On September 1, Indianapolis is set to unveil its first bus rapid transit (BRT) route. The speedy express bus is just the first piece of a much bigger transit improvement program that will roll out over the next five years. It’s built entirely around better buses. And for other low-density cities that are looking to boost mobility without investing in costly rail-based systems, Indy’s capital-efficient approach should be a model worth studying.
Indianapolis, famous for its car race, is an extremely automobile-oriented city. Less than 1 percent of commuters in the metro area use transit to get to work, and it ranks sixth lowest among major U.S. metros in transit commuting. As local advocates for better transit like to point out, Indianapolis is the 17th largest municipality in the U.S., but it has the 99th largest bus system. This is a bit unfair—its size is inflated by a city-county consolidation, so the city contains large areas that would elsewhere be counted as suburban. But Indianapolis, by its own admission, definitely has low transit ridership.
Having lived in Indy, I can tell you that the local culture is traditionally all about driving. (I’ve had people drive me less than two blocks to get lunch.) And if you wanted to ride the bus, it was very infrequent and unreliable. “Our service is kind of spotty,” says Jerome Horne of IndyGo, the city’s transit agency.
On that front, Indy has plenty of company: Only 10 major American metros have transit commute mode share of greater than 5 percent. Indy’s bus system serves around nine million riders per year, roughly the same as Nashville. But Nashville and Indy chose very different paths in seeking to improve local transit. Nashville opted to attempt a $5.4 billion “shock and awe” plan to build 26 miles of light rail, including a subway tunnel through downtown. That plan was resoundingly defeated by county voters in 2018.
By contrast, Indy opted for an entirely bus-based plan, in part by necessity. The city required specific state authorization to put a transit plan tax to a vote, which took local leaders three sessions to get through the legislature—and then only with a provision that prohibited light rail. The business-led Central Indiana Transit Task Force, which spent years developing the improvement plan, based its recommendations on econometric estimates of return on investment. That math also pointed to bus upgrades.
In November 2016, voters approved a 0.25 percentage point increase in the county income tax in order to fund a program that would significantly increase the level of bus service delivered by IndyGo, including building three cross-county BRT lines. The Red Line will run north-south, the Blue Line an east-west, and the Purple Line to the northeast line serving an era of comparatively heavy existing transit ridership.
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