving there(Columbus’ urban center, both within and outside of downtown, has been on a definite upswing the past several years). I moved her from Connecticut, went to undergrad in Boston, and was looking for an urban experience in my mid 20’s when I attended grad school at Ohio State.

    My wife grew up in a small town in western Ohio. Her world-view was distinctly different. She recalls how excited she was when they got chain restaurants like Wendys and Applebees in their town. Her one overriding goal upon moving to Columbus was to be as close to as many suburban amenities as she could be, since she didn’t have many of them growing up. I had a bunch of them and wanted something different.

    I wonder if Indianapolis culturally isn’t more like my wife’s mindset. Many people moving from small towns throughout Indianapolis, with no real cultural reference to urban living-but a desire to be near the suburban amenities they didn’t have growing up (although many places now have more amenities than they used to). I can imagine that to be a very different place culturally than Columbus, which has many people moving from somewhat larger metros of Cincinnati and Cleveland, or like me, other urban regions, to attend OSU, and bringing that desire for a more urban lifestyle with them.

    Finally, OSU itself is a great urban anchor. It sits about 2 miles north of downtown, and it is the hub of the densest neighborhood in Columbus. Lots of students live just nearby, so there’s always a natural demand for retail and restaurants in the core area.

    These cultural differences may be the force driving the trends in these metros (I’m on a cultural comparison kick lately, aren’t I :-).

  12. Jason Cob says:

    It’s great to read the lively discussion here as well as the article mentioned from Andrea Neal. I wonder though: regardless of the success of building up more residents and more jobs in the downtown core, what about the problem of not being dense enough at the other end of the trip? Our residential centers are so spread out that I wonder how to find enough locations to put stops that gather enough optional riders (those that aren’t already needing to find cheaper options) without making the trips contain so many stops along the way that the ride because unacceptably long.

  13. George Mattei says:

    I do wonder if cities like Indianapolis or Columbus would benefit more from a streetcar-like system than a light rail system to start. It provides many of the benefits of the light rail system at a fraction of the cost. Plus, the inner ring neighborhoods of these era cities were streetcar-based, so putting them back seems to make some sense in terms of the development patterns.

  14. George Mattei says:

    I have also wondered if a BRT-like system could be substituted for a streetcar system, instead of light rail. Take a lane of street on major avenues in the urban core and block it off for a bus circulator, have relatively inexpensive platforms installed for access and let people ride. You could even test this very inexpensively, by using plastic bollards and some street paint and try it on an interim basis.

    Denver has their Mallbus, but that’s a major infrastructure improvement that shut down a whole street. I did see what looked like I described above in downtown Orlando recently, with one land blocked for a circulator. Anyone know anything about this?

  15. jbcmh81 says:

    While you’re right that Columbus has a large student population, I’m not sure how this, by itself, leads to the major differences in development. Columbus’ downtown is not being revitalized because of students, but because of a public/private partnership that works very well in the city. OSU helps the city overall, no doubt, but but itself, you would not see the city advance nearly as much as it has.

    Also, the fact that Columbus has Cleveland and Cincinnati as competitors only means that Columbus is stronger than it is given credit for. Indianapolis is also a state capital, so it should have many of the same advantages that Columbus has had, if not more because, as you point out, it has no significant state competition.

    However, you may be right about some of the cultural differences. Columbus does seem to have a higher rate of in-migration from larger cities, as well as a higher rate of international migration. This may push for a greater urban environment. Columbus still has a long way to go, I think, and mass transit is one of things it needs. Hopefully the BRT that will be coming over the next few years will spur even more demand.

  16. Wesley says:

    Maybe I’m naive, but I find these statistics confusing. There are probably close to 1000 apartments to be completed in downtown Indianapolis within the next 3 years. If that’s the case, are these statistics suggesting that Downtown’s population growth in the next 2-3 years will be about as much as they were for the last decade? I would assume that would be the case considering occupancy in apartments has stayed around 97% even with many new units popping up.

