Public Transportation Matters

One of the more galling recent debates in Indiana’s dysfunctional General Assembly was over the question whether Indianapolis could ask its own citizens whether we want public transportation enough to tax ourselves to support it. The Grand Poobahs of our legislature were reluctant to allow us that measure of self-government, but after restricting the scope of our decision-making, they finally authorized a referendum.

There are lots of reasons why public transportation is essential to urban America’s economic vitality and quality of life. Frequent, reliable and attractive public transportation reduces traffic congestion, improves air quality and saves citizens’ money. Businesses that employ lots of entry-level workers rely on transit to get employees to and from work. And of course, low-income folks, the disabled and the elderly are particularly dependent upon public transportation.

A new study from Harvard adds social mobility to the list.

The research found that access to good, reliable transportation is “the single strongest factor in the odds of escaping poverty.” In fact,

The relationship between transportation and social mobility is stronger than that between mobility and several other factors, like crime, elementary-school test scores or the percentage of two-parent families in a community, said Nathaniel Hendren, a Harvard economist and one of the researchers on the study.

For most middle-class folks, good public transportation is an amenity–an attractive convenience of urban life that is unfortunately missing in central Indiana.

For poor folks, it’s an escape route.


  1. This city cannot provide quality bus service for all class levels today. During my working years, if I lived near the bus line I had a monthly pass and rode buses to and from work. In the late 1980’s the Deputy Director of Department of Metropolitan Development rode the bus to and from work from his home in Broad Ripple. Providing this service would benefit all class levels, not only the poor and would ease traffic congestion, improve air pollution, resolve expensive and hard to find parking downtown and increase access for potential shoppers to downtown businesses. Bus service has declined and deteriorated rather than improved and expanded as the city grew beyond it’s borders. I think we are getting ahead of ourselves looking at public transportation as provided by larger cities which they have maintained for years. We would be starting from scratch; we need to improve what we have before talking about futuristic travel accommodations in this backward city. You don’t build a new home on a crumbling foundation.

  2. The beauty of the plan to improve public transportation in central Indiana is that a portion of the funding will go towards boosting IndyGo as well as developing the City’s BRT (Bus Rapid Transit). This is a critical element that is built into the plan. IndyGo has performed amazingly well despite being severely underfunded compared to cities similar to ours. It amazes me that we had a better public transit system when my grandmother was living in Broad Ripple and working downtown than we do today. I am cautiously optimistic that the citizens of our city and state will recognize the intrinsic value of a healthy transit system. Unfortunately, I feel the public is poorly informed on how transit will impact them, whether they intend to utilize it or not. A rigorous education and advocate campaign prior to the referendum will be critical to its success. Everyone should understand, “What’s in it for me?”

  3. Your closing sentence, “For poor folks, it’s an escape route”, is the exact reason our Republican legislators are against it.

  4. Why should the state legislature trust Indy with more taxing authority? Ever time the General Assembly has done that, city officials have maxed out the tax. See the hotel and rental car taxes that were maxed out even though the maximum amount admittedly wasn’t needed. You’re completely ignoring the incestuous nature of Indy politics that has both parties in bed when it comes to taking taxpayer money and giving the money to private companies. I’m glad that our legislature doesn’t trust Indy with taxpayer money.

    As far as public transportation goes, the reality is that Indianapolis has the least population density of virtually any large city in the country. You need to have population density to have good mass transit.

  5. “We frequently fail to recognise that our own personal preferences are in most cases just that. And too often in urbanist discussions, that means white hipster preferences.

    As a result, we can end up doing a poor job of developing and selling pro-urban policies, even within the city.”

    ~~~Aaron Renn, “In Praise of Boring Cities,” Guardian Cities, 1 October 2014.

  6. “I’m glad that our legislature doesn’t trust Indy with taxpayer money.”

    Let’s see. Indy people shouldn’t be trusted with their own money. Or, apparently, their own government. That means that some few need to take care of things for the many. Of course they would do so benevolently. To make sure that the power is given to the right few they’d have to demonstrate competence. How about using wealth to demonstrate that?

    This us exactly how oligarchy replaces democracy. And how over time aristocracy would replace oligarchy.

    And how freedom is lost. Bought really. At least freedom for the wealthy and enslavement for poor. That locks in the status quo, outrageously unequal wealth distribution, forever.

  7. We received our shipment of vehicles from the states 2 weeks ago and had to live without a car since October. We live about 6 blocks from the tram stop and several other bus lines. The problem in the states is that you don’t give priority to pubic transportation. They have the right of way here even over some pedestrian areas. The stop lights are for vehicles, not public transportation. They are on time, cleaned every night and some are as old as me but look like they are brand new despite their age. When you invest in public transportation, you have to maintain them just like your home or vehicle. They provide jobs for drivers, maintenance crews, they provide transportation for the elderly and people going to and from work and shopping of course. The US is oil driven and therefore public transportation always takes a back seat for those attitudes that always have to have a vehicle to go somewhere. Only in places like Chicago, NY and SF does the city’s investment pay off. Indiana is 50 yrs behind the curve in many areas and this is one of them.

