TOM HARTON Commentary: Riding the rails from first to worst

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When my grandparents took the interurban from Rushville to Indianapolis to see the 1920 Indianapolis 500, they probably didn’t appreciate how lucky they were to live in a state that was a leader in public transportation.

Indiana had one of the earliest and most extensive interurban systems in the country. The state’s electric railway network converged at the Indianapolis Traction Terminal, thought to be the largest interurban station in the world. The massive building on West Market Street served 462 train cars a day and more than 7 million passengers a year. Towns of all sizes enjoyed frequent service-10 to 12 trains per day-on the quiet, comfortable interurban cars. What a difference the better part of a century makes. Eighty-five years after Russ and Leona hopped the train to Indianapolis, central Indiana is a public transportation backwater. So, what happened? The car, of course, and the Great Depression, and the Public Utility Holding Act of 1935, which severed ties between the private interurban companies and the electric utilities that owned them. But even as the interurban system declined, public transportation within Indianapolis thrived. By the late 1930s, Indianapolis Railways Inc. had shaken off the twin threats posed by the Depression and early fascination with the automobile, and operated an electric streetcar system that was the envy of cities nationwide.

Taxpayer-funded roads and government-subsidized mortgages, however, fostered suburban growth and fueled the car culture. When government at all levels began pouring money into road projects, the city’s privately owned transportation company began to wither and die.

Electric railway service stopped here in 1953. The remaining gasoline-fueled fleet was running on fumes by 1973, the year the city created what we now know as IndyGo to take over public transportation and use taxpayer money to subsidize it.

The “public” in public transportation no longer meant transportation for all; it had come to mean paid for by all, but used by a precious few.

And so it is today in our striving-to-be-dynamic city. We’re creating potentially great urban places, but to get people to them, our only option is ever-wider roadways and acres of striped asphalt, both of which defeat the effort.

Most cities found a workable split between funding roads and funding other modes of transportation. Indianapolis put all its chips behind the car, and now we’re waking up to the trade-off.

Our extensive interstate system and, to a lesser extent, our broad city streets complement our central location and make the city a great distribution hub that is relatively easy to navigate. They’re vital to our economy. But they produce a sterile environment, friendlier to cars than people. As the city grows and gas prices climb, the car loses its appeal for some and becomes an impossible dream for others who need to traverse the city.

It’s time for Indianapolis and surrounding counties to diversify our transportation options. It’s time to remember our roots, not just as a hub for automotive innovation but also as a place that was renowned for its transportation infrastructure.

IndyGo, the last vestige of a once-great transportation system, recently released a plan that would be the first step in reversing the city’s damaging reputation as a place where public transportation doesn’t exist. Adding routes and frequency, and providing direct connections between employers and their employees, as IndyGo proposes, are baby steps in bringing balance to our car culture.

A more complete solution will take more infrastructure, more money and a recognition that economic opportunity exists beyond fast-moving cars and ever-wider ribbons of concrete.

Harton is editor of IBJ. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to

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