  17. Wesley, the number of dwelling units downtown actually decline in the last decade I believe. Keep in mind that the marketing engine of the city is all about announcements of construction and such. We had lots of building during the 00s but little growth. I would expect better growth in the coming decade, but that’s also true everywhere. The real question to ask is whether Indy is above or below the national trendline for peer cities in downtown population growth.

  18. SEJ says:

    @George…”unless you want to move out of state, Indianapolis is the virtually only choice for access to any kind of large city,…” Those of us who live the south end of Lake County can be in downtown Chicago in far less than an hour via car, and those in the northern half via electric rail to enjoy the museums and other cultural activities (as long as one avoids weekday rush hours.)

  19. Chris Barnett says:

    George, IUPUI is a major state university campus, and unlike OSU it is adjacent to downtown. It has 30,000 students and 3,000 faculty, and is home to a med school, law school, b-school, art school and the largest school of public and environmental affairs in the country. Butler, Marian, and University of Indianapolis add another 12,500 students to the city.

    That’s 42,500. It’s not OSU plus Capital (about 56,000) but it’s not nothing, either. Indy definitely qualifies as a state capital-plus-eds-meds city.

    Also, don’t forget that significant parts of the Cincinnati and Louisville metros are at the southern edges of Indiana, as well as Chicago’s “Region” in the northwest. Richmond is closer to Dayton than to Indy, which is why the Wright Brothers moved there to set up shop 100 years ago. Evansville is closer to the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis than to Lucas Oil Stadium in Indy.

    Indy most certainly has competition for Indiana residents and dollars.

  20. George Mattei says:

    @Chris: I know IUPUI is a large campus, but (no offense) I don’t think it is on par with the facilities and talent that Ohio State pulls into Columbus. OSU attracts bright foreign students from around the world to Columbus, and had a 2010-11 research budget of $828 million. It’s truly a monster institution on many levels, not just size. Additionally, the metro region has another 20-ish colleges/universities that bring the total area student population to about 125,000.

    @SEJ: True about Chicagoland, but that’s a small corner of the state, and one which I bet thinks of itself more as Southeast Chicago than part of Indiana.

    @jbCMH81: The public-private partnerships are definitely part of the answer, but if you don’t have a basic market demand, nothing will work. My point is that I wonder if the basic market demand in Columbus is stronger due to its standing as a major college town that attracts students from across the globe. I may be wrong, however, since like I said I don’t know Indianapolis that well.

  21. George Mattei says:

    BTW, I am not trying to knock Indianapolis at all. I am trying to point out what might be a cultural difference, and if I had an issue with folks from small Midwest towns, I don’t think I would be married to my wife right now. :)

  22. wkg_in_bham says:

    Great article.

    I’m going to make the assumption that many, if not most, Indy City neighborhoods are mundane (at best). I have the feeling that a lot of neighborhoods are down-right crappy. I think that whatever money is available should be applied to many small projects to make EVERY neighborhood a little better. Repeated applications until the “circle-of-virtue” kicks in a big way. I think you have a “1000 Monument Circles” that is along this line. A city is only as good as its neighborhoods (collectively). I don’t know what you do about a neighborhood that’s beyond saving.

    I think too many urban bloggers (not you) focus on making place that a hip-what passes for educated -white-twenty-five-year-old would find pleasing.

    The proposal seems to be aimed at something like “Commuter Transit”. I don’t know why so many businesses have left downtown Indy. I’m pretty sure access/commute times/etc wasn’t the reason. Incremental improvement to transit is very unlikely to radically change the situation. I don’t think the transit proposal – by itself – is going to accomplish much.

    Indy shouldn’t feel overly bad about the Megabuck downtown projects aimed at attracting visitors being pretty much a losing proposition. It hasn’t worked anywhere else. In fact, in most places the results were a lot worse than Indy’s.

