Kim Irwin's fight for a healthier Indiana 

Kim Irwin runs Health by Design. - MICHELLE CRAIG

"I don't know anybody who grew up saying, 'I want to be a transportation advocate,'" says Kim Irwin. For the past five years, Irwin has been one of the city's most outspoken public health champions. As director of Health by Design, an initiative of the Alliance For Health Promotion, a nonprofit coalition with offices along the Canal Walk downtown, Irwin has found herself enmeshed in ongoing discussions about mass transit because of its demonstrable impact on public health.

Growing up in Kendallville, outside Ft. Wayne, Irwin dreamt of being a doctor. But after completing her undergraduate studies at Northwestern University she eventually decided to study public health at IUPUI.

Irwin's experience at Northwestern was formative. There was no public transportation to speak of in Kendallville, so learning to find her way around Chicagoland, via bus and elevated train, was a new experience. "It was how we got around," she says today. "I loved it."

Before enrolling in grad school, Irwin worked in the long-term care field, where she was able to see firsthand how transportation options - or the lack of them - affect the lives of older citizens. She also lived in Denver when that city inaugurated its light rail system. She began to see the various ways infrastructure, our streets, sidewalks, housing and the ways we plan our communities relate to health.

"We know that where people live, what your ZIP code is, is one of the best predictors of your life expectancy," Irwin says. She wants to help create environments where the barriers to healthy decision-making are reduced. While Irwin allows that some people find this approach Big Brother-like, "the reality is the way our world has evolved and the way most places exist, healthy choices can be impossible, let alone difficult to find."

click to enlarge The success of the Monon Trail has paved the way for the development of numerous other rail-trails around the state. - SUBMITTED PHOTO
  • The success of the Monon Trail has paved the way for the development of numerous other rail-trails around the state.
  • Submitted Photo

This is particularly true when it comes to getting around the Indianapolis metro area. Indy has a notoriously underfunded bus system, IndyGo, for a community its size. IndyGo has proven itself to be inadequate in getting most people to and from work, or to such essential stops as grocery stores and health care providers. Irwin argues that public transit isn't just another urban amenity. It is actually a public health essential that must be addressed in a systemic way.

"For decades, in public health, we have thought that having information and education changes behavior. If we tell people they should eat fruits and vegetables, they will do that. For a certain percentage of the population that works. But for the vast majority of people, it's not that simple. So the idea that we can shoot information at people and think that's going to lead to a healthy lifestyle, when we're not backing it up with environments that are supportive and policy systems that support healthy behavior, makes it very hard."

Public health advocates like Irwin find themselves talking not just to members of the public, but to the elected politicians who are responsible for creating policies and making laws. Politicians whose votes, in other words, govern how our environment is designed. Now the issue is not just a matter of scolding people to eat their greens, but debating the role of government in a supposedly free society.

"We always tend to default to the argument that it's a free country and choice," says Irwin. "But the reality is that what we have gotten, whether by intention or through default, is limited choice. We do not have good choices in this community for transportation. We just don't. We are very auto-dependent."

A free society, argues Irwin, should be one where people have an abundance of choices - to drive their cars, or take the bus, ride a bike, or, whenever possible, walk, in order to get wherever they need to go.

"Nobody's trying to take cars away by putting more transit on the roads. I'm going to still have a car, just like most people in this community. But someone like me would say there is a tremendous cost to public health, to the environment, that comes with auto emissions. There are calculations that tell us what that is. ... We don't pay for the real cost of driving our cars when we drive them. That's an externalized cost that other people and future generations will bear."

Transit ridership and bike commuting continue to grow in Indianapolis. - SUBMITTED PHOTO
  • Transit ridership and bike commuting continue to grow in Indianapolis.
  • Submitted Photo

Time for public transit

When it comes to talking about public transportation, Kim Irwin likes to refer to the movie, Back to the Future. That's because there was a time when Indianapolis and, for that matter, the state of Indiana provided options that were among the best in the nation. The city was connected with buses, as well as by a bustling streetcar system. What's more, you could travel to most towns in the state via interurban railroad lines. In 1900, over 200 trains a day moved through Union Station, causing new platforms to be constructed. Irwin thinks a comparable investment is called for now.

