The people who run our cities … think nothing has the right to exist unless it makes a profit, which makes their opinion worthless. The people who truly deface our neighborhoods are the companies that scrawl giant slogans across buildings and buses trying to make us feel inadequate unless we buy their stuff. -Banksy, Wall and Piece, 2005
It is a common idea these days for politicians to speak of running a city like a company. What a stupid idea. Just when we abandon the failed idea of living in a machine, we unfortunately embrace the dystopian vision of a for-profit public realm.
Indianapolis has been privatizing public space for a long time now. The parking issue is just the latest signal that our city leaders are willing to sell out the future of our city for a few coin now. The civic leaders justify this by preaching the gospel of market efficiency, but conveniently forget that what we gain in efficiency we lose in equity, community, and harmony.
While some believe it is a foregone conclusion that government fails at every task, the real story is hardly that simple. We all know that 90% of small businesses in the US fail within 5 years, but this doesn’t mean we should abolish private ventures, it only means that success is hard to achieve. The same is true in the public world.
Our government is merely a reflection of our own abilities and values. When a public effort fails it does not prove anything other than the people in that community did not have the skills, resources, or fortune to get it done. Indianapolis has always been a community of visionaries and hard workers, and they built a great city for us. There is no greater shame for a politician than to turn their back on this heritage and champion the sale of our public assets.
Natural places have a role to play in our neighborhoods. The best urban sites share space with nature so well that you can not tell when the bricks stop and the trees begin. Whether it is a chestnut tree in a courtyard or an old street lined with elms, nature has to be present or our cityscape is unsatisfactory.
The beautiful streets of Lockerbie Square did not happen by accident
Michigan Street in Irvington with sidewalk and tree canopy
The ability to incorporate natural spaces into our neighborhood is often limited by our choices in infrastructure. We refuse to plant trees along streets because it is considered dangerous for drivers (even though its much safer for pedestrians). Once we convince ourselves that trees are a good idea we find that the power company “tops” them to keep the power lines free of limbs.
Using alleyways or underground wiring can solve part of the problem. But even then our arborist friends are thwarted, sometimes because steam pipes rot tree roots (even wonder why we have so few trees downtown?) or the city starts poisoning vegetation to save on costs (checked out Robert D. Orr Plaza lately?).
A small street near Pleasant Run Creek has kept its natural appeal
Integrating nature into our neighborhoods doesn’t happen by accident. It has to be an explicit strategy that is aggressively pursued and maintained. It must have support from everyone in a community, from the family next door all the way to the deputy mayor. Otherwise, we end up in a desert of concrete and asphalt.
Using natural elements in our city improves our quality of life. But some places deserve the right to remain natural. Sometimes the beauty of an area overwhelms us and we realize that we can’t improve it. The Kyle Oak in Irvington is just such a place. The Kyle family loved their Bur Oak so much, that they abandoned and bulldozed their home rather than put the tree at risk.
Meet the oldest resident of Irvington
The tree limbs span time and space
People need access to nature to stay healthy
While the Kyle Oak is a unique example of nature in our neighborhoods, there are opportunities all around us that we should be taking advantage of. Pocket parks reclaimed from shuttered houses, community gardens, tree-lined avenues and shopping streets, or wildflower meadows instead of lawns. Let’s get serious about inviting nature to live with us.
A wrinkled carcass reminds us that trees grow old and pass like all things in nature
Public investment in transportation infrastructure is what Indianapolis is all about, and is still known as the “Crossroads of America” because of it. The investment in transportation infrastructure started early with the canals, picked up speed with rail (including the first ever Union Station), and continued when Indy became a key part of the National Road, our first federal highway. More recently the best new airport terminal in the US was opened.
We have our intercity transportation and freight pretty well figured out, but now it’s time to get our local transit in order. Multi-modal solutions give people options about where and how to live, and make cities more resilient to the challenges of the future. But we seem to have prioritized low density auto-oriented growth for so long that we have lost our urban identity. We’re not seen as the crossroads of America anymore, we’re just another decaying donut.
For those of us who were expecting big things from IndyConnect, the unveiled plan has been met with strong debate. A program that was sold to the community as a vision for the future is really just a mirror showing us as we already exist – a capital city afraid of its collaborative, urban origins and rapidly trying to reinvent itself as the sprawling, low-cost leader of the midwest.
Where will Indy rank on this list in 30 years?
IndyConnect is a chance to come together as a regional community and decide our destiny. Unfortunately, the plan currently up for review is not very inspiring. The controversial decision to switch out LRT for buses appears to be political rather than economic, as previous studies and case studies have shown the regional benefits would easily justify the costs. I question the decision to use BRT, because the sponsors threw away the support of the biggest pool of users to get… well let’s just say I don’t see any Tea Partiers jumping on board with this plan because of its lower cost.