  23. Chris Barnett says:

    wkg, the proposal is aimed at improving transit access all over the Indy metro. It is mostly a bus plan.

  24. costanza says:

    “I’m going to make the assumption that many, if not most, Indy City neighborhoods are mundane (at best). I have the feeling that a lot of neighborhoods are down-right crappy.”

    Downright crappy is right.

  25. qwertyuiop says:

    I don’t buy the Indianapolis “downtown” numbers, much less a net gain of only 898 residents since 2000. More than 3,200 new housing units came online during that period, with more on the way. The 46202 and 46204 zip codes combined cover far more territory than anyone’s definition of downtown.

  26. Curt Ailes says:

    I struggle with the rail component of the NE corridor (or green line now) quite often. Should it be LRT or BRT? Should it be seen as a commuting tool for the Hamilton County folks? Should it be seen as a community redevelopment tool for those living south of 46th street? I think it can be both. The blue line in Charlotte, while considerably shorter, has a built form that is VERY VERY close to that of the existing NE corridor. Close to the core, urban street grid and further out, suburban form. I worry that putting light rail on 23 miles of the NE corridor would dilute the potential redevelopment opportunities over such a long line. The optimist in me says that the core neighborhoods would take considerable advantage of this, but it IS a risk.

    That said, I would not cry if the corridor did not make it into the final plan. Sort of ambivalent at this point.

    However, the comments about massive pocketing of dollars off of this service, particularly Paul’s, disturb me. How is this any different than what happens with roadway construction? There are plenty of people pocketing off the investment in US31, 465, I69, I70, etc etc etc.

    Its ALL construction work. They ALL take some sort of bonding, contracts, sub-contracts, earth moving, erecting structures, etc and in my mind, the investments in rapid transit return a higher quality of life in the finished product verses a new freeway or 4 lane to 6 lane roadway conversion. The roadway work eliminates congestion in the near term but only induces poor land uses over time and lands us in more of what we already have.

    The product has to change. The Indy Connect plan is not a silver bullet, but I will take this over doing nothing.

  27. @qwertyuiop, these are Census numbers – hard data. (I pulled the data via the NYT census tract viewer). Housing units were up during the decade. However, even if you believe the Census missed people, you don’t have any reason to believe it missed more people in Indianapolis than elsewhere.

    Jobs data is reported at the zip code level. You could use 46204, but that would leave out key employers, meaning someone like you would come along and say that I missed where all the jobs must have been added.

    All you have to do is take a look around to see the problems. It doesn’t take some fancy data analysis.

  28. MSam says:

    qwertyuiop, you are indeed correct, 46204 is the only zip code that is strictly downtown. 46202 covers a huge chunk of downtown but also a bit of the near north side as well as near east (Cottage Home and Holy Cross). 46203 which is SE of downtown (Fountain Square) also covers Fletcher Place which is downtown. LOS is in zipcode 46225 as well as Babe-Denny. Lilly has its own zip code (46285). You have to go by bcensus block in order exclude everything north of 16th St for 202, south of 70 for 46225 and east of 65 for 46202 and 203 which comes to around 19k residents without the jail pop. Obviously the White River is just a natural boundary using the borders defined by the department of Metropolitan Development.

    As far as public transportation, there’s never been an issue if you live in center township. It’s those who live outside of it esp. in Decatur and Franklin townships that suffer the most. I realize the powers that be in Carmel want a bragging right to having rail but fact remains, the bulk of the cost and upkeep will come from Marion county residents so adequate brt, with expanded bus would do wonders for Indianapolis. I’ve always thought the city being a square and 360 sq miles was just too big for the standard hub and spoke model. It needs more direct East-West corridors. Makes no sense someone living out in Nora has to hop a bus downtown and then hop on another bus just to head out to Park 100, that’s an hour added to the commute just to go from NE to NW.

