Indianapolis, IN boosts mobility by pivoting away from cars

The city’s transit authority is looking to rapid transit and other solutions to deliver sustainable and cost-effective alternatives to driving.

Indianapolis, IN boosts mobility by pivoting away from cars media 1


To many people, $ Indianapolis, IN $ calls to mind images of cars. IndyCar racing, and the Indianapolis 500 are one of the top attractions in car racing, and draw hundreds of thousands of fans each year.

But beyond Indy’s four-wheel-fame, the city is taking major steps to move beyond its car-based culture, and establish a greener, more cost-effective transportation system.

What’s interesting is $ IndyGo$ , the team behind Indianapolis’s transit plans, isn’t just focusing on one new feature or enhancement. Instead, the organization is looking at the system as a whole, and reimagining how all the parts fit together to create a network that benefits all citizens’ lives — whether they’re using public transportation or not.

As cities across the world are turning to innovative transportation solutions to reduce emissions, eliminate traffic, and open up new areas to economic development, Indianapolis’s approach provides a valuable case study.

As Govlaunch works to build the global wiki for local government innovation, we’re highlighting a series of Innovators — cities, towns, and counties who are implementing transformative ideas and fostering a culture of innovation. We chatted with Inez Evans to learn about how Indianapolis is working to transform its transit system.

Converting a car-based city

Aside from its race-car offerings, Indianapolis in general is heavily reliant on cars. The $ majority of residents — over 90% — use cars, not public transit,$  to get to work. $ Inez Evans$ , President and CEO of IndyGo (Indianapolis’s Transit Authority), says this is what the city is seeking to change.

“Indianapolis is known to be a car city; how does that impact us? We’re working on how we can redefine transportation.”

The goals, says Evans, are to turn Indianapolis into a greener city, and increase mobility and accessibility. To do this, IndyGo has introduced a five-year plan to revamp the city’s transit infrastructure and services, and increase mobility offerings by 70 percent. This program is funded by a mix of property taxes, federal government grants, rider fares, and a voter-approved 0.25-percent county income tax increase.

The first phase of this plan focuses on something that Indianapolis had previously been slow to adopt: riding the bus.

Launching Bus Rapid Transit

In Indianapolis, not many people ride the bus. The city is the $ 17th largest municipality in the United States, but its bus system is 99th in terms of size$ . 2018 census data found that $ fewer than 1 percent of Indianapolis-area residents use public transit to get to work$ .

Yet interest in busses as a form of sustainable transportation has been hot. Bus Rapid Transit is trending in cities and counties around the world. In Halifax, NS, an eight-year plan is underway to $ launch four rapid transit bus routes to connect downtown locations to ferry stops$ . In Australia, the city of Brisbane, QLD is building $ two rapid bus routes as part of a transit system overhaul$  — these busses will run every three minutes during prime commuting times.

So when faced with the need to move more people in an environmentally friendly and cost-effective way, IndyGo turned to electric bus–powered Bus Rapid Transit routes — also known as BRTs.

According to Evans, busses are often considered as a precursor to rail-based transportation. But the busses themselves have a lot of benefits, starting with financial:

“We’re averaging about $130 per hour to run a bus on the street. A rail car can run upwards of $700 per hour.”

Beyond that, busses offer a lot more flexibility than a train system. Says Evans:

“A rail car is on a fixed guideway — it’s on two rails, it can’t make a left, it can't make a right. It can’t make detours. But bus rapid transit can. It gives you a lot more flexibility when you have issues going on.”

This ability to change has already come in handy, says Evans, when restaurants had to limit indoor dining and were looking to expand into the street:

“We were able to change the bus route slightly to help the city in its initiative to bring the stores and restaurants out into the streets for outside dining and space. If we’d have had a rail car, we may not have been able to do that because there are restrictions of how close you can actually be to a rail system.”

On top of these benefits, the new rapid transit busses in Indianapolis are electric, which saves on gas and reduces local emissions.

With these considerations, IndyGo launched the Red Line in September 2019, connecting a busy corridor that includes downtown Indianapolis, the university, and several neighborhoods. Says Evans:

“The response was overwhelming. We had about 64,000 people ride the first week, and then through the whole month of September we had over 230,000 individuals who took our services.”

As the months went on, results continued to impress, she says:

“We’ve had a lot of businesses that have opened along the Red Line corridor. You see a lot of housing initiatives that are going on. In January 2020, we’ve seen an 8% higher ridership than we saw last year. So things are going well.”

IndyGo’s BRT at a glance

The Red Line is the first of three planned BRT routes in the city. Next up are the Purple Line, which will connect Indianapolis to Lawrence, IN, and the Blue Line, which will run to the airport.

Here’s a quick breakdown of some of the $ system’s key features$ :

--Dedicated bus-lanes along majority of the routes

--Covered stations with schedule updates, wind and snow shelters, and Wi-Fi

--Off-board fare payment: riders purchase and validate tickets before boarding the bus, streamlining the boarding process and making it easier to stay on schedule.

--Accessible “level” boarding, making it easier for passengers in wheelchairs, with bikes or strollers, or others to access the bus.

--Signal prioritization to help maintain traffic flow

--Battery-powered busses that are quiet and emit zero local emissions

--Wi-Fi and USB chargers on busses

The busses run every 10 to 12 minutes, seven days a week — a big improvement over the legacy system’s 30- to 60-minute schedules. $ Fares start at $1.75 for a standard 2-hour ticket.$ 

The bigger transit picture

The BRTs are just one piece of the city’s larger mobility vision, which includes technology advancements, system redesigns, and new partnerships inside and outside local government.

IndyGo is transforming its regular bus system to follow a grid, rather than hub-and-spoke model. This will allow for more connections and more frequent service across the board.

The department is also looking at technology and partnerships to improve the traveler experience, from end-to-end routing to a project with Uber to transport frontline employees and essential workers.

They’re also looking at community-based microtransit solutions, which essentially establishes a system-within-a-system to serve pockets that the full city transportation system doesn’t reach. Evans says:

“We have one very successful community-based microtransit system that we’re doing with the MLK Center here in Indianapolis. And we just had a request for our second one.”

In addition, all this new focus on transportation infrastructure is fostering collaboration across departments within the local government. Similar to how $ Rochester, MI used one street reconstruction to address everything from sewer lines to sidewalk paving$ , IndyGo has been partnering with the city’s Department of Public Works and Citizens Energy Group to combine efforts on various projects.

Ultimately, the work being done by IndyGo is having an impact beyond the transit system itself. It’s even affecting people who’re sticking with their cars, says Evans:

"We have folks who told us they’re not a user of IndyGo but they’re so appreciative of the infrastructure that IndyGo put in on the Red Line, because there were no more bumps along the way, and because of the enhanced signals, they’re able to get downtown just a few mins faster than what they were able to do before."

Indianapolis has more work to do to convert the masses away from a car-based culture. But by making improvements that generate positive outcomes for citizens, such as those being seen around the Red Line development, and by making cost-sensitive choices, the city is building excitement and support for future mobility initiatives. Says Evans:

“The sky's the limit right now. There is nothing that we have proposed to our city and to our folks that we’re not getting interest in … There’s just a whole culture of movement within the city, about how we connect all the dots in moving people and what that looks like.”

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IndyGo Bus Rapid Transit

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