  8. Our Legislature is actually an enabler in sense for poor choices in Marion County. The Legislature as well as Governors, Mayors of Indianapolis and the City-Council have decided on spending priorities. One of those choices is the CIB Corporate Welfare for the Pacers and Colts. We have the Indy Eleven trying to get in line to feed at tax payer expense.

    Back in the 1980’s I lived in Irvington and worked downtown. I took the express bus in and out of downtown. All in all a very good experience.

    From the Indy-Go Web site – Jan. 20, 2015 – IndyGo’s ridership hit a 23-year peak in 2014, soaring to 10.29M passenger trips with seven individual months hitting highs that had never been seen before.

    The revenues for Indy-Go in total were $69,405,936 from various sources in 2013. The CIB received $138,777,000 in State and Local Taxes in 2012. Quite a contrast in priorities.

    I do not expect either Mayoral Candidate to make any commitment for more funding for Public Transportation. I do not expect any person running for City-Council to commit to increasing funding for Public Transportation. You see in Indianapolis the Public is always last in line. The attitude by our Elected Officials is Arrogant Supreme Indifference to the Public needs.

  9. Louie; you forgot that Indygo buses are NOT sports arenas. No ball playing allowed.

  10. The Swiss company that I worked for after retiring was in a small city near Bern that was founded in 1157. As you can imagine of streets that old they were not conducive to modern traffic. That was compounded by the fact that pedestrians were a priority over cars. Parts of the city were turned over to them and cars prohibited.

    The company employed 600 people (+/- depending on business) from all walks of life and had a robust apprentice school that partnered with the canton in educating future generations. They also partnered with a local farmer who kept sheep on our small amount of empty land to fertilize and mow it and benefit from the solar energy that fell on it for the production of wool and milk and meat.

    About 80% of the people at the plant took public transportation to work. Most started with a train ride in from the surrounding villages and took the probably 1 1/2 mile walk from the train station to the plant. The folks that I knew valued that walk, especially in winter, more than anything. How refreshing. They also valued being able to live in the country and work in the city.

    As Switzerland has no national language most at the plant grew up knowing German, French, English and Italian which could easily be extended to Spanish. My bosses wife learned Arabic in order to accommodate a vacation into the Syrian desert one year. All of the International customers could communicate in their native tongue.

    Several things puzzled them about America, one of their largest markets. Bush II. The fact that we had unused vacation at the end of the year. Our draconian expensive poor outcome health care system. Having to pay for any education family by family when everyone benefited from the outcome.

    I’ve seen our future and it’s not bad. We just have to get there.

  11. Off topic but in keeping with a jaundiced look at our world here in Indiana, I just heard that Glenda Ritz has thrown her hat into the ring for the Democrat nominee for Governor.

    Pence has the charisma of a wet noodle and has the persona and mindset of a televangelist. On the other hand, Ritz has about as much governing ability as Sarah Palin but without Palin’s physical curb appeal. Personally, I say Indiana is screwed if these two candidates are our election day choices.

  12. Most Hoosiers still think public transit is a social service “given” to the poor and people with disabilities (usually redundant). Transit is a public utility, not a social service. Until we all recognize that and start to see ourselves in a context including transit, there will be little improvement.

    In this age of punishing the poor for the sin of poverty it is a wonder we do as well as we do.

  13. @Paul Shankland

    Perhaps your word choice “most Hoosiers” is what caught my eye. I am a Hoosier, at least by residence since 2004; however, I do not begin to know the thoughts of “most Hoosiers”.

    I view public transportation in a less divisive manner, as in envisioning public transportation as one method of moving people from point A to point B, with no casting of aspersions to those peoples’ incomes, lack of incomes, or stations in life.

  14. “punishing the poor for the sin of poverty”

    Why they all ought to be fired!

    Ohh, wait, they have been.

  15. Paul Ogden:

    The low population density = sprawl from allowing private developers to build wherever they choose, with few restrictions. This has also resulted in many of the traffic problems we experience daily.

  16. @Pete

    As Eleanor Roosevelt said, “It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness.”

    Do your part in eliminating unemployment, however small your part may be, by hiring a person to perform a service that you no longer wish to perform or that you’ve never enjoyed performing.

    Pay those persons a fair wage, treat them well, and you’ll soon realize you’re in a win-win situation whereby a previously unemployed person is now employed, and you’re receiving a respite from tasks or jobs that you’re either unable to perform or disinterested in performing.

  17. BSH.

    One of the realities that we are short on realizing here and now is that consumers and labor are the same people. When you fire or layoff or underpay a worker you are eliminating a customer.

