When does perception become reality? When a preconceived notion trumps all logic and becomes the first thought associated with a specific topic. Why is it then, that “light rail” seems to be the favored quarter when it comes to alternative transportation modes? Last week, I tackled the first half of why we perceive light rail to be superior to commuter rail when I wrote about, “Why Route Matters for Indianapolis”. In that post, I highlighted that it isn’t neccesarily the mode that gets you there, but where a transit route goes that drives ridership gains.
So…. why light rail?
If we base our decision on the facts alone, we can determine that LRT offers advantages. Service frequency, ease of use and closer station spacing all combine to create a propensity to choose LRT over all other modes when given a choice. Additionally, when compared to a bus, statistics have shown that LRT draws more riders than comparable bus service. Furthermore, one of the advertised benefits of LRT over bus, is that it’s static locating of rails in the ground promote incentive for private developers to build near station areas. This type of development (often called Transit Oriented Development or TOD) typically offers a denser living environment due to it’s lessened need for automobile parking. Private development within urban areas is a KEY economic development opportunity and often one of the main political reasons for choosing “light rail” over all other modes of transit. Another perception and a hard one to battle, is that LRT technology is new. The compact nature of LRT operating within urban environments creates the image of an efficient and “fun” mode of transportation to utilize.
Why NOT bus?
The bus’ main competition is the automobile since they both share the same right of way. Given a choice, statistics show that people would rather drive than use a bus. Case in point. IndyGO recently released their 2010 year in review. In the report, they indicated that 116k people rode the IndyGO Express lines last year. To contrast this, I searched the Indianapolis MPO website for their traffic count maps. I zeroed in on the stretch of I-69 that was measured between 82nd street & 96th street; a comparable geographic region for where the IndyGO Express line services. The count? As of 2002, 107k traffic counts. PER DAY. Similar ratios can also be observed by comparing daily IndyGO city bus numbers with daily traffic counts in the urban core. The bottom line is that people are voting with their choice in mode of transportation. Additionally, I cannot cite one development in the Indianapolis region that was chosen because it was located along a bus line. Of course developers will mention the route’s precense, but it is highly unlikely that a route was a primary factor in locating a property development.
Why or why not commuter rail?
Basically, this boils down to level of service. Commuter rail typically provides a quality of service similar to light rail, but a frequency that makes it difficult to utilize. The example set by other cities can provide a picture of what we might expect from commuter rail service in Indianapolis. Portland’s WES (Westside express Service) runs every 30 minutes during rush hour on weekdays. WES provided an average of 1180 daily rides in December of 2010. Minneapolis’ Northstar, according to the website, only offers 6 inbound trips per weekday, 1 of them in the afternoon, and those in the morning are close to every 30 minutes. There is service on the weekends, but it is greatly reduced. Northstar carried 710,400, an average of 1946 per day in 2010, it’s first year of revenue service. Even in Chicago, METRA, which could be considered a service leader in midwest commuter rail service, offers a sporadic level of frequency on it’s electric line (south). Unless planners consider offering better service for the commuter routes in Indianapolis, 30 minute headways could be reasonably expected.
Regarding Private Development
Perhaps the greatest measuring stick, is when a politician can get up in front of a group of his peers, local or foreign, and tout the benefits of living in their city. Regarding transit investment, the first place that comes to my mind is Portland and their streetcar. According to the latest data that I have seen, the downtown Portland area has benefited from $3.5 billion in economic development in the form of condos, retail, etc within 2 blocks of their streetcar route. The leaders in Portland point to the streetcar as the single biggest motivator for rehabilitating an entire district, now called The Pearl. If I could point out a case that clearly makes the case for frequent rail service as an economic driver, this would be it. The development did not result from a bus, nor was it low frequency commuter rail. It was light rail/streetcar type of service that created a perception that there was an opportunity for private business to invest in the community. Obviously, Portland’s civic leaders grabbed onto this opportunity and the ride continues to this day.
