2011 has been a busy year in Indianapolis with road repairs, sidewalk fixes and creation and the addition of more cycling infrastructure. Generally, I feel like I should leave coverage of cycling in the city to the folks over at IndyCog. My recent observations however, have spurred me to action.
This year we have seen a lot more construction of the Cultural Trail. I have reported fiercely on this project and given a lot of heated criticism in the area of the Conrad. However, at the core, this project has expanded vastly this year and should be mostly completed by the time the Super Bowl occurs providing weather and utility companies cooperate.
Shelby Street between Fountain Square and Garfield Park has been subjected to what I believe to be the most ground breaking project for cycling in Indy. On most spec sheets this project is simply termed “bike lanes” but what transpired was a healthy stretch of 100% separated two way bike track. Beyond Garfield Park, the rest of the project is normal on-street bike lanes. This project too, has not been without heated criticism from me. Our efforts combined with a citizen who lives in the area managed to get a utility pole moved out of the sidewalk. The project stands tall on it’s core design though.
In general, many miles of on street bike lane have been created. Downtown, street crossings are being subjected to green-colored paint to indicate where cyclists switch lanes. On Michigan St and New York through the downtown area, former angled in parking spaces have been converted to reverse-angle. This gives drivers much more visibility of cyclists coming their way and reduces the chance that a collision will occur. On 46th street between Keystone and College Ave, a former 4 lane road was reduced to three lanes and bike lanes striped. This is a HUGE step forward. Not only were bike lanes added which have statistically been proven to improve safety through reduced automobile speeds, but an entire automobile travel lane was removed.
Michigan Road is the subject of a new side trail being constructed. Other side trail projects are set to break ground soon on 62nd street between Keystone & Allisonville Road as well as 71st street from Binford Blvd to Hague Road.
In the City Market downtown, a cycling hub will be opening this month that features bike parking, showers, lockers and a repair shop.
This year, the MPO has also released a long term fiscally constrained bike plan for the entire Central Indiana Region which recommends many new bike facilities as well as policy changes that could have a long lasting impact on Indianapolis and how it approaches cycling for commuting & recreational purposes.
Taken on their own, these projects seem like small pockets of success for cyclists. However, if you consider that all these projects have taken place THIS YEAR ALONE, that is huge and for that, I can give Indianapolis a lot of credit. What I didnt cover in-depth for this post, but are included in my bikeway plan analysis, is how to leverage this year’s success into the future through better design.
I feel that we still aren’t seeing enough fundamental design changes to improve safety and encourage more people to move around by bicycle. Improvements like double lines for on-street lanes, more buffered tracks like Shelby Street and more changes like 46th street where 4 lane auto streets were improved to 3 lanes and added bike lanes; those are REAL improvements. The bike plan doesn’t paint a lot of that picture, and those are things that would really improve Indy’s budding bicycle culture.
My recent summer vacation took my family to Myrtle Beach, SC. By virtue of good fortune, and a wife who is accepting of my psychotic civic activism, we were able to spend a morning in Charlotte, NC to take a ride on the Lynx light rail line. The Lynx (or Blue Line) is a modern light rail system that opened in 2007 and operates daily on low overheads.
At this point in my advocacy, I consider it a treat to be able to ride a light rail train. So when we arrived, I was very excited to be able to experience the service. I had my camera at the ready! As we were approaching the elevator to get from ground level to the platform level, a train was pulling away. We took the elevator up, crossed a walk and then the tracks to a ticket kiosk. A speaker announced that the next train was set to arrive in 8 minutes. This was nice to hear! We didn’t even have to check a schedule, the next arrival was in a manageable amount of time.
We spent that 8 minutes taking photos of the platform, the adjoining parking structure (which has a playground on the roof). Before we knew it, the train was ready to pull out of the station and we were on board heading for downtown Charlotte. The time was near 11am.
