Friday, March 29, 2013

I'm not so sure about the transit plan

Posted By on Fri, Mar 29, 2013 at 8:48 AM

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by Robby Slaughter

This year, my wife and I decided to become a one car family. Since I run a consulting business and have clients all over the city and since she's a therapist and social worker, this requires quite a bit of coordination. There is walking, cycling, the occasional cab ride and of course frequent use of the IndyGo transit system.

You might think that I'm the kind of person who would want to radically transform our public transport infrastructure. You're right: I've been to places in the United States, Canada and Europe with incredible systems. I've read the reports on how far behind we are in Indy compared to other cities. I've seen the ambitious plans outlined in the IndyConnect proposal. It certainly looks exciting.

But I'm not so sure it's a great idea.

That's not because I don't think these are good plans. They seem ambitious and workable. Rather, I'm concerned about giving more resources to the current leadership, which doesn't seem to be managing what we have very well.

I'll pick on IndyGo first. Yes, this is a small system with limited funds. Yet from my riding experience, it seems like our routes do not use "timing points"---a transit approach in which drivers that are ahead of the published timetable are required to stop and wait. Right now, you have to be at least 10 minutes early to a stop if you want to make sure you don't miss an early bus.

Likewise, the on-time performance (transit-speak for "one minute early to five minutes late") is around 80 percent. It's as low as 60 percent for some routes. But this is a problem that is not hard to solve: adjust the timetables so the buses are slightly less frequent, but more reliable.

IndyGo's own analysis from 2010 notes that their "top 3 routes generate over 1/3 of total system ridership, with the top 10 routes accounting for 65 percent of the total ridership."

When I'm on a crowded bus or an empty bus, I think of this statistic. Why not move some buses from the unpopular routes to the busy ones?

Perhaps the most frustrating part of the IndyGo experience, however, is their embarrassingly bad website. If you don't know the route you need, you have to open a PDF file to look at a system map. Then you have to open another PDF file (or an Excel file) to get the arrival times. There is a route planner, but it's difficult to use. And this experience is even worse if you're browsing from your phone, because IndyGo doesn't have a mobile version of their website.

I've said this before: one decent designer could dramatically improve their website in a weekend.

I can pick on other people too. The Central Indiana Regional Transportation Authority (CIRTA) has a much nicer website, except for their onerous Commuter Connect signup form and clunky application. I called them and asked how many people are in their database of people interested in carpooling. The total is 5,500. That's about three-tenths of 1 percent of the population of Central Indiana. They only have 427 Facebook fans. CIRTA also coordinates some vanpools, which I understand are sponsored by employers. At present, they have 24 vans total, each carrying 7-15 passengers.

And then there's the Indianapolis Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO), who have ten full time planners and apparently no one doing public relations and marketing, because you've likely never heard of them before.

It's easy to sit here and imply that our existing transit authorities are being mismanaged. I may be entirely misinformed. However, if we want to keep moving down the path of pursuing a major, multibillion dollar transit system, is it unreasonable to ask IndyGo, CIRTA and MPO to show that they are using the limited resources they have in the best way possible?

I am not sure what the metrics should be. But IndyGo's budget is $54 million a year. Can't they have a website that is usable? Indianapolis is home to an incredible tech startup community. Can't we get a ridesharing site for CIRTA that works well and highlights our local talent?

And can we get some enthusiasm around using the tools we have? Of the thousands of people who have signed the IndyConnect petition, how many have actually ridden the bus or tried to use a carpool service? Can we get the Mayor's office to hand out a tax abatement to ZipCar? Can we get more than a couple of blog posts about a bike sharing program in Indianapolis?

Can we have a conversation about the steps we should take? What level of service should we expect from the existing authorities before giving them a promotion?

And finally: We're not even campaigning for transit yet. We're campaigning for the legislature to allow the public to vote on a referendum about transit. If the public supports that referendum, it's not binding—it's just an advisory to local governments about pursuing transit options.

The insanity of this process and the concerns about our current performance should give us pause. Transit is vitally important, but we need to address more fundamental questions first.

Let's show that we're doing everything we can with what we have today. That way, we'll all know that it's the right time to ask for more.

Robby Slaughter is a consultant and speaker focused on productivity and employee engagement. He lives in Broad Ripple with his wife.

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