Circling back to Indianapolis, one of the key reasons for Indyconnect’s existence, is that it is will give people in the region another tool to create wealth. This can come in the form of equitable travel to employment, activity centers or property development areas around stations. This is not a bad thing if the creation of that wealth generally benefits everyone using it. So what if some developers make some money…. we get a good transit system to use right? At it’s core, providing these opportunities has the chance to increase the quality of life for people who choose to indulge in said opportunities. It is for this reason, why arguing for “light rail” is a valid topic of debate and also why route matters. One last thought to close on this matter. Fellow Urban Indy writer Graeme Sharpe recently put together the above graph, depicting the amount of subsidized lunches that are provided to some area schools. This is one possible barometer of the economy present in those geographic areas. Put plainly, Noblesville HS is closely aligned with the NE Corridor while the other 3 are located along the Washington St corridor.
If we are trying to create economic development options, are we doing so in the right places? You decide….
If I have leaned a little too much on Portland for some of the conclusions, it is for good reason. The recent census figures pegged their growth at 10% over the last 10 years with a glut of that occuring in the inner core. Furthermore, TriMET provided nearly 100 million boardings in 2010 compared to 8.5 million in Indy. For a city that is comparable in a number of way, it is hard not to use their example to frame our story.
As I have posted about before, the Indianapolis MPO is in charge of transportation planning in our region. Their governing region extends into other counties around the region. A federally mandated charge of theirs, is to keep a long range plan on hand that fiscally constrains our region’s transportation expansion over a 20 to 25 year period. Everything from highway and street planning to transit planning is included. It is updated every few years formally, and informally here and there. Until recently, there was no transit, at least in large part, included in the plan. That all changed when Indyconnect broke on the scene. Today, the MPO released 3 volumes of draft documents on their website pertaining to the 2035 long range plan. As a transit activist, the most interesting document, was the 3rd Volume named, Transit Vision Plan. You can open the document by clicking here. Its 40 pages long.
Contained between the covers of this document, are some interesting pieces of information. The document lays out a vision of transit expansion that encompasses a realistic set of projects that could be included within the current 25 year long range plan. The first few chapters capture this in detailed form painting a picture of bus, light rail and streetcar expansion. There is a rating system attached that assigns a value to each potential project and labels it by name. The most surprising appearance, is a system of circulator type routes in the downtown area that are labeled as bus routes that could potentially be switched over to light rail or streetcar technology after the current 25 year plan’s recommendations are implemented. That is where reality sets in, and the most favorable projects are presented; which closely matches the plan announced in November 2010 by Indyconnect, and in which Urban Indy offered some critical analysis of.
However, the document does provide some hope to local transit advocates that our planning body received the message loud and clear when it came to urban transit improvements. There are renderings included which show streetcar service along Mass Ave in downtown Indianapolis. The highest ranking project on the list of aforementioned projects, is a circulator from lower downtown to IUPUI which would likely be implemented as a bus route and could someday be switched to a streetcar mode of transportation.
There is also significant language included which talks about remediation of Union Station downtown prior to the opening of the first commuter line. The consultants estimated $100 million would be required to fully service Union Station. As I have pointed out REPEATEDLY, there is a need to make this a modern facility that encourages people to want to visit. It makes me smile to know some thought was given to this. There is also space devoted to the remediation of the Belt Railway after the opening of the second commuter rail line; a topic that was touched upon here at Urban Indy recently as well.
Also of note is the downtown transit center that has been much talked about and studied since 2006. In this vision, the planners see a transit center located where the post office facility is located on South Street directly across from Union Station. It would handle 20 buses and facilitate transfer between routes and modes of transportation. There is also a vision of transit spines running north & south on both sides of downtown. One corridor would encompass Capitol & Illinois while the other would use Pennsylvania and Delaware as it’s spine. From each, a branching network of buses would serve the downtown area.
One of the most significant and yet not as visible pieces of the puzzle is touched upon quite often as well, and that is transit supportive land use zoning. Each project would have a check mark of items before coming online of which supportive land use patterns is a part of. This is something we have talked much about at Urban Indy, and which is at the crux of all dense land development.
The picture painted in the plan is quite rosy once totally implemented. While we sit and wait on the state legislature to decide if we should be “allowed” to vote on a tax increase, all of these ideas shall sit and wait. Without any sort of funding, they remain merely a vision and cannot be included in the official adopted long range plan. Without funding, these transit improvements can only be talked about.