The train was sparsely populated when we left the outermost station, which is on the I-485 beltline. However, two stops in, it was starting to turn into a standing room only environment. The closer we got, the more packed it got. There were people of ALL ethnic backgrounds on the train. A predominantly black population was on board, but many Hispanic and whites were aboard as well. I spoke with one man who asked if I was local and told him I was from Indy. I asked how he liked having the train and he commented about his broken car and how the train is a godsend for him to be able to ride. Another woman commented that she was anxious for the extension of the existing line to the NE side of the region.
We did not get off on any of the stations along the way but I managed to step out of the train and snap some photos of property surrounding the stations along the way. The outer stations have more park & rides compared to the inner stations. In fact, the two outer stations are solely park & ride. There seemed to be little indication that TOD had taken hold around these stations. However, the closer to downtown the train travelled, the more TOD seemed to be getting a toe hold. Additionally, less parking lots surrounded these stations compared to the outer stations.
We reached the downtown transit center station which was the next to last station on the line. This station let off in the heart of downtown Charlotte next to where the Bobcats play. In addition to that structure, there is a large bus station at ground level adjacent to the light rail tracks. At this point in time, it would be proper to note that a lot of the trackage in downtown is elevated above ground level thereby eliminating interaction with automobiles. Some of the outer stations are aligned this way too, but not all of them. There are a lot of stretches between stations that run at ground level.
We took a moment to use the restroom inside there. Then, we took a short stroll around downtown and landed on the ground floor of the Wells Fargo tower where a vast food court was located. I had a fantastic veggie burrito at what I think was a local establishment.
After lunch, we went to the 3rd street station to wait on the next outbound train. We waited about 5 minutes on the next train to arrive and when it did, we boarded to head back out to the 485 park & ride. The train was PACKED as we stepped on.
We had to park the stroller my son was in and hold him. I stood and my wife sat with him. This was around 1:30pm and I was pleasantly surprised to see the train so packed. The further we got out towards the 485 station, the more people got off.
When we de-boarded the train, the sun was shining and we were able to return to our car which had not been vandalized or otherwise messed with which was nice to see. Being in an unfamiliar location, one never knows what to expect. We took a ride up the road adjacent to the line, South Blvd. In this area, the road and adjacent properties reminded me of N Keystone Avenue here in Indy from say, 38th to 62nd. Wide, ugly and lots of auto oriented development. It may be this type of environment that has been the hardest to influence by the light rail route.
In hindsight, it would have been nice to spend more time investigating other stations to get a feel for how the TOD has developed around some of the stations. I blogged about the Lynx line last year over at my personal blog based off of web-based research. It would have been nice to be able to walk around the developments, but my vacation was more important and we were over 3 hours from the beach. I was looking forward to unplugging from my day job and the blog at that point so we decided to make our way to the coast. I consider the experience of riding the Lynx to have been a beneficial one if for nothing else, the experience. It was rapid. There were short overheads. The trains were cool and comfortable and the transit advocate in me continues to want to smack the ignorant who say that light rail doesn’t work and we don’t need it.
A recent study by Bundle & The Street, lends some credibility to the notion that purchasing a home in the suburbs based upon the premise that it’s “cheaper” may not really be that true at all. The study focused on a number of major and minor metro regions across the nation and pitted their daily commute times, distances and also added the metric averaging what a household might spend on transportation per month. The numbers paint a striking picture. A couple of infographics were released with the report that displayed some of the maximum and minimum commutes. You can peruse through the data for yourself if you are curious. It is quite striking the number of hours wasted in some places, and how many not wasted in others, when compared to Indianapolis.
