Vibrant Community: Marion County Transit Plan expands access to jobs, education, food, and health care

April 20, 2016| Vibrant Community| Link to article 

Stop lights
 by Thomas Healy

In the late 1970s and early 1980s the Hike, Bike & Bus Week Committee sponsored awareness campaigns to promote the benefits of safe and healthy alternative modes of transportation. Using the theme “Meet People Face-to-Face instead of Bumper-to-Bumper,” the grassroots group sought to build a more connected, convivial community.

The intervening decades have demonstrated the benefits of investing in bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure. Indy now boasts the world-class Cultural Trail and one of the country’s top rail-trails, the Monon Trail.

Adjacent property values have soared, economic development has flourished, and neighborhood health and vitality have improved.

However, lack of investment in the city’s bus system has resulted in its being ranked among the worst of its peers.

2021-Network-posterProposed 2021 IndyGo network. CLICK TO ENLARGE.

That’s poised to change if voters support a proposed referendum that would improve funding for IndyGo, the public corporation that operates buses in the county. Additional funding will help IndyGo implement the Marion County Transit Plan, a 5-year strategy to significantly expand frequent and convenient bus service.

The 21st-century variant of the Hike, Bike & and Bus Week committee is IndyConnect, a coalition of private, public, nonprofit and community service organizations advocating for improved bicycle, pedestrian, and public transit infrastructure. IndyConnect is the force for change that has prompted the City-County Council to consider a measure that would place a referendum on the November ballot.

Community Diversity

The Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce has been at the forefront of the multi-year effort to promote a transportation network that’s not reliant on single-occupant motor vehicles. “It’s pretty amazing,” according to Mark Fisher, vice president of government relations for the Indy Chamber. “Transit brings together a diverse coalition of interest groups that might not have ever worked together.”

Fisher said there’s more to the Transit Plan than the Red Line: “It’s about building a transportation network that provides convenient options for people to access jobs, education and healthcare—all the foundations that make a healthy community.”

As with any potential tax increase, the first question is, “Why?” For advocates, “Why not?” is their rejoinder as they consider the benefits of improved public transportation to be substantial.

“An improved public transit system is an improved community,” said Michael O’Connor, an Eli Lilly and Company executive who is a board member of United Way of Central Indiana (UWCI) and chairs its public policy committee. He said the United Way has adopted a public policy agenda that will collaboratively support the referendum for improved mass transit for the community.

O’Connor said the policy fits UWCI’s mission to focus on four strategic areas: income, health, education, and basic needs. “We’re trying to get people to be self-sufficient,” he said. When UWCI analyzed poverty and its impacts it found barriers to moving out of poverty. “One of the barriers is transportation,” O’Connor said. “We need a transportation system that works for everyone.”

Economic Opportunity

For the Indianapolis Congregation Action Network (IndyCAN), equal access to economic activity requires a robust transit system. “We’re recognizing that the impact of transit is a de facto injustice to the poorer members of the community,” said IndyCAN member Rev. Brent Wright, pastor at Broad Ripple United Methodist Church. “Lack of transit equals lack of opportunity.”

He cited recent reports suggesting that reduced economic mobility is due to racial and income separation. “Our geographic segregation from one another has economic consequences and makes it difficult for those living in poverty to find a way out,” Wright said. For IndyCAN there is no good except the common good. “This is something our faith traditions teach us—that common good is good and that our ultimate goal has to be for the good of the whole. Our moral obligation is to recognize that I can’t be well if my neighbor doesn’t have what she needs.”

Transit is one of the ways to help. “If we’re going to call on those living in poverty to take personal responsibility for their lives, the rest of us have to create those paths of opportunity,” he said.

Rev. Wright sees transit connecting people in healthy ways. “Part of the moral beauty of mass transit is there’s an opportunity for people from different neighborhoods to interact and get to know one another. As we grow more connected there’s a reversal of segregation that is good for everyone.”

Joe Hanson, executive vice president of capital development and strategic initiatives for the Indianapolis Neighborhood Housing Partnership (INHP), said his organization recognizes the benefit to low- and moderate-income families who live near transit. “Reducing the cost of transit provides increased access to jobs, education, healthcare, food, cultural amenities, and even entertainment,” he said. “You can dramatically change the conversation around food deserts with transit. Food becomes more accessible along transit corridors.”

INHP is a community development financial institution with a mission to increase affordable housing and economic development. “If transit becomes a reality, INHP is looking to develop resources that can help developers of affordable and mixed-use properties to develop near transit,” Hanson said.