But even if the LRT option had survived, would that have been enough to call this plan a “vision”? Not at all. When you look at the mass transit portion, the plan only recommends purchase of some new vehicles, polishing up some old train hardware, and striping some roads. It’s a superficial marketing brochure that won’t significantly address livability in Indianapolis. We can’t solve this problem by throwing money at it, we’re gonna have to dig deeper. Policy reform has to be front and center, and that debate is much more important than whether or not we use light rail, commuter rail, or bus rapid transit.
It's not the bus or LRT that appeals to people, its the urban attitude
If IndyConnect really wants to lay the groundwork for a city that can use transit, then we need to decide to stop exclusively designing our cities for cars. Buses are not the building block of a transit system, the pedestrian is. A transformative vision of Indianapolis is needed now, so here is a twelve step plan to make Indianapolis a haven for transit before a single track is ever laid:
- Pedestrianize – Begin and end ALL planning from the perspective of a pedestrian (ALL planning! – transportation, land use, urban design, civic assets)
- Don’t fool yourself – buses will never capture mode share from cars, and rail doesn’t help much either unless there is an incentive to use it
- Induced demand is real – accept vehicular congestion, because you can’t build your way out of it
- Laser, not shotgun – don’t try to accommodate the entire region with transit, because transit is expensive and should only serve areas designed for it like streetcar suburbs, old rail stops, and centralized corridors
- No Robert Moses needed – accept that communities are more important than the transportation solutions running through them
- Be unselfish – design the transportation system for the next generation and the problems they will face
- Create value – don’t be afraid to use rail based transit to create special areas in the city, but beware of doing the same in suburbs because that will empty the city (population follows public investment) into areas that don’t want and can’t accommodate the extra load on their limited services
- Be inclusive – integrate pedestrians and bicyclists into the traffic system rather than forcing them onto recreational pathways
- Respect the car – well behaved cars and drivers deserve a place in the city, car-free zones are a bad idea and represent a failure of integration
- Reward density - land use and transit should support “density done right” because a walkable urban environment produces happy, socially wealthy individuals
- Slow it down – convert urban highways to slower streets, because if the traffic is too fast for sidewalk cafes, merging bicycle traffic, and people crossing the street then you are doing it wrong
- Restore the Cityscape – accept that our city was better before the interstates arrived, and it will be better when they are removed
Indianapolis as a city was never perfect, but it was never more imperfect than the day we decided that cars could solve all of our problems. We purposefully excluded anyone who can’t drive or afford a car from participating in civic life, killed off small businesses, and enslaved future generations to volatile energy costs.
Now we are about to sell off our ability to control parking supply and pricing, our most important urban development tool, and yet our leaders still fail to realize how that is related to transportation in the city. There are a hundred other issues that we hammer all the time on this website but haven’t been addressed yet, including: curb radii, tree canopies, excess lane widths, unnecessary one-way streets, missing sidewalks, urban design regulatory problems, and privatization of the public realm.
How will BRT, LRT, or Commuter Rail solve these issues? They can’t. In reality, a lot of people have problems walking to the bus stop because the city is so impermeable to pedestrians. The number of new pedestrian bridges going in downtown is a great indicator that we still haven’t solved the walkability issue in our most important places.
The debate over IndyConnect should be a debate over walkability and the role of the pedestrian. Policy reform must be at the top of the agenda. Think education and consensus building rather than bus routes and transit maps. I support IndyConnect. This is what progress looks like. But IndyConnect must explicitly address walkability or it will fail.
Here at Urban Indy we wanted to give our reactions to the big IndyConnect unveiling and let our readers do the same. An in-depth review of the plan from Urban Indy will be coming later, but here is a collection of our responses after the initial press release. The plan is online at IndyConnect.org and represents the 25 year vision of the Indy MPO responsible for regional transportation planning.
The latest plan from Indy Connect
I will be the first person to say that the latest unveiling represents a letdown when we were all looking forward to a light rail system to address economic development, regional vitality and increased mobility. Fresh off a trip to Portland I have seen the top of the mountain and it is awesome. However, here in Indy we have such a small share of transit ridership, that building support for a long term rail system is key. Implementing the latest unveiling while not shiny and sexy, will improve the system for existing users, pull in potential riders who are on the fence, and offer some incentives to those who would never use in the form of some congestion mitigation. This step up could build a great platform for the next generation long term transit plan. If Indianapolis can continue recent success in the business arena as it has for years now, this transit plan could compliment that success and in 20 years, when a successful transit share has been built, a much more robust rail growth plan could be hatched. The next step will be difficult in helping to educate people just why this plan has a silver lining that isn’t initially obvious.