  29. Just for the record, 46204 lost over 10% of its private sector jobs, so isn’t humming by itself either.

  30. Anonymous says:

    I’ve never visited Indianapolis, but I’m struck by the emphasis on transportation in this discussion and not basic quality-of-life issues. Once you’re past the big issues- crime and job proximity- its parks and coffee and walking and other day-to-day measures that really dictate livability.

    A native of Portland, I went back there for a bridge pedal this last summer, and coming off one and downtown into the northwest section, I was struck by the nice landscaping and benches they’d put near one street corner, creating a quiet place to sit and enjoy things. I’ve watched the last 30 years as the city tried all the usual tricks, mostly with street cars, but also the occasional Rouse mall, and sometimes even a park re-do, but almost never anything at the micro scale to make the block-to-block experience better. “Ah-ha!” i thought, “finally some attention to detail. The city is finally getting livability”.

    Some might argue that this timing from big to small projects is necessary, but who really cares about light rail if the area outside your front door is terrible? In the early 1980’s, my future sister-in-law lived on the N Judah line in San Francisco, near UCSF, and you could hear the street car coming down the street outside her apartment blocks in advance. It was like hearing a roller coaster coming!

    I do wonder why all this emphasis on infrastructure, when the basic issue is livability. Very few of us are infrastructure experts, but when it comes to looking for a nice home, apartment or condo, we get the basics, and if those are there, who wants to be a pioneer?

  31. Chris Barnett says:

    Anon, a car is a necessity to access most “livability amenities” in Indianapolis. Most neighborhoods don’t have coffee shops or restaurants near where people live. Most jobs are remote from most residential neighborhoods, in large clusters of retail, commercial, and industrial uses. Most neighborhoods outside the “old city limits” (the pre-Unigov Indianapolis proper) don’t have a park or trail nearby. Hospitals and health care clusters are not neighborhood-scale.

    And frankly, the kind of micro-amenities that make up neighborhood scale investment really need to be done by neighbors banding together…not by City government, which can’t afford any more infrastructure. It can’t always be “someone else” who does the livability enhancements.

  32. @Anon,

    I agree, but this post was written in response to an op-ed about a transit proposal in the legislature. I’ve written about the small stuff elsewhere many times. Agree it is important, but don’t think it’s being ignored here. We are just concentrating on a major civic infrastructure decision.

  33. Anonymous says:

    Three letters: IPS. Until that fiasco is fixed, there will be no population shift to the core of Indianapolis.

  34. qwertyuiop says:

    I think that population decline within the 46202 zip code is drowning out significant gains in the 46204. The latter is the better “downtown” surrogate of the two. But enough of that.

    Here is a suggestion. Forget about a 20-mile rail line to haul a few dozen people every day from Noblesville to downtown, over a single-track line with no grade separations at intersections. Concentrate on a downtown and near-downtown rail system, say the IUPUI campus to Mass Avenue as a start. Center Township real estate would increase in value, parking lots will become buildings (even if only two or three story), and the kind of “micro amenities” that everyone wants will come.

    For proof, just drive along North College Avenue and look at the remains of commercial buildings at intersections where the streetcar line once made stops. That kind of development could happen again if transportation supported it. A downtown-only bus might work too, but Indygo has been initiating and then discontinuing those for years. We now have the critical mass of downtown residents to support it.

  35. Nathanael says:

    Interesting analysis.

    There’s only one way to read this: Indy is in a death spiral.

    If you’re right, Indianapolis is following the path which hollowed out and destroyed other cities 20-30 years ago. The path which other cities reversed largely by waiting until racism receded enough to reverse “white flight” (at which point the schools spontaneously got better due to more money). The path which was accelerated whenever downtown urban rail was established. Perhaps the still-high levels of racism in Indiana are what is keeping it 30 years behind the times.

    Anyway, Indy is following this dead-end path during the era of peak oil. This is unbelievably stupid.

    Restoring downtown streetcar service — but with exclusive lanes — might start changing the pattern. They figured this out in Cincinnati. They figured it out in Columbus but weren’t able to do it.