If you travel in urban or transportation study circles, my post is late to the game. So I thought I would take this a step further, and compare Indianapolis, to a few of it’s peer cities; or as Brookings is now calling a group of these similar performers, “The New Heartland”. Brooking’s released a report recently called, “The State of Metropolitan America” and in it, examined how some metro areas are performing, or underperforming. A better definition can be taken directly from the report:
New Heartland metro areas are also fast growing, highly educated locales, but have lower shares of Hispanic and Asian populations than the national average. These 19 metro areas include many in the “New South” where blacks are the dominant minority group, such as Atlanta and Charlotte, as well as largely white metro areas throughout the Midwest and West, such as Indianapolis and Portland, OR
Aaron Renn, whom I consider one of the foremost authority on urban study, broke down the report a while back. It’s a great read if you have the time. Some of the cities that are classified as “New Heartland”, and whom I will be using for comparison in this analysis are Atlanta, Charlotte, Portland, Kansas City & Minneapolis. There is no basis for their selection except that they are New Heartland cities. The data was taken from this link that includes the data for all 90 cities examined.
If we look at the data presented for these cities, we can see that they perform as follows:
The first thing that jumps out, is that the typical commute distance is similar for all cities, despite a shorter distance for Portland. The next thing that grabs us, is the amount of money spent each month on automobile related expenses. The harder to capture metric, and what may bridge the link between the data and perception, is the following graphic. I have taken the 90 metro image, and highlighted the cities in focus. You can see that some cities have a “taller” bar than others. This indicates the amount of people on the region’s roadways at peak commuting times. I think this tells the story about cities like Atlanta who have a reputation of longer waiting times in traffic, but what is not really indicated on the table above.
In wrapping up, I thought that it would be interesting to contrast the transit systems provided by each of these cities. Indianapolis and Kansas City both lack any sort of rail transit system while the rest do. The cost data would suggest that Portland & Atlanta are cheaper places to commute. They do both have somewhat robust rail systems that afford passengers a hassle free commute to their respective region’s core. Minneapolis and Charlotte are both just entering this game while KC & Indy both still struggle to find the civic will to make this happen. Indy is by far the worst city on this list in terms of general public transit options. The fact that it lists the lowest amount of people on the road, yet one of the higher amounts of monthly spend, points to a larger dependence on the automobile to get to and from work; it is also, the longest commute distance of any of the cities examined.
What else can we say about the data provided here? From a shear cost comparison, Portland & Atlanta both look like nice places to move to should you want to spend less on commuting. However, Atlanta and Minneapolis both offer a seemingly frustrating drive due to the amount of people on the roads.
Locally, should Indianapolis continue to grow as the Brookings New Heartland typology suggests, commuting expenses could get worse as more people choose to live here. With the price of parking set to double in the next couple of years due to the recent parking meter lease, the monthly spend for people commuting to the downtown area only stands to increase. Coupled with the expected economic rebound, and oil prices being driven up, Indy commuters are looking down the barrel of monthly auto related spending north of $500 per household. To that end, these data points paint a pretty good picture for transit advocates.
If you are a regular visitor to this site, then you are undoubtedly familiar with our complete and undivided support for improvements to our region’s transit system. Sure, we all have specific talking points that we feel would represent SMARTER choices, but at the heart is this unifying vision of improved transit options. As advocates, we can lose sight of how obvious this is to us from time to time; and conversely, how oblivious others may be to it. So how do we address this? A simple education at the basic level is needed. So here are a few reasons why supporting Indyconnect is important to improving our region’s transit.
Improving the Current Bus System
IndyGO has been operating on a skeleton budget for a number of years, supported primarily by local property taxes. Low service based on low financial support has driven a perception that IndyGO operates as a failing business unit due to poor management. IndyGO operates on such a low budget, that compared to other cities, Indianapolis consistently ranks near 100th in major American metro’s for spending on transit. What this translates to is poor job access for people who do not own a car; whether that is by choice or neccesity. Poor job access alone is a gateway into a breakdown of numerous things. Low income citizen services. Poor economic sustainability. No incentive for commercial investment along transit corridors. This year, IndyGO announced that due to a shortage of funding, it was planning on reducing service. The already sparce frequency (approx 30 minutes) would have been cut to an hour at peak times. Luckily, the city stepped in to provide some financing options to stave this off for at least another year at which point other options will be sought. These are the facts, so at what point does the blame fall on civic leaders for not providing better options for transit financing?