Neither the original nor this updated Indy Connect plan is a perfect implementation of mass transit for Indianapolis. Instead, they represent a balance of the needs of the region with what is favorable to the low tax, low service culture of the Central Indiana Region. This disappoints mass transit and rail advocates because they know how good things could be, and how our region needs to have an eye on the economic, societal and environmental need for a proper mass transit system. This is not the proposal I would have put forth, but given the constraints on the Indy Connect team, I think this is a plan that brings our transportation system to an acceptable service level at a price point that has a chance for approval from the electorate. It’s far from inspiring, but it works.
While improving our bus system is a good idea, more bike and pedestrian pathways are great, and having some investment in rail and light rail is better than none, this plan doesn’t have enough “Indy” in it to truly reform one of our city’s greatest transit problems – a lack of “choice” riders, especially within our urban core. The proposed plan’s focus on serving suburban areas with the “coolest” forms of transit incentivizes suburban and exurban housing choices. Meanwhile, the people most likely to make the choice of utilizing transit options, those who are choosing to live and work in our actual city, are provided with an upgrade on a system that is not winning over new riders in its current iteration. The proposed IndyConnect plan is definitely an improvement, but it’s not bold, it’s not visionary, and – without a major branding overhaul of our bus system – it’s unlikely to spur significant improvement in the area of choice ridership. And, a quick query: why is this transit plan up for so much debate, while the much more expensive plans to upgrade bridges and roads, as well as expand roads, are not topics for public debate or analysis? Why do we evaluate “new” so much more stringently than we evaluate “old”?
I’m encouraged by the prospect of more frequent bus service in the areas which need it the most . The first release of Indy Connect had few specifics with regards to inner city connectivity, which this version serves to correct. I’m discouraged that the city is pulling back from the Washington Street light rail proposal, when most of us at Urban Indy were hoping that the city would add a College Avenue streetcar to the fledgling system. Eighty percent of the money goes to expanding roads and fixing bridges in the suburban areas, which (outside of needed repairs) is throwing good money after bad. Regardless, I hope that this plan will give the city the framework it needs to make future changes and improvements.
I’m definitely not anti-bus. From a pure transit perspective, we can do so much in Indy with the additional of express buses, circulators, and BRT’s. An expanded bus system can reach more people than rail.
I’m definitely not anti-rail either. There are situations that a street car, light rail, or commuter rail would be beneficial. Washington Street is a great example of a prime light rail/street car corridor.
The biggest issues with buses: how well the system is executed and operated; getting past the local stigma of buses; maximizing the use of technology; getting around the traffic congestion problems that plague our streets and highways; and encouraging development along bus corridors and around bus system hubs.
While transit oriented development will not be as great with a improved bus system, the potential is there if investment is made into stops and hubs where multiple routes converge.
As a multi-modal mass transit adovcate, I am particularly dissapointed with the updated IndyConnect plan. While a strong bus service is essential in any regional transit system, the BRT model that the IndyConnect team is championing has not been proven effective in significantly increasing transit ridership in North America. On the other hand, urban rail transit (light rail, streetcars) has. Ultimately, that is what we were hoping to see more of from the revised IndyConnect plan – real urban transit that encourages urban development and creates those great ‘places’ that can come it. Instead, any remnant of the word ‘urban’ was stripped away, leaving us with a mass transit system ‘vision’ that only sees Indianapolis as it is instead of what it could be. And in the end, this is perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the new plan. With a strong urban-oriented mass transit plan, Indianapolis would position itself as a region of transit oriented development, of urban places, and of sustainable transportation, something that would differentiate itself from the car-dominated culture of the Midwest. Instead, the current IndyConnect plan will set the city up for continued Midwest mediocrity, thus crippling its ability of becoming a bigger and better version of its current self.
For as much as transit has been discussed in the press releases and official statements, there is surprisingly little of it in the plans. No, this is a plan to fund highway construction. Other than some minor reuse of rail lines, Indy will still be missing a useful mass transit system and encouraging sprawl development. This is also a missed opportunity to change the outdated policies, lack of vision, and livability aspects that must be dealt with in the transportation realm. Instead of real city development, Indianapolis citizens will be sponsoring repair and extensions of highways that never should have been built to begin with. The MPO should plan for what Indianapolis will need in 25 years from now, and this won’t get us anywhere fast. With the majority of the population and the business community asking for a real solution, I say put the best plan on the table and don’t stop short.