    Or I, and you, could be utterly wrong if qwertyuiop is correct and you’ve simply measured “Downtown Indy” wrong.

  36. Nathanael says:

    Doing a little archives reseach, I find this comment from 2008 from “serial catowner”:

    Perhaps “serial catowner” is right. Perhaps the problem is that Indianapolis has suburbanized so heavily that it isn’t a city at all any more, just a big mess of suburbs. If so, good public transportation cannot happen, and as “serial catowner” says, Indianapolis will last as long as suburbs can thrive.

    Thanks to peak oil and the concentration of wealth in the hands of the 1%, I don’t think suburbs-without-a-city will last much longer.

  37. Mike says:

    Getting back to Detroit and the efforts of Dan Gilbert, although Dan Gilbert has relocated his companies and other companies Downtown Detroit, the unfortunate thing that hasn’t happened are the employees haven’t followed. The employees work in the city but very few have chosen to move/live in the city of Detroit or Downtown.

  38. Lauren says:

    @Mike (post 37), I mean, Indianapolis is basically Detroit already.

  39. Garth Faction says:

    I’m sorry, but your idea doesn’t take everything into account, and so is too simplistic. Why are people leaving Indy? We find a constant increase in taxes as well as an increase in crime rate. The priorities of the city have been to luxuries instead of necessities, leading it to be a place no one wants to live

    The transit plan being offered would do NOTHING to solve the problem but actually would increase it. People might decide to live near the hubs (outside the city!) if they want to use it. However it is also likely the real idea is to move people from IN the city OUT for work during the day — it’s a desire to get cheap labor out than it is to get people in the city, which is why the plan itself doesn’t really have transit in and through the main areas of the city itself!

    Start with a rail from the airport to downtown. That is a good idea. Don’t make it secondary but make it the initial rail to build. Build a rail around the circle IN A LOOP,like they have in DC. And then have spokes going through the loop into and out of downtown. And choose BETTER places for those spokes — not those which will just encourage people to live outside of the city. If that was the plan, it would do more of what you say. But with the proposal now, it will only destroy downtown more…

  40. Paul K. Ogden says:

    Curt, it is different. The Indy projects I’m talking about are not comparable to work on road projects where companies hired by the state are doing legitimate work. I’m talking about Indy’s pay-to-play political structure where favored engineers, attorneys, contractors, architects, etc., end up with enormous amounts of public money in their pockets while the public ends up with nothing. Perfect example is the Broad Ripple Parking Garage. Keystone Construction gets $6.35 million of our money to build a garage they get 100% ownership of, 100% of the parking revenue and 100% of the commercial residents. We taxpayers get nothing. I’m talking about the property on Mass Avenue that we “sold” to a developer. The money was deposited in an account that the developer could then use to build the structure. We taxpayers end up with nothing. I’m talking about the formerly named North of South, not CityWay project in which we taxpayers get put on the hook for $100 million in loans because no lender believed in the project. I’m talking about Bankers Life Fieldhouse, a facility we built. We pay the Pacers $10 million a year to run the facility and give 100% of the profits from the building to the Pacers. We get nothing. Then we have the parking meter deal maybe the biggest boondoggle of them all. We give 70% of the revenue from parking meters away to a private company for the next 50 years when we could have put up just $8 to $10 million and bought new meters ourselves. We’re about to raise rental car taxes by 50% and admissions taxes by 67% and simply give 75% of that money away to the CIB which will likely be spent on running a new downtown soccer stadium built again with our money.

    So with that kind of record, pray tell, why would one believe that this city could engage in a massive capital project like a NE rail line and do it in such a way that it is in the best interests of the people and not about politically-connected companies and individuals stuffing our tax dollars in their pockets? How many times do we have to be fooled before we realize the pay-to-play structure is not going to spend our tax dollars wisely so maybe we should stop raising taxes.

