Increased IndyGo Ridership Boosts Options and Economy

by Thomas P. Healy

IndyGo’s 2014 bus ridership rode to a 23-year high of 10.29 million passenger trips. Achieving such success in a system after years of neglect takes planning. To help, IndyGo selected Jarrett Walker + Associates as its planning partner. Walker, who heads the Portland, Oregon-based firm, is a planner and an author who has earned an international reputation by helping communities create transit systems that meet local needs. His HumanTransit blog is a must-read for transit advocates.

”We had some great firms respond to our Request for Proposal,” Mike Terry, president and CEO of IndyGo, said. “The approach Jarrett Walker took was a more fundamental, systematic approach. They asked us, ‘What do you want out of the system?’ and “What is the level of investment from the community?‘”

Terry said Walker framed IndyGo’s choice as being between a system that focused on high-ridership corridors or one that covered the entire county. “We’ve got a 60/40 (ridership/coverage) system but the conversation is leaning more toward 80/20,” he said. “We found Walker’s approach attractive,” Terry added. “We need a discussion about how we want to allocate resources and not do it the same old way.”

“Our role was to take a broad plan and develop it into a complete network plan,” Walker said recently from his Portland office. “We had to look at how the IndyGo bus network would be revised for 2015 with the opening of the Downtown Transit Center. We also have to create a series of scenarios for IndyGo Forward 2021 at different potential levels of funding. What would the network look like with the first phase of Indy Connect EBRT line plus however the network would be revised. That’s where we are now.”

Asked about the ridership versus coverage debate, Walker replied, “Transit is like a can of paint. We can spread it out thin and it won’t look very good or we can cover a smaller area and it looks better.”

Walker said his team helped IndyGo think through the two options. “The ridership scenario had lots of high-frequency service in a concentrated network of a few corridors,” he said. “The coverage scenario had hourly service, which is not useful, but that’s what you get when you cover a large area.” Leading stakeholders looked at the options and advised IndyGo to choose ridership. “We’re looking at a plan with 80 percent ridership and 20 percent coverage. We think like a business and put 80 percent of service wherever ridership potential is highest and 20 percent is spread out to offer the best possible access for the rest.” That means many parts of the county will not have service. “That tradeoff exists,” Walker agreed.

He listed the key features of a successful high-ridership line or a corridor seeking to become one:

  • Density: “There are lots of people around.”
  • Walkability: “It’s possible to walk to a stop.”
  • Familiarity: “You can drive in a straight line. Suburbs are mazes.”
  • Distances: “When everything is contiguous, transit will be able to serve more people.”

He added: “Ridership is making a hard-nosed assessment of those factors and serving those areas that have those features.”

This explains in part why historic transit corridors along Meridian and College see such high ridership. Walker agreed that Midtown’s commercial nodes are prime locations for transit. “Reanimating and reinvesting and ultimately getting more people into highly walkable and dense urban development patterns is excellent for transit,” he said. “These are developments transit can reward with good service.”

He’s not keen on the terms transit-oriented development (TOD), or transit adjacent development (TAD). “Realtors and developers invented those terms,” Walker said. “I’m a transit planner.” But when pressed, he responds. “Before World War II, everything was TOD because transit was how we got around. If you were going further than you could walk, you could use streetcars. The nature of the way the city was built was transit-oriented. Anything that looks like that and works the same is great TOD, whether it calls itself that or not. A great deal of that is happening and is possible along the corridors we discussed.”

He dismisses the argument that creating a dynamic traffic mix by adding bicycle, bus, and pedestrian amenities creates congestion. “People driving in their cars are the overwhelming cause of congestion,” he said. “There are only two things you can do to stop congestion: One, kill your economy, and two, create much greater distances for people to drive in their cars.”

Walker said Indy is not really congested. “Look at cities bigger than Indy. You’re going to find more congestion. But look at the effect of transit on those places and what that means. The result of transit in those cities is that the economy grows faster than congestion grows.” Warming to the topic, he added, “What transit does in the long run is make it possible to live in a city and to participate in economic life in the city without a car—creating options some people will choose. What that does is enable your economy to keep growing beyond the point where congestion would otherwise limit it.

“Congestion is a measure of the experience of cars,” he said. “As we create more alternatives, congestion affects fewer people. Transit is delivering a lot of direct and obvious benefits. It deserves support.”


This article originally appeared in the February/March 2015 print edition.