The Drawbacks in our Current System
Currently, the city of Indianapolis basically requires residents to own one car per adult. Not only is this unfair to the less wealthy among us, it’s environmentally unsustainable, requires our dependence on large quantities of oil from places that don’t like us, and strains our infrastructure. Road infrastructure is an inadequate solution for transportation problems as it allows citizens to spread out across the land, leaving behind both the inner city and inner ring suburban areas to fend for themselves with a decreased population and tax base. Meanwhile, displaced residents in the border counties still get to use our city’s streets to get to work or an event, at no cost to them.
From aesthetic point of view, road and parking infrastructure is unattractive, and the older it gets, the worse it looks. It’s not hard to see the difficulty the city will have in repopulating these wide-open and desolate spaces. Lafayette Square has been successful in attracting a population of recent immigrants. Other places in the city have been less so. What is the strategy to save these places? Is there one?
The High Cost of Owning a Car
Perhaps the largest, but frighteningly little-talked about problem is that automobile infrastructure is expensive to build and maintain. Any new building project in the city is required to include a parking lot, or apply for a variance. The application process adds time and cost to the project. This discourages true urban development. Additionally, parking is a huge policy problem which a city must get right or the local economy is absolutely distorted. Our Indianapolis based parking system shifts costs from drivers onto the general public (see graphic). If parking policies are done correctly then a lot of other things start to make sense (like mass transit).
Even without subsidized parking or mandated parking requirements, the cost of providing parking to businesses in urban areas is very high. Other researchers have concluded that parking requirements (say 4 per 1000 LSF) increase the cost of urban development by up to 50%. The Indianapolis requirement to provide 2 / 800 LSF for CBD 2 zoning would increase costs ~ 25%, and that is why parking garages or loans are often subsidized by the city government to make up the cost. We all want parking accessibility, and the city knows that surface lots are horrible, but we can’t afford to pay for parking unless the costs are hidden or taken out in taxes. Assuming that space is even available, a 1:1 relationship is usually needed for Leasable SF vs. Parking SF. Underground parking is usually an option, but increases the cost of construction even further, making it an unattractive solution. Thus the typical solution is to put a parking garage on every block, which spreads out the city and limits density. It also mandates a lower value for real estate, because land that could be leased at rates up to $30/LSF is now being used as parking which returns $12/LSF, and in effect devalues the urban area by 20% to 33%. This means economic activity and tax revenues also fall.
The benefit of mass transit is that instead of providing on-site or near site parking at every location, a system-wide solution can be used which provides mobility and accessibility over a wide area. Thus, parking requirements can be eliminated and developers can base their parking decisions on local market values. In urban areas this can lower costs of parking from 33% to 11% of overall project costs and eliminate the sprawling effects of parking requirements near TOD stations. Of course, once you get rid of the need to park, you can also reduce the need to drive and eliminate a significant amount of the auto-infrastructure in the urban area.
An anecdote about personal automobile spending habits
I’d like to wrap up with a final thought on personal transportation finance. The next time you are doing a budget check, add up the amount of money spent on insurance. Gas. Car payment. Oil changes. Parking. If one adds these costs up, and compared them to a monthly transit pass, the proportion is huge.
Why is investment in transit important for Indianapolis? It provides a gateway for smarter economic development. It helps shape a safer and better looking city. It creates a progressive image to the rest of the world. It represents a more efficient investment in not just our transportation system, but in a system that better influences our built environment.
Editor’s Note: This article was written with input from Kevin & Graeme as well. Thanks guys!
Editor’s Note: This picture comes from frequent commentor Chris Barnett regarding population density in Indy as of the 2000 Census