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.
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.
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.