Indiana is expected to add more than 1 million to its population by 2040, and over half of them will live in metro Indy. This growth can lead to a more prosperous and livable region—or it can result in hellish traffic congestion, poor air quality and reduced economic productivity.
These 500,000 new residents will generate the demand for more than 200,000 housing units, 50 grocery stores and 100 elementary schools.
At post-World War II densities, this would require urbanization of more than 200 square miles and over 4 billion more vehicle miles of annual travel. Imagine six new leap-frog, highway-oriented communities the size of Fishers driving through your town.
At the other end of the spectrum is a scenario where we contain new growth within the boundaries of our existing towns and cities. This would result in a mix of densities, revitalized neighborhoods, preserved farmland, and economically sustainable suburban towns and cities. This would add 1.6 billion more vehicle miles of annual travel. It can also make transit more efficient, reducing traffic another 30 percent.
Which region will we become?
Since 1962, every city or region in the United States greater than 50,000 people has been required to have a Metropolitan Planning Organization. The MPO is charged by Congress with preparing plans that guide the use of public funds for transportation projects. They are to manage transparent planning processes based on regional cooperation, and vision. Elected and appointed officials from local governments provide policy guidance.
The Indy MPO is one of 14 in Indiana. We have a dozen staff working on dozens of transportation planning and implementation projects. They serve the Indianapolis Regional Transportation Council, which provides policy guidance for transportation projects in the region. The IRTC is composed of elected and appointed officials, technical advisers (staff) from local governments, and representatives from state and federal agencies.
The MPO, Central Indiana Regional Transit Agency and IndyGo prepared the Indy Connect Plan for transit that has been tied up in the Legislature. The plan identifies and supports a competitive armature for growth. In many respects, that discussion has been as important as the transit planning itself.
The most competitive U.S. metros are being planned and marketed at a regional scale. Their MPOs are conducting a dialogue about the future of the region, then supporting those visions with transportation plans.
• In California, the MPOs are often included in councils of governments. Their mission varies from region to region.
Like Indy, Sacramento is the state capital and primary metro center for a growing region of over 2 million people. The Sacramento Area COG took the lead in preparing a regional plan and is allocating transportation funding to projects that support the popular regional vision. The award-winning SACOG Regional Blueprint has been heralded as a national model for regional cooperation.
• Nashville’s MPO has added regional planning and urban design to its transportation planning role. It is connecting the dots between regional mobility, economic prosperity, environmental protection and community design.
In 2012, the MPO published the results of a three-year collaborative effort involving three counties and neighboring communities to define a transportation and land-use framework for the region. It is informing local planning by indicating efficient and competitive strategies for growth.
• Charlotte, N.C., has been at the center of a regional planning effort that started 20 years ago as a plan for Mecklenburg County. The current regional effort is called “Vibrant Communities–Robust Region.” The three-year process involving 14 counties will result in a seven-element regional framework including economic development, land use, transportation, housing, energy, public health and natural resources.
Like Metro Charlotte, our “region” started with one county when Unigov expanded the city to all of Marion County. Practically speaking, our region now includes six counties and has the fastest-growing per-capita vehicle miles traveled among Midwestern metros. The average U.S. commute time is 24.5 minutes. If you live inside Interstate 465, your average commute is 18-22 minutes, and outside it can exceed 40 minutes.
This is not just a transportation problem; it is a quality-of-life problem.
We have the capacity to plan as a region. The Indy Connect effort has demonstrated the ability to view transportation as a catalyst for supporting our aspirations. We should take the next logical step and prepare a comprehensive 2040 framework plan that protects what we value and advances our aspirations.
Again, which region will we become?•
Bruce Race, FAIA, FAICP, is an award-winning architect and urban planner, owner of RaceStudio, and recipient of the Indiana Sagamore Planning Award. He lives in a historic Indianapolis neighborhood and teaches urban design at Ball State University’s Downtown Indianapolis Center. His column appears monthly. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.