I will end this with one last thought. If you study the map I have included, you will notice that N/S light rail has been added to the map travelling through Broad Ripple, south along the Illinois/Capitol corridor and to Indianapolis University. This is a logical path for transit in the region which should arguably be included in the near term plan, but is also an expensive project. The last piece to take with us, is that these plans are always under revision, and should public and political sentiment change, or other funding sources be found or created, more capital intensive projects such as light rail could take shape within the current adopted plan. To review the Transit Vision Plan draft version and read the details even more in depth than I have provided, click here.
The Clarian People Mover in Indianapolis is a privately owned and operated elevated fixed guideway transit structure. It closely resembles a “monorail” but in fact is not. It was built with the purpose of connecting medical facilities in downtown Indianapolis’ NW medical district. It connects Methodist hospital on it’s north station, with the IU Medical complex on it’s south end, and by extension, IUPUI; if you are willing to walk a few hallways and take an elevator to get there. There is one stop midway through it’s route to serve another medical related facility. The service is also free of charge to anyone from the public who wishes to ride. For these purposes, it does a great job.
However, what it does NOT do, is function as a proper modern mode of transportation. While it is a fare free service, it really doesn’t serve anything else besides the medical facilities efficiently. The rail passes by numerous apartment developments and commercial developments. It stands to reason that given access to the People Mover, efficient non-automobile related transportation of people could thrive. However, getting on the people mover presents a challenge. All the stations are buried within facilities that you must really make an honest effort to reach. Once there, the facilities provided are very clean, and function nicely. In most places where a public rail system is built, private development follows it. It is this function that largely fails the Clarian People Mover. You can make a strong case that Clarian has planned it’s facilities around the People Mover and to that affect, it has spurred SOME development, but how much has the People Mover really done to promote this? Additionally, it hasn’t cut down on any parking lots, nor spurred any sort of talk about modifying zoning standards to make accommodating the people mover a motivating factor in development. It also has zero interface with the city’s transit agency, IndyGO.
Recently, property development around the 10th street and Indiana Ave area has begun on its own. A large development called, “The Avenue” will take the place of the former Fall Creek YMCA. Also, across Fall Creek, 1201 Indiana Ave, a medium density apartment complex, is being constructed. Both show that there is interest in this area as far as residential interests are concerned. The current Wishard Hospital also resides at this intersection and will become vacant a few years from now. It is unknown at this point what sort of development will grow up on the former site of this medical facility but if current trends are any indication, it will be another medical facility of some sort that could benefit from a connection to the People Mover. Also of note are prospective plans for the former Lockefield Village to convert it to student housing. A feasibility study is underway to determine if this is a good reuse. Additionally, the Van Rooy owned Campus Apartments just east of The Avenue are slated for redevelopment at some point in the not too distant future.
The case being laid out, could the Clarian People Mover be modified to interface this rapidly improving node? Could a new station located in the 10th & Indiana area usher in more private development? There are a number of smaller low density commercial nodes in this area that could also be redeveloped in a manner that complimented an oft served transportation mode such as the people mover. A mixed use transit oriented type of development seems logical. It’s fair to assume that could a compromise with Clarian (or IU Health as it’s slated to be renamed to after the new year) be struck, a more dense area that served the residents of the area and promoted a less auto dependent mode of transportation could be developed.
This is merely one transit advocate’s idea of how the area could be improved with some small changes by a corporation that has already demonstrated it is capable of providing a nice transportation service and a city badly in need of alternatives to the automobile. For years, transit advocates have bemoaned the missed opportunity that the People Mover represents. It essentially turns it’s back to the neighborhood. Perhaps it could be modified to make it a little more accommodating and in the process, provide a great service to the neighborhood and city both. Selling Clarian on the idea is obviously the largest hurdle, but a medical agency that promotes good health practices, could be the biggest advocate of a mode of transportation that promotes walking and other health benefits associated with alternative modes of transportation.
As always, Im open to thoughts regarding this off the wall idea.