a photo of a BYD-built electric bus.
A BYD-built electric bus. Reed Saxon/AP

A Car-Centric City Makes a Bid for a Better Bus System

Indianapolis is set to unveil a potentially transformative all-electric bus rapid transit line, along with a host of major public transportation upgrades.

On September 1, Indianapolis is set to unveil its first bus rapid transit (BRT) route. The speedy express bus is just the first piece of a much bigger transit improvement program that will roll out over the next five years. It’s built entirely around better buses. And for other low-density cities that are looking to boost mobility without investing in costly rail-based systems, Indy’s capital-efficient approach should be a model worth studying.

Indianapolis, famous for its car race, is an extremely automobile-oriented city. Less than 1 percent of commuters in the metro area use transit to get to work, and it ranks sixth lowest among major U.S. metros in transit commuting. As local advocates for better transit like to point out, Indianapolis is the 17th largest municipality in the U.S., but it has the 99th largest bus system. This is a bit unfair—its size is inflated by a city-county consolidation, so the city contains large areas that would elsewhere be counted as suburban. But Indianapolis, by its own admission, definitely has low transit ridership.

Having lived in Indy, I can tell you that the local culture is traditionally all about driving. (I’ve had people drive me less than two blocks to get lunch.) And if you wanted to ride the bus, it was very infrequent and unreliable. “Our service is kind of spotty,” says Jerome Horne of IndyGo, the city’s transit agency.

On that front, Indy has plenty of company: Only 10 major American metros have transit commute mode share of greater than 5 percent. Indy’s bus system serves around nine million riders per year, roughly the same as Nashville. But Nashville and Indy chose very different paths in seeking to improve local transit. Nashville opted to attempt a $5.4 billion “shock and awe” plan to build 26 miles of light rail, including a subway tunnel through downtown. That plan was resoundingly defeated by county voters in 2018.

By contrast, Indy opted for an entirely bus-based plan, in part by necessity. The city required specific state authorization to put a transit plan tax to a vote, which took local leaders three sessions to get through the legislature—and then only with a provision that prohibited light rail. The business-led Central Indiana Transit Task Force, which spent years developing the improvement plan, based its recommendations on econometric estimates of return on investment. That math also pointed to bus upgrades.

In November 2016, voters approved a 0.25 percentage point increase in the county income tax in order to fund a program that would significantly increase the level of bus service delivered by IndyGo, including building three cross-county BRT lines. The Red Line will run north-south, the Blue Line an east-west, and the Purple Line to the northeast line serving an era of comparatively heavy existing transit ridership.  

But it’s not just BRT: “The three BRT lines serve as the central spine of a brand new redesigned bus network,” IndyGo’s Horne says. The redesigned regular bus network features a high-frequency grid, replacing the current hub and spoke network. Improvements include ancillary upgrades such as a new fare collection system with features like fare capping. Under fare capping, riders pay cash fares until they cumulatively hit a spending threshold that automatically converts them into an unlimited ride pass.

“Bus rapid transit” may be one of the most overused terms in transit, since it gets applied to a wide range of systems. The Institute for Transport and Development Policy (ITDP) rates BRTs globally, with Gold ranking reserved for elaborate systems like Bogota’s famed TransMilenio. The U.S. has two Silver-rated lines—Cleveland’s RTA HealthLine and Hartford’s CT Fastrak; other American lines are rated Bronze at the highest.

In Bogota, Colombia, about 2.4 million people ride the TransMilenio bus rapid transit system on an average weekday. (EITAN ABRAMOVICH/AFP/Getty Images)

Indy’s BRT lines aren’t formally rated yet but are likely to be Bronze-level systems. They’ll have a number of enhanced features—stations with level boarding, off-board fare collection, traffic signal priority, and wider-than-normal stop spacing. The first phase has only 28 stops along its 13-mile length. Future phases will be extended north and south to the county lines, and potentially into adjacent counties if local voters there approve funding. About 60 percent of the line will have dedicated bus lanes, entirely on the North Side. (The less-congested South Side streets are too narrow for exclusive lanes.) Service will run every 10 minutes during the day, with longer headways early mornings and late evenings beginning at 5 a.m. and ending at 1 a.m.

