Opinion and Forefront

WAGNER: Getting the mass-transit basics right

November 26, 2011

Jennifer WagnerAs a nation and state, we adore our cars: buying them, driving them and parking them as close to the shopping-mall door as possible.

According to 2010 data, more than half of Marion County households own two vehicles, and nearly 25 percent own three or four.

My husband and I fall into the latter category, (includes a ’65 Mustang I bought for my husband), but I’m willing to bet we’re in the small minority who go out of our way not to drive our vehicles. Most days, we carpool.

We work near each other, and we hate the idea of paying ridiculous gas prices for two older, high-mileage cars. We’re also accustomed to the idea of giving up the wheel.

When we lived in Washington, D.C., we sold one of our cars and picked a place to live within walking distance of a Metro stop. Most days, we drove in together, taking advantage of high-occupancy vehicle lanes to cut through Beltway traffic.

If one of us needed to go in early or stay late, we could rely on mass transit. It was an adjustment at first, especially with a toddler, but it quickly became a way of life.

As central Indiana continues to hem and haw over its transit plans, I’d like to offer a few suggestions.

I’m not going to dwell on light rail, regular rail or streetcars, all of which are good ideas that require long-term planning and boatloads of cash.

No, if we want to spur mass-transit culture, we have to start with what we have: IndyGo.

Truths about our current bus system: It is underfunded. It has a reputation for lousy customer service. It is an exceptionally good foundation for something that could connect our neighborhoods to one another and the heart of the city. With a few tweaks, of course.

In my fantasy mass-transit world, the buses in our system would be much improved from the rickety old ones that shake every time they hit a pothole. They don’t have to be “rock star” buses, but they need to be well-maintained with simple amenities like electrical outlets and wireless Internet access.

To keep them pristine, we need to enforce existing rules on food, drink and behavior on board. If we want mass transit to be a viable option for local commuters, we have to treat it with the respect it deserves.

When the buses run, they have to run on time, and people need to be able to easily determine when the next bus is coming, where it’s going, and whether it’s delayed for any reason. Seriously, there has to be an app for that.

We also need more, not fewer, vehicles in operation. At peak hours, there’s no excuse for long wait times.

There’s also no excuse for the terrible condition many of our bus stops and shelters are in. If we can’t afford to fix them with taxpayer dollars, we need to partner with neighborhood groups and volunteers to make those repairs. Moreover, city officials should consider building a true downtown bus station where commuters can wait for a ride in a safe, climate-controlled facility.

All these recommendations boil down to basic customer service and a high-quality system that inspires local commuters to leave their car keys at home.

Finally, and most important, mass transit needs buy-in from the corporate community, and I don’t just mean study groups and planning committees.

I mean money in the game.

My employer in D.C. subsidized my transit costs with a monthly stipend in the same way employers here pay for parking. If environmental and traffic concerns aren’t enough, companies should look at it this way: Many employees will use the drive-free commute to get an early start on the work day. That’s worth a few extra bucks, right?

The transit buzz is palpable in Indianapolis right now, and I hope we’re able to capitalize on that momentum next year. It’s long overdue for a city our size to start making these strides.•

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Wagner is a lifelong Indianapolis resident who served as deputy director of public affairs at the National Nuclear Security Administration. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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