    Most of us now pay for services that we used to do ourselves like home and grounds care, food preparation, cleaning, and financial management. We can do that because temporarily we’ve subcontracted manufacture of goods to places around the world where starvation wages are all that has to be paid to people trying to avoid starvation. And we’re willing to work 80 hours per week. And we’re more than willing to fund it with future earnings (debt).

    And we are shifting a large part of the cost of energy (for disposal of and the consequences from its waste) to taxpayers (who are also workers and consumers).

    All in all a house of cards which is temporary (not sustainable).

  18. @Pete

    I hear what you’re saying. On the other hand, I speak about hiring a person, an independent contractor where a relationship is developed.

    It’s a well-known fact that I’ve never enjoyed housecleaning; however, I’ve never hired a cleaning business, as in Molly Maids or other similar small housecleaning businesses, but rather I hire a sole provider of housecleaning services, pay her top dollar, give her the ‘run of the house’, allow her to select what particular cleaning needs to be done at what particular time. I learned this from my parents and from my grandparents. Provide health insurance as an added incentive, provide cell phone service, provide transportation, and include them in your will. If you want good service, then you’d better be prepared to acknowledge the worth of the good service.

    Pete, I consider this all a part of developing good relationships wherever you live and wherever you’ve ever lived. When my younger son’s company closed its doors on 12/29/14 w/out any warning, had it not been for the good relationships my family had developed in that particular area, another state, he’d still be sucking wind.

  19. BSH

    I speak of my retirement job above but my real career was with Kodak. For most of those years our main objective was growth. Better products, improved manufacturing and distribution, more satisfied customers, more better paid workers.

    While technology that we invented eventually took the wind out of those sails the demise was cast in concrete by management focused on saving rather than investing. Shrinking rather than growing.

    After awhile came the realization of the shrinking vision. Bankruptcy.

  20. @Paul

    As we’ve always known, indeed we live in a small world despite our particular areas/regions of coming of age. I came of age as a Child of the South, had the good fortune of growing up on a large working farm, and also had the good fortune of having my favorite uncle, my dad’s baby brother, of taking off for parts far away, as in Harvard University in its Graduate School of Design.

    From that background, I was the happy recipient on my father’s dime of a 8-week trip abroad at age 19 where my favorite uncle introduced me to a world of travel, and where I’d already met a college Algebra needy classmate in undergrad school hailing from Darien, CT where his father was w/Eastman Kodak. I volunteered my services of assisting Paul S in completing the 4-credit hour College Algebra class and he, in turn, met me in NYC as I boarded the Queen Anna Maria, a Greek liner, as I embarked upon my first adventure across the Atlantic.

    Short story made even shorter, Paul Sedler ended up as a graduate student in the Graduate School of Planning where my fav uncle was then the Director and where my late husband was also a student and Paul’s classmate. I suppose I’m occasionally still living in Camelot with my graduate school contacts including David Hasluk who returned from the Graduate School of Planning to his family’s large landholdings in Rhodesia, subsequently lost the land to Zimbabwe and now is active in global education efforts to provide assistance to the Zimbabwe farmers who seem to require assistance in working their newly received land and to earning a profit from the land.

    There are few degrees of separation…

  21. @ Pete, I’ve done it again. Thinking so intently of Paul from Eastman Kodak, I addressed you with the wrong name. Apology requested.

  22. BSH, interesting life. There’s so much to experience and so little time to fit it in around life’s obligations.

  23. Indianapolis used to have great public transportation within the city and also benefited by inter-urban rail and bus service to neighboring counties. People of all incomes rode to work, church, hospitals, stores, and social events on public transportation. It’s in everyone’s best interests that they are able to do so.

    If population density has declined in Indianapolis, the decline of transportation options likely has encouraged and contributed to it.

    If Indianapolis voters can’t be trusted with self-government and home rule, it’s highly unlikely that non-residents will have greater comprehension of what Indianapolis residents need and want than the residents themselves. Self-government is a human endeavor and sometimes makes mistakes, but it’s better than all the other options.

  24. @Nancy

    As you wrote, “If population density has declined in Indianapolis, the decline of transportation options likely has encouraged and contributed to it.”

    As we’re all aware there’s a finite amount of land within the I-465 Beltway. At this point, there are few options to increase the population density unless the City wishes to build “up” rather than “out”. Raw undeveloped land is scarce inside the I-465 Beltway, and as Will Rogers said, “They ain’t making any more land.”

    I do note that the last adopted Indianapolis-Marion County Comprehensive Land Use Plan was finalized and adopted in 1993, over 20 years ago. For a City wishing to grow, to offer amenities to all its residents, 20 years without a serious intentional overview and adoption of how best to use the available land is bordering on municipal malpractice.

Comments are closed.