The BRT buses themselves—all-electric articulated coaches from BYD—are a major upgrade over the standard models. Riders will get amenities like Wi-Fi, USB ports, and automated announcements; a series of attractive new bus stations will feature arrival time information and an integrated snow melt system. But while the Red Line will be America’s first all-electric BRT line and only the third system with fare capping, the features alone are not groundbreaking. What stands to be transformative is the overall impact the improvements could have on Indianapolis, which is currently saddled with a little-used bus system featuring lines running every 30 or 60 minutes.

The BRT line is just one part of an improved overall bus network redesigned by Jarrett Walker & Associates, the firm led by transit consultant (and occasional CityLab contributor) Jarrett Walker. This future high frequency grid will be rolled out incrementally once the Red Line goes live. Walker senior associate Michelle Poyourow, who worked on the Indy network, says, “Indy is about to demonstrate that when you invest in the whole network rather than just a handful of rapid transit lines, you can spread the benefits of rapid transit far across the whole city.”

Indy’s Red Line boasts electric buses and level boarding, among other features. It’s the first all-electric BRT line in the U.S. (Courtesy IndyGo)

Horne promises that this new network will have “a better span of service, with every route running every day of the week.” Currently, many bus routes take weekends off. Buses will also run more frequently on many core routes, with more non-radial lines providing additional transfer opportunities. That should be a game-changer for riders, Horne says. “Having that frequent, fast, reliable bus service is really essential.”

A big selling point of this system for cost-conscious Hoosier voters is its low cost. The transit tax will raise only a bit more than $50 million per year, mostly for operations. Phase one of the Red Line cost $96 million, with $77 million from federal grants, and construction included a large amount of street maintenance and other improvements that will benefit drivers and pedestrians as well as bus riders. Nearly the entire route was repaved, drainage improved in spots, sidewalks added or repaired, and traffic signals replaced. The bus improvements have proven to be a critical source of federal funds for street improvements that would otherwise have been inaccessible. The projected cost of all BRT lines in Indianapolis at full build out—62 miles with 97 stations—is projected to be about $500 million. If federal funding is fully realized, this will have a local cost of only $220 million, but it’s affordable even without federal aid.

Though not always advertised as such locally, Indy’s transit improvements are also designed to improve equity in the community. While the Red Line is targeting downtown and several affluent neighborhoods, the rest of the lines and the improved high-frequency regular bus network will overwhelmingly serve the existing rider base—a low-income, transit-dependent population. Almost one in ten Indianapolis households do not have a vehicle—and unlike in dense coastal cities, this is largely not by choice. As with many U.S. cities, there’s a big spatial mismatch between where they live and where jobs are being created.

Still, even the modest bet on transit that Indianapolis is making is fraught with risk. America’s previous attempts at BRT have a mixed record. Albuquerque ordered the same all-electric BYD buses as Indy for its BRT line, but they failed when put into service. Cleveland’s HealthLine was an initial success, but ridership has since fallen significantly in the wake of an adverse court ruling against the fare enforcement approach that improperly relied on police officers. Grand Rapids’ BRT line also fell far short of ridership projections.

The credibility of transit in Indianapolis is already low, so the city really has to execute on the rollout. It also has to deliver an increase ridership, not just improve the operating characteristics of the system. That could be a tall order: The Red Line is going live at the same time as the new fare system, and as a new CEO is taking over the helm at IndyGo. IndyGo is going fare-free for a month when the Red Line launches, is recruiting temporary customer service volunteers to staff stations, and has arranged a grace period for ticketing bus lane violators (police will only issue warnings) until drivers in Indy figure out the new traffic pattern. Still, there are a lot of balls in the air, with much to potentially go wrong. Over the summer, the city announced a year-long delay in building the next two BRT lines—an inauspicious development.

But if Indianapolis can make its new system work and draw more riders, it would represent something all too rare in the U.S—a capital-light model for improving transit in a car-centric city. If warranted, light rail can always be added later, but as IndyGo’s Horne says, “The bus system is the backbone of any good mobility network.”

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