  41. Othello Gage says:

    I am a advocate for mass transit in Indianapolis since I moved here in 1998. Coming from Chicago, I was shocked to see how much of a lack of transit the region had. This included the areas in Indianapolis that don’t even have sidewalks. I hope the general assembly passes this bill we get a chance to vote on it.It is not a perfect bill, but you have to start somewhere.

  42. Rod Stevens says:

    The title of this article is “The Strategic Case for Mass Transit in Indianapolis”, and, as much as I believe in mass transit, the author doesn’t make his case. In fact, in some ways he disproves his argument, with numbers that show there is less “mass” in the city than ever before. His main argument seems to be, “…it s a key piece of the puzzle in creating the differentiated product it needs to compete for residents.”

    Is there any evidence that lack of transit is the key problem holding back the re-population of these areas? In every neighborhood I’ve ever seen revitalized, there’s plenty of parking and the main problem is having your car vandalized. Lack of access probably is not the problem.

    Transit lines solve transit problems, like traffic jams or congested trains. Look at the pictures of people riding on the roof of Mumbai commuter trains and you will see what real transit problems are.

    What is really keeping them from moving into the center city neighborhoods? It is likely failure of basic existing services like police, parks and schools, but politically, it is easier for urban leaders to ask the feds for money for a transit line than to take on unions in changing work rules.

    New York is booming today not just because it’s economy is strong (thanks, in part, to firms like UBS moving their trading floor back from Stamford), but because the city is a more attractive place and there is latent demand from the tens of millions of people who would like a shorter commute. When the north-south transit on Manhattan became too congested, Bloomberg added BRT on 3rd Avenue, not the subway line that had been planned there for decades. Why BRT? Because it cost 1/1000th the cost per mile, and he could do it today, not years from now. The strategic issue in NYC for transit there was transit demand.

    A lot of people have voted with their feet in Indianapolis. Why?

  43. Chris Barnett says:

    Rod, Aaron is asserting that the lack of good transit is among the causes for people voting with their feet. And that IndyGo has become a system of last resort for people who can’t afford to own cars.

    “Choice” transit ridership is no longer solely about the rational act of shortening commute time. Some of it is about lifestyle choice and a serious commitment to greening one’s own life. Some people are willing to trade a longer commute for reducing carbon footprint.

  44. Rod Stevens says:


    I agree that in the best of all worlds, it would be nice to have transit, and that when access and mobility are difficult, it can be a critical factor. Here it does not sound like it is the highest priority, and therefore it is difficult to make a “strategic” case. If place-making is your goal, attracting back everyone, then cast a net that gets more fish, like good schools or wonderfulparks. “Lifestyle” is about how we choose to use our time. That starts with having time after work and having a nice place to come home to. Even if there’s not good, up-to-date housing now, more adventurous people will usually rehab what they need, but to get even them, there have to be enough of the basics, and if mobility is not really an issue, then other factors like safety are. It may also be that values are trending downward so sharply that people are afraid to invest, but if the place is a “real find”, then there are ways to get around even that, i.e. renting.

  45. Rod Stevens says:


    Just to clarify: before I made transit my “strategic” choice, I’d want to make sure mobility was “the” issue.

    In 1989 I rented an apartment in Northwest Portland, which has been one of the trendiest parts of the city, partly because it is close in and partly because it is interesting and eminently walkable. At the time the bus line there was the most frequent in the city, allowing me to easily get downtown to work. The trolley that came later, the one that has attracted so much interest from other cities. The trolley worked because both ends of the line were already strong.

  46. Chris Barnett says:

    Rod, that is part of an ongoing internal argument in the Indy metro. It pits the Northeast Corridor suburban commuter rail against north-south and/or east-west light rail along the “alpha” streets (Meridian and Washington) because they are already high-ridership corridors with historic TOD form and “good at both ends”.

    An east-west line running from Irvington through Downtown to the Airport meets your strength test. As does a north-south line from the south side of downtown northward to Broad Ripple/Glendale.

