MARRON: ‘Better’ isn’t the same as ‘good’

August 10, 2013

john marron vptThat phrase comes to mind when I talk about transit in central Indiana. As I’ve urged people to support the IndyConnect plan, more than a few have said, “But didn’t IndyGo get funds to add a new route and improve others? Didn’t that fix the problem?”

The answer to the first question is yes. The answer to the second is a definitive no.

Yes, transit got a boost when IndyGo got a budget increase from the City-County Council, and, yes, that allowed IndyGo to add a route along 86th Street and improve other routes.

The 86th Street route especially resonated with me, because I used to live in Castleton. Back then, a public-transit trip to North Central High School—three miles away—required either a 50-mile round-trip bus ride via downtown or riding three different routes. So, yes, things are better: Now that three-mile trip is three miles.

The good news is that the recent improvements addressed three factors crucial to a good transit system: frequency, reach and access. The bad news is those factors are still lacking in most corners of our community.

People who don’t use transit usually don’t understand how important those factors are. Benjamin Gillies, a transit consultant based in Winnipeg, Canada, sums up the importance nicely by describing it as “the difference between catching ‘the’ bus and catching ‘a’ bus.”

For an analogy, think about flying. When you want to go to, say, New York, you choose from many flight options and make your plans accordingly. Generally, you can choose what time you fly, and you’ll know that if you get to the airport on time, you’ll get to New York.

But what if you want to fly to Helena, Mont., or Hamburg, Germany? You’ll find far fewer flights, you’ll have to make plans based on the times of those flights, you’ll have to change planes, and you might find it’s better to drive to Chicago or Cincinnati to get the best flight.

In other words, to get to New York, you can catch “a” plane; to get to those other destinations, you catch “the” plane. You have fewer options, your time is dictated by the airline schedule, and you might have to travel a long way before you “start” your journey.

Those kinds of choices might be acceptable if you’re planning a one-time trip such as a vacation, but they’re pretty hard to deal with on a regular basis when you’re trying to get employees into your workplace, customers to your front door or yourself to work on a regular basis. At those times, becomes obstacles rather than simple inconveniences.

A good transit system offers the frequency, reach and access residents need to make it possible—and, in fact, preferable—to use transit daily. Despite the good work of IndyGo and improvements made possible by the budget increase, we don’t have that “good” system.

Much of this discussion comes down to what kind of city you want to live in: one where you have to catch “the bus” or “a bus.” Or, to my mind, one where a three-mile trip takes 50 miles, or three. To get the kind of system that works for central Indiana, everyone needs to let leaders know their preferences.

In the coming weeks, you’ll have opportunities to express your preference and learn more about transit options at public meetings throughout the area. Go to www.indyconnect.org to see where public meetings will be held near you.•

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Marron is a policy analyst at the Indiana University Public Policy Institute. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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