Launching a New Era in Public Transportation

Packed crowds on Red Line launch day. IMM photo.

by Thomas P. Healy

When Spider-Man and his dad wove their way through a crowded bus on Red Line launch day, no villains were on board.

Instead, one rider gazed admiringly and wondered aloud if such a onesie existed in an XXL size. Another passenger agreed, and suggested it might be suitable attire for Casual Friday. A third rider chimed in, “Well, you know what they say—dress for the job you want!” Laughs and smiles all around.

Welcome aboard Indy’s rolling “third place”—neither home nor work but a community space that fosters a sense of connection, conviviality, and neighborly support. The good cheer and friendly banter between strangers on launch day and beyond helps transform the chore of getting from point A to point B into a community bonding experience that bodes well for continued local transit improvements.

Real-time arrival screens experienced difficulties and have been disabled until the problems can be fixed. IMM photo. CLICK TO ENLARGE.

This is not to suggest that the launch was flawless. A massive upgrade of a transportation system that has been chronically underfunded for four decades requires patience and persistence. Some of the problems observed in September included “ghost” buses on the downloadable app; wildly inaccurate “real time” arrival digital marquees at platforms; schedules that seemed whimsical or nonexistent; pieces of the center median popping loose; and motorists crashing into buses or using the bus lane as a turn lane.

Such glitches were disappointing but didn’t prevent an estimated 64,000 people from boarding the Red Line in the opening week. “Existing ridership was 6,600 per weekday. We have been consistently over 8,000, and over 9,000 on weekdays, since the launch,” said Bryan Luellen, IndyGo’s vice president of public affairs and communications. He said that daily ridership projection submitted for the Federal Transit Administration’s Small Starts Grant was 11,000 trips. “The highest single day ridership so far was 10,550,” he added.

Operational challenges continued through September, with activation of the new account-based fare system encountering difficulties in integrating with website, app, and point-of-sale vending machines. In light of these issues, the IndyGo board voted at its Sept. 26 meeting to extend free ridership of the Red Line through Nov. 10. In a statement, IndyGo board president Juan Gonzales said, “We are thrilled to see such a positive response to the Red Line launch and we appreciate everyone’s patience as new operational components and processes are optimized.”

September 2019 numbers show a 29.5 percent increase in ridership over September 2018. Some 246,369 people rode the Red Line and its local extensions in September—a daily average of 8,212 riders.

Meridian Hills Cooperative Nursery School students board the Red Line for their annual bus excursion to the City Market and Monument Circle. IMM photo.

Luellen said IndyGo continues to fine-tune and troubleshoot. “One of the issues with the center median is faulty installation,” he said. “That situation combined with drivers turning across them when they haven’t been anchored properly have led us to look at different solutions,” he said.

He said problems with the GPS system have caused the “real-time” display errors on boarding platforms and on the app. “That phenomenon is not unique to IndyGo,” he said. “The GPS is what the dispatchers use for bus operations and that system is providing a ‘false positive,’ so the passenger-facing side is displaying that erroneous data.” The problem also extends to the “traffic signal prioritization” feature, which, in theory, allows bus operators to trigger traffic lights to improve the bus’s ability to avoid congestion and put the “rapid” in bus rapid transit.

Another issue is one of motorist education to respect the center curb and drive to the next intersection to make a U-turn. Luellen also urges northbound motorists at the 66th St. station “to look at the traffic light and not just wait for a vehicle in their periphery to start moving and take that as their cue.” There have been wrecks at that intersection when motorists distracted from watching the stoplight accelerated when they saw the bus move to begin making its U-turn.

Luellen said BYD battery electric buses (BEB) are performing well. “They’re still running like we saw them in the test. Each vehicle isn’t traveling more than 200 miles without recharging.” There aren’t any new issues aside from battery performance issues that were addressed when BYD agreed to pay for construction of three remote charging locations. IndyGo has acquired a parcel from IPL at 91st Street and Evergreen Avenue in Nora for installation of a charging system that will serve the Red Line’s north leg.

IndyGo recently announced that passengers traveling on the Red Line north to 96th or south to Greenwood will no longer need to transfer to a local Route 90 bus. Not every Red Line bus will travel the extended route, so IndyGo encourages passengers to take note of the head signs to learn whether a Red Line bus will continue north to 96th or south to Greenwood. If not, then a free transfer to a Route 90 bus can be accomplished at either the 66th Street or the University Red Line station. Service between University and 66th Street will continue to be planned for every 10 minutes on weekdays, with service north of 66th and south of University occurring every 20 minutes.

IndyGo is also seeking to improve bus spacing by adding layover time for drivers and additional travel time along the route. This will help the Red Line meet service goals of every 10 to 20 minutes during peak hours on weekdays and every 15 to 30 minutes on the weekend. Downloadable schedules are available online.

A version of this article appeared in the October/November 2019 print edition of the magazine.