"I think we're at a really key time - not just in terms of public health work, but in our economy and society in general. We're going to look back in a few decades and say, 'Why weren't we doing that sooner? Why did it take so long?'"

Irwin's platform for transit advocacy, Health by Design, was started in 2006, with the support of the Marion County Department of Public Health, in order to present a speakers series on urban planning. As it happened, the series took place at the same time public discussion about transit was beginning to percolate. What began as a speakers series morphed into regular meetings aimed at sustaining a conversation about transit and coalition building.

Today, the HbD coalition includes a wide array of organizations, including AARP Indiana, the Builders Association of Greater Indianapolis, the Hoosier Environmental Council, the Metropolitan Indianapolis Board of Realtors, the YMCA and the Indiana Department of Transportation. Irwin believes that the city is moving in the right direction on transit, "But they feel like baby steps."

click to enlarge The Cultural Trail is an excellent opportunity for active transportation in downtown. - SUBMITTED PHOTO
  • The Cultural Trail is an excellent opportunity for active transportation in downtown.
  • Submitted Photo

She credits Indy Connect, itself a coalition consisting of the Indianapolis Metropolitan Planning Organization, Central Indiana Regional Transportation Authority and IndyGo, for pushing a process that has included over 150 public meetings and used social media to solicit input from a wide array of people. The Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce and the Central Indiana Corporate Partnership have thrown their weight behind public transportation, says Irwin, running numbers on costs and tax rates in order to make the case for transit to legislators who don't believe it's worth the investment. "I'm not sure that anybody else could have done that work and had it be considered legitimate," she says.

Irwin's belief that this is a key time for transit in Central Indiana is based on several factors. First among them is the anecdotal evidence provided by an increasing number of young adults who have moved to Indianapolis for education and professional opportunities. These folks are often stunned to discover that living in the city means having to buy a car. "These are real people and real household incomes that are impacted."

Then there are changes to the availability of federal dollars dedicated to public transportation. Cities that are first in line for what monies remain tend to be those that have already invested in public systems on a state and local level.

Finally, Irwin points out that it will probably never be cheaper to invest in public transit than it is right now. "It's only going to get harder and more expensive. The extent to which we continue to divert potential funds for [transit] into other things creates opportunity costs."

Irwin's sense of urgency about moving forward on transit in this year's legislative session is keen. "I think there is a certain point - I don't know if it's this year - where you just miss the boat, and it's too late," she says. "I have concern that we're approaching that point."

Among the consequences Irwin sees looming if action on transit lags are the gradual degradation of existing IndyGo service; a reoccurrence of the so-called Brain Drain affecting professional talent in the community; and a lapse in the city's ability to attract new business. "I don't think we'll continue to see economic investment in the region as a whole if we don't do something about transit," she says, adding that studies show that transportation costs can eat as much as 10 to 30 percent of household income. "At some point, the raw economics win out."

While Irwin concedes that public transit shouldn't be expected to pay for itself, she is quick to point out that transit is being held to a higher standard on this than any other form of transportation. "Roads and highways are not paying for themselves and, in fact, we know the economic development that occurs around transit greatly surpasses what you get at a new highway interchange."

Investing in transit, according to Irwin, is the fiscally conservative thing to do: "When you look at all the long-term costs you are saving or averting, it's the best value for the dollar over time."

click to enlarge Health by Design works at the intersection of the built environment (transportation and land use) and public health. - SUBMITTED PHOTO
  • Health by Design works at the intersection of the built environment (transportation and land use) and public health.
  • Submitted Photo

Complete Streets

But transit is just one way that Irwin believes we can improve Hoosiers' public health. In August, Irwin and her coalition allies saw the culmination of efforts to codify the way Indianapolis thinks about and designs its streetscapes when the City-County Council approved a Complete Streets ordinance.

"Complete Streets addresses the question of choice, of options," Irwin explains. "It makes sure that you're accommodating all users, of all ages and abilities in roadway planning, design, construction and maintenance."

Complete Streets represents another back to the future-style initiative for Irwin. "We used to have complete streets. We didn't have to call them that," she says. "We didn't have to have a policy or law that said do it. We knew that people were going to walk and that you had to make room and share common public space."

