Mass Transit and Opinion and Forefront

CAMPBELL: Most of all, mass transit needs a hero

January 8, 2011

Steve CampbellAnyone who knows me knows I love just about everything about Indianapolis. That’s why it pains me to point out our flaws.

When working for city government, one of my duties was to act as our chief marketing officer, helping to promote Indianapolis to the world as an ideal place to live, work and play.

The first thing I learned was that the competition among cities is cutthroat, and our competitors have changed drastically. In 1950, our rivals were Fort Wayne, Lafayette and Shelbyville; today, it’s Frankfurt, London and Shanghai, each one claiming to be the next best thing.

I, of course, think Indianapolis stacks up against the best in the world.

But when selling our story, it became obvious we had a fatal flaw: the lack of credible, region-wide public transit. In the next 10 to 20 years, it will be impossible to tout our region as a world-class center of innovation and entrepreneurship without meaningfully addressing transit.

Now is the time to turn the tide, but first we have to fight our own history.

My brother, a Purdue University-trained engineer, spent the first years of his career working in the automotive industry in Detroit. While visiting him about 20 years ago, I was amazed by the lack of public transit in the sprawling region, especially since I had just finished a semester studying in Washington, D.C., home of one of the world’s great transit systems, the Metro.

His response to me was eye-opening: “Why would the automotive capital of the world want public transit?” In a city where the livelihood of legions of executives and workers revolve around buying and driving cars, there was little public, corporate or government will to shell out billions to build a serious transit system.

Many forget that, before Detroit achieved its auto dominance, Indiana was America’s car capital. The names associated with the early auto industry—Stutz, Cole, Marmon, Allison and others—still dot Indianapolis today. In a city and state that have depended on this industry for more than a century, will there ever be enough public will to truly push public transit as a way of life?

We also have to fight our own neighborhood geography. Indianapolis once had one of the nation’s largest streetcar and interurban systems, but we abandoned it to make way for more highways, overpasses and roundabouts. As a result, today we would essentially have to retrofit our entire region, and as good as transit sounds in concept, opinions will change when a train is set to run through someone’s backyard.

Next, we have to fight perception. A former IndyGo director once told me public transportation in Indianapolis is viewed as a “social program.” Unfortunately, I believe he is right.

In D.C., everyone from the CEO to the janitor rides the Metro, and if a single route were to be cut, there would be chaos in the streets. Here, the perception (which is more true than not) is that public transit is for the poor. Until this way of thinking is changed, transit will be a tough nut to crack.

Finally, we need a leader who will make transit a true priority. There is an amazing coalition developing—representing business, neighborhoods, environmentalists and others—and working to advance transit solutions. They have the facts, the research and the plan to make a good case.

The one thing they lack is a single, focused, consistent, clear, trusted, brave and tireless voice for action. It’s not enough that people merely say they want more public transit; they have to buy into every aspect of it. And if there’s one thing I have learned, the public must hear a message over and over again just to move the needle a tiny bit.

Until then, we just may be spinning our wheels.•

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Campbell was a deputy mayor under former Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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