Health and Safety

There are many ways to measure the health of a community, among them economic, social, and physical.

Indy Chamber’s Fisher noted that “the problem with an unhealthy population is that it affects long-term economic development as it increases employer costs.” Improving access to transit makes sense, according to a Mineta Transportation Institute review and analysis of studies on transit’s costs and benefits. It found that transit improves health care access and outcomes while reducing costs. Besides the active living aspect, the Mineta report found that transit saves lives by reducing accidents and injuries and the associated societal costs.

A multimodal city improves community health by making walking or biking easier, said Addison Pollock, coordinator of the Indiana Citizens’ Alliance for Transit (ICAT), an initiative of Health by Design. “People who take transit get 20 percent more steps per day by walking to the bus stop and then getting off the bus and walking to their destination,” he said.

Like many of the transit advocates, ICAT sees transit as a long-term investment. “We view transit as a piece of infrastructure. Just like roads, it helps people get to where they need to go—grocery store, work, doctor’s office,” Pollock said.

He noted an interesting overlap of millennials and baby boomers. “We’re linking these 2 generations. Seniors want to be able to stay in their neighborhoods and not go to nursing homes, and millennials are driving less. Vehicle trips per capita declined 15 percent between 2001 and 2009 for millennials.”

ICAT sees this as an indicator of a switch to a multimodal lifestyle. “It’s all about choice,” Pollock said, citing a AAA estimate for the cost of car ownership at $8,698 per year. “That’s a cost burden on millennials who are strapped for cash with college debt and just now entering the workforce.”

ALR_infographicTranspCourtesy CLICK TO ENLARGE

Access and Sustainability

Mandla Moyo, community outreach director for AARP Indiana, said his organization supports mobility options that make a safer and more secure community. “Transportation options allow improved access to community resources—anything from a local park to a doctor’s office,” he said. “AARP believes that building communities that build transit options allow people of any age to reach any destination safely and conveniently.”

His organization surveyed more than 100,000 members in Marion County and found that 90 percent want to age in place. “The current public transportation system doesn’t allow that,” he said. “Having public transit doesn’t mean you have to give up your car. If sidewalks are available so people can walk and buses run on a regular schedule it means you have options.”

Moyo noted that by 2030, one in five Americans will be 65 or older. “Those numbers mean we need to start to put in walkable, mixed-use developments now so we’re able to support an older boomer generation who may not want to drive but want to stay in Indianapolis. Improving our vibrant neighborhoods so people can get around easily makes the community more suitable for them.”

All these Hoosiers walking and biking and not driving are going to need cleaner air to breathe. Tim Maloney, senior policy director for the Hoosier Environmental Council, said the state’s largest environmental advocacy group supports improving air quality by reducing the number of motor vehicles on the road. “Burning gasoline in our motor vehicles leads to air quality problems and carbon emissions,” he said. “An efficient transit system reduces energy consumption and the adverse affects of reliance on fossil fuels from oil and gas extraction, spills, and other problems that result from those activities.”

Maloney noted that IndyGo is adopting clean energy policies. “They have a fleet of 21 electric buses already. About 13 of those can be powered and charged by rooftop solar panels at the IndyGo facilities.”HEC supports investment in a more balanced transportation system. “We need a diverse and efficient system that’s good economically and environmentally,” Maloney said.

Location, Location, Location

According to a study by the American Public Transportation Association in partnership with the National Association of Realtors, homebuyers are demanding proximity to transit options in walkable neighborhoods. “Studies have shown that consumers are willing to pay more for housing located in areas that exemplify new urbanist principles or are ‘traditional neighborhood developments,’” the report states. “These neighborhoods are walkable, higher density, and have a mix of uses as well as access to jobs and amenities such as transit.

Locally, the Metropolitan Indianapolis Board of Realtors (MIBOR) is seeing the same trend. “There’s a kind of ‘transit premium’ for homes located near transit,” said Chris Pryor, MIBOR’s Government Affairs Director. “A healthy vibrant real estate market is about community quality of life. We believe transit is one component of that enhanced quality of life.”

He said MIBOR worked with the Metropolitan Planning Organization to survey community preferences in housing.

“There was a really strong showing for neighborhoods that were a mix of housing and businesses as opposed to housing only,” Pryor said, adding, “Downtown and Midtown are critical to having a healthy real estate market.”

In a broader sense, MIBOR sees transit as important to keep the Indy region competitive for attracting people in the future. “Millennials are going to be looking for things like transit options when they decide what region or city they want to live in,” Pryor said. “We want to make sure Indy is one of those places.”