    Such a combination would indeed be a strategic investment. But Indy’s starting density may not be sufficient to support rail or light rail, so BRT may be the eventual choice.

  47. Rod Stevens says:

    That’s good.

    You’ve got “Unigov”; maybe you are heading to “Unifinance”, or thinking in terms of a single pot of money. Is there someone speaking for the other issues of livability when it comes to making these big capital decisions?

  48. Chris Barnett says:

    We have “unifinance”. Budgetary authority for most government activity in the City-County area is unified and vested in the City-County Council, including the Library and transit systems. The only exceptions are the schools (11 independent systems) and the “excluded cities and towns”, four suburbs that were exempted from “city” aspects of Unigov.

    Our issue is that local government finance is dictated by the legislature, and Indianapolis always runs up against the maximums first…a problem made much worse by the enshrinement of property tax caps in the State Constitution, income tax limits, lack of any commuter tax (local income tax is allocated to where the wage earner sleeps, not where s/he works), and the inability to levy local sales taxes.

    The mayor and council must constantly balance the livability items…public safety vs. infrastructure vs economic development vs. parks & recreation.

    I could write a whole lot more, off the main topic. What it comes down to is this: most any new initiative requires a new revenue stream, as existing revenues are all allocated to (as Aaron would describe it) a low-service model of city government.

  49. Rod,

    I agree that public transit is first and foremost transportation for the public. If you look at my 2007 piece on rail transit being a bad idea for Indianapolis, you’ll see that I make that selfsame point. If there’s no transportation value, then you shouldn’t do it. I also argue that a high quality urban bus network would provide genuine transport benefits now.

    In this post I did want to talk about the strategic case, which perhaps I should have stated more clearly since I did not resonate with you. Schools in the inner city need to be better. But in any realistic scenario, will they be better than the suburbs? No. Crime needs to be better. In any realistic scenario will it meet or beat the suburbs? No. Similarly, will the city ever be lower on taxes? No.

    The city is structurally uncompetitive on any of these points. Other than some points of taxation (like property taxes in Chicago), in no city where we are seeing large increases in population and property values are the core services you cite competitive with the suburbs. In fact, the urban schools have seen little real improvement in most places.

    People move to New York, San Francisco, etc. for the urban product, not the provision of core services. I agree that there are many livability items such as benches that add to the cachet. And Indianapolis can’t ignore those. But the basic urban function is the real attractor.

    The only core service that seems critical to resident attraction is policing. There does seem to be a threshold level of crime beyond which only the hardy will dare to venture. Indy clearly needs help here, especially on the East Side, which is where the most high potential neighborhoods are.

    If the core urban product – housing, density, walkable areas (meaning something to walk to), attractive commercial destinations, liveable streets – aren’t in place, I don’t see any amount of improvement in schools and parks driving major resident attraction. Even in Portland I’d bet you’d find all of the items you have noticed where lagging indicators that followed after the redevelopment/repopulation in most case.

  50. Nathanael says:

    “Transit lines solve transit problems….”

    Look up the history of “MetroLand” in London for the first example: Transit lines also solve *development* problems.

    Streetcar-oriented development develops in a tight cluster around the streetcar line, and train-oriented development develops in tight clusters around the railway stations. These make for *nice* places to live, and the result is that the surviving ones from the 19th century are among the most expensive addresses in the US.

    In contrast, automobile-oriented development creates vast wastelands of parking. People don’t like living in vast wastelands of parking, for the most part.

    I think, contra Aaron, that crime can be better downtown than in the suburbs — this is the experience in Paris, for instance! Schools can be better downtown than in the suburbs — for the same reason. The key feature is fundamentally that, in Paris, downtown is where the upper middle class lives, while the suburbs are the home of the poor.

    Is this possible in the US? Most certainly. It’s already happening in several cities. Arguably even in Cincinnati.

    Is it possible in Indianapolis?… perhaps not. It is a city with an incredibly strong car-oriented identity. But what do I know. Perhaps it is.

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