The fate of a plan to expand transit in Central Indiana may be tied up in an Indiana General Assembly summer study committee, but the planners aren’t waiting.
Once again, meetings are being held all month to gather public input. The focus this time? How three of the five planned rapid transit corridors can reshape neighborhoods and provide a jump-start for stalled economic development efforts in the urban core of Indianapolis.
The conversation is no longer: Will we get mass transit? It is: What will transit do for my neighborhood? And what will the station look like down the block from my house or my job?
If that seems like the planners are getting a little ahead of themselves, I understand. Transit in its current proposed form is far from a sure thing, especially if a handful of state lawmakers have anything to say about it — and unfortunately, they do.
But it’s still rather interesting to consider the possibilities. And according to Greenstreet, a local real estate development firm working as a consultant on the project, there are plenty.
Based on factors including population, available real estate and the prevalence of employment centers, Indianapolis is bound to see huge pockets of growth Downtown, on the Near Northside and on the Eastside if we add transit. It’s a formula that Greenstreet has turned into a color-coded map.
But for many people in Central Indiana, questions remain.
So I sat down with Jeff Kingsbury, managing principal at Greenstreet, and Sean Northup, assistant executive director for the city’s Metropolitan Planning Organization, to find out what we can expect to see if rapid transit becomes a reality. And more importantly, why.
Here’s what they had to say. (The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.)
Q: Can Indianapolis — all of Central Indiana — handle transit? Will it work here?
Kingsbury: “There’s been some questions — or resistance, maybe — to the fact that Indianapolis is a fairly low-density region, which is true. (It’s) not as dense as some, but denser than others that have transit. But when you start to look at the corridor alignment specifically, we actually do pretty well in terms of density. It has to do with the right kind of density.”
Q: What kind of density is that?
Kingsbury: “What we’ve focused on is looking at employment density. Jobs. Because that’s the most important factor in transit-oriented development. Most density is measured in terms of people per square mile. When you don’t have a growth boundary, like a river or mountains, the gross density is going to be fairly low. But cities with a lower gross density than Indianapolis have transit because it connects jobs.”
Northup: “The point is the gross density of the city isn’t important. What’s important is the density of the corridors where you’re putting the transit.”
(Just FYI: Nationally, 60 percent of transit trips are back and forth to work, while that figure is only 20 percent for cars. And as one might expect, in cities with viable transit, people spend less money on transportation because they drive less.)
Q: How does our current bus system stack up with reaching employment centers?
Northup: “IndyGo covers most of the employment centers right now, but it’s about the (additional) frequency with rapid transit. … IndyGo came about after most of the employment centers already developed, but the system is designed to cover Marion County, not connect employment centers and change land use like rapid transit.”
Kingsbury: “Rapid transit can connect the employment centers that we have plus foster infill opportunities between the centers. That’s the difference between highway development and transit development.”
Q: So what can residents expect to see with bus rapid transit in Central Indiana?
Northup: “They could expect some pretty substantial infrastructure improvements. College (Avenue) would be repaved, and the sidewalks would be redone and the alleys would probably be redone, too. One of the things we’ve talked about is having dedicated (bus) lanes for morning and afternoon rush hour. Residents right now use the street to park because the alleys aren’t in great shape. But if that were to happen, we’d need sound alleys. They also could expect a moderate increase in density. Maybe an apartment above a garage . … Or a place like (Taste at 52nd Street and College) could do one or two stories on top of it. It certainly wouldn’t be any towers.”
Q: What about on the Eastside, where the neighborhoods are rougher?
Northup: Again, the infrastructure improvements. But what you see along Washington (Street) is, the market isn’t quite as strong. Typically, they score pretty well physically because they’re older neighborhoods built for people to walk around. But we would expect less impact, less development (than the Near Northside).
Kingsbury: “The hope is that if that infrastructure investment is made and we deliver the reliability and quality of transit service (is there), the private sector will start to see that as an investment opportunity. …Transit is a market enhancer, not a market maker.”