Indy’s Transit Future Riding on Red

“We chose not to improve streets for the sake of cars, but instead to have wonderful spaces for pedestrians.  All this pedestrian infrastructure shows respect for human dignity.  We’re telling people ‘You are important not because you are rich or because you have a PhD, but because you are human.'” -Peñalosa and Ives, 2003

It’s an important project, one that has the potential to change the way people in central Indiana think about multimodal transit.  I’m talking about Indy’s proposed Red Line, a bus rapid transit (BRT) corridor connecting far flung suburbs like Westfield, Carmel and Greenwood to the urban core in downtown Indianapolis.

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BRT systems like the Red Line use buses that are configured in a manner that makes them look and feel a lot like rail transit.  Such configurations typically include more distance between stops, transit stations with ticket kiosks, synchronized traffic signals, dedicated lanes and other accommodations that allow for higher average speeds than traditional buses.

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Transmilenio bus at Calle 127 (127th Street) station, Bogotá – By Gabriel Mendoza Ardila (CC BY-SA 1.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

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Bogotá was one of the first cities to build bicycle paths specifically to feed transit.  Photo by  Pedro Felipe, Wikipedia Commons

More importantly, BRT done right includes a healthy dose of pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure.  The Red Line includes accommodations for bicycles with station parking and the first roll on bicycle service in central Indiana.  Buses will stop flush with platforms, much like UTA’s FrontRunner trains do in Utah allowing cyclists to board the bus without having to lift their bicycles or navigate stairs.

I have a fond place in my heart for BRT, especially when it is paired with bicycling.  It is far less expensive than rail, which means that an entire system might be developed and implemented for the cost of a single rail line.  It means that people can leave their homes and cycle to a station and then cycle from a destination station to their office.  It can be every bit as transformational as rail if done right.

That was the case in Bogotá, Colombia where a BRT system (Transmilenio) was merged with a citywide network of bicycle sidepaths (ciclorutas) to create a multimodal BRT system with 12 lines and 146 stations that has served a city of eight million residents for over 15 years and counting now.  It is widely recognized as one of the best transit systems in the world.  Bicycles are an important part of the mix.

If there’s a problem with Transmilenio, it’s that the system is too popular for its own good.  Anywhere from 1.7 million to 2.2 million Bogotanos ride Transmilenio every day.   Overcrowding is rampant and the city is now building its first rail line to accommodate overwhelming ridership demands.

Ultimately, this is a good problem for any transit system to have and so Bike 5 supports Indy’s Red Line without reservation.  It shares its pedigree with Transmilenio and can have the same transformative effect, though admittedly on a smaller scale.  I hope it gets built.   It needs to get built.  It’s not a slam dunk.  According to IndyGo officials, construction is entirely dependent on receipt of a federal Small Starts grant.  There is no Plan B if the grant application is not funded.

That’s not acceptable. Local officials need to exercise the political will necessary to shepherd this plan through with or without the federal grant.  It is too important to be held hostage by funding.   We’re only talking about $75 million of upfront capital.  That’s less than 8% of the cost of a football stadium.

Back in the late 1990s, when asked where he was going to get the money to build Transmilenio and the accompanying ciclorutas, Enrique Peñalosa said it wasn’t a matter of money but rather one of political courage.  We couldn’t agree more.  Indianapolis politicians need to find the courage to build BRT and to promote bicycling as a way of feeding the system.  There will never be a better time than right now.

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