IPS wants high schoolers to take IndyGo instead of yellow school buses

Indianapolis Public Schools is launching a district-wide pilot this year that will give more than 5,000 high school students access to free bus passes. But public buses won’t be replacing yellow school buses anytime soon.

The pilot aims to help the district, which has long provided its own bus service, determine whether the public IndyGo system can transport high schoolers — and potentially save the schools more than $11 million each year, according to district officials. It’s an essential prong of the financial overhaul Indianapolis Public Schools began last year to win support from the Indy Chamber for a tax measure to increase school funding.

It’s unclear, however, how many high school students will be able to rely on the city’s long-starved transit system to get to school if the district eventually stops providing buses.

Indianapolis is a car city, and years of under-investment in public transit and car-centric planning have made it challenging to serve all neighborhoods with buses, said Bryan Luellen, Vice President of Public Affairs for IndyGo. Some areas are not pedestrian-friendly or dense enough to support frequent routes, he said.

City buses don’t fit every context, Luellen said. “We’re focusing on where mass transit makes sense.”

“Potentially, there are always going to be some kids who aren’t located in a place where they can safely walk to a bus route,” he said. “We’re really working to mesh the two services … so that we are not duplicating each other.”

Indianapolis Public Schools officials specifically raised concerns that the north-west and north-east sides of the district won’t have adequate service.

Still, the public transit system is in the midst of a massive expansion that district and city leaders hope will enable it to adequately serve high schoolers. Voters approved a tax hike to support public transit, and construction is almost complete on the Red Line, the first of three planned bus rapid transit routes to help speed up service in the coming years. At the same time, IndyGo is aiming to significantly increase frequency on other routes.

For many students, public transit will likely be a reasonable route to school. Buses stop at least every half hour at all four traditional Indianapolis Public Schools, and three of the schools will be served by planned rapid transit lines, Luellen said. About 80% to 85% of students live within a reasonable walking distance to an IndyGo stop, he said.

The district ran a smaller IndyGo pilot last year, but there was no strategy for encouraging students to use the buses, said Dennis Tackitt, the district’s chief of transformation. This year, the district aims to boost ridership by doing more outreach to parents and students, he said.

“We want to build ridership,” Tackitt said. “We want to help our community understand that this is a viable option not only now but well into the future.”

Cutting transportation costs is key to balancing the district’s budget in the long term. Busing is unusually costly in Indianapolis Public Schools compared with other school systems, in part because the district ferries students to specialized schools throughout the city.

The district spends about $12 million each year busing high school students, district officials said. In contrast, relying on public buses would cost about $500,000 per year, according to estimates.

But there are potential pitfalls to the switch, including inadequate access and low participation, and district leaders want more data before deciding. Over the next two years, high schoolers will be able to ride city buses for free anytime, including taking public buses to and from school. If the pilot goes well, the district would consider eliminating or reducing yellow bus transportation for high schoolers in 2021-22.

“I don’t want to understate the complexities,” Superintendent Aleesia Johnson said. “There’s a lot to do, which is why I think having a two-year pilot is going to give us the runway we need to be able to decide — is this something that we can implement at scale?”

Chalkbeat is a non-for-profit news site covering educational change in public schools.

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4 thoughts on “IPS wants high schoolers to take IndyGo instead of yellow school buses

  1. they did this back in the 80’s when I went to Arlington HS. It was dangerous at the time as we all piled into a Indygo bus and some of us even had to stand. If they try it this time, hopefully they are much better.

  2. Even with better IndyGo service, the northwest, north central, and northeast parts of the district are so far from the remaining high schools that kids will still be riding buses for a couple of hours a day to get to and from the four remaining IPS high schools (Attucks, GW, Shortridge, and Tech).

    From the John Marshall area, it’s about 30-minute haul in a private car to most of those schools. Maybe a little shorter for Arden, Broad Ripple/Glendale, and Lafayette Square/Eagledale, but not much. In those outlying areas, the adjacent township high school is often closer…so maybe IPS should be cutting deals to send its outlying high school students to Ben Davis, Pike, North Central, Lawrence, and Warren.

  3. I was worried at first BUT
    IT has been a blessing and life saver for our family. Because it varies each day where he goes. We aren’t confined to a specific bus route. . My son goes to Purdue Polytech and most of the time can get where he needs to go via Indy Go. When he goes east, he gets picked up at Ft Ben YMCA. Castleton is a nightmare. But overall, its been great for us.
    I think it would be great for some high schools.
    I agree it doesn’t help for some areas or outside of the 465 loop or even north of 86th street. AND I can see problems for some high schools. Although, the school buses have a lot of problems getting kids to school and home on time.
    I’m so glad PPHS is using Indy Go instead of the school buses.

  4. We all took city buses to Broad Ripple in the 1960’s. We had a pass for a reduced price, and we didn’t have to wait 30 minutes between buses. It worked just fine then. Now IndyGo needs to put our money where their mouth is and increase routes and reduce wait times. They received their tax increase but concentrate on the Red Line instead of really improving service for the rest of the city.

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