Irwin points out that more than a quarter of our land is devoted to streets. "That's a tremendous amount of space that's in the public right-of-way. If you're saying that you can only be there if you're in a car, you're shutting out a lot of people."

According to Irwin, there is no one way a complete street looks. How a streetscape is designed depends on where it is, its setting or context. If it has sidewalks on both sides, some extra width to make room for cyclists, curb cuts enabling people in wheelchairs to move from block to block, and clearly marked crosswalks, a street may already be considered complete. Slowing the pace of traffic through the creation of curving roads is another feature associated with complete streets.

"Transit doesn't work if people can't get to it by walking," says Irwin. "We can have all the park-and-rides we want - that's not going to be successful transit. Successful transit means that people live and work in areas where they can get off the train or bus and be within reasonable proximity of walking. You have to have sidewalk infrastructure to do that."

Needless to say, there are many neighborhoods in Indianapolis that have degraded sidewalks or, worse, no sidewalks at all. Irwin thinks this is a social justice issue. "People standing in ditches or snowbanks is unacceptable. Unfortunately, most of us don't think of it that way. We just drive right by."

Irwin calls Complete Streets the "foundational work" that can help transit succeed. She also believes that the city was made ready to approve the Complete Streets ordinance by the example set by the Cultural Trail. "There were things that were learned in the building of the Cultural Trail that are really going to help insure that we're going to see more of it."

As its name suggests, Complete Streets encourages planners to think of streets as places for everybody - not just motor vehicles. "I don't think asking how many cars we need to move through is asking the right question," says Irwin. "You have to start with a vision of what you want your community to be. It's not even about what a community looks like so much as what you value. Do you value equal access? Do you value equity? I don't think anyone would stand up and say they don't believe in equity. But people collectively have systematically made decisions that don't value equity, that don't value choice."

Irwin recognizes, though, that we're set in our car-centric ways. Getting people to think in ways allowing for greater choice, as well as for healthier lifestyles, requires sustained advocacy. "You can't do this transportation work the way it's been done for 50 years and think you're going to get something different."

Going to the Statehouse

The start of a new legislative session at the Indiana Statehouse is an intense time for Irwin and her coalition partners. There are at least three major agenda items they plan on promoting between now and next spring.

Their first goal is to try and take Complete Streets statewide. The Indiana Department of Transportation opposes the idea of making the Indianapolis ordinance applicable from Evansville to Gary, claiming other towns and cities are either already employing Complete Streets ideas or that it's simply not necessary. Irwin disagrees. "We have a number of examples from communities where not having a statewide Complete Streets policy has really detracted from projects that have been done."

click to enlarge Health by Design’s recent event, Striding Toward Healthy Communities: Indiana’s - Active Transportation Conference, included a mobile workshop of the Cultural Trail - SUBMITTED PHOTO
  • Health by Design’s recent event, Striding Toward Healthy Communities: Indiana’sActive Transportation Conference, included a mobile workshop of the Cultural Trail
  • Submitted Photo

She points to cases where state highways have been run through small towns in places that were never intended to handle heavy rates of traffic at higher speeds. Perhaps an even bigger issue is that, without Complete Streets, planners may not be encouraged to think holistically when it comes to solving infrastructure problems. "This stuff forces the powers-that-be, leadership, as well as day-to-day staff, to do things differently than they've been doing them for decades. It's not that there's a tremendous cost to that. Sometimes the projects end up being cheaper. It just requires thinking harder - and differently."

Irwin contends that Complete Streets-thinking tends to maximize the value of public infrastructure spending. Otherwise, she says, "We will invest millions of dollars in projects that don't meet the needs of the people who use them. People may not know a term like Complete Streets, but they know what their neighbors need."

Another goal for the 2013 legislative session is persuading lawmakers to allow citizens in Central Indiana to vote on whether or not we are willing to absorb a tax increase to pay for an improved public transit system.

Under the Indy Connect Now proposal, Marion and Hamilton counties would undertake a 10-year, $1.3 billion program to dramatically increase bus service and construct a light rail line between Noblesville and downtown. But before that can happen, citizens must express their willingness to accept a 0.3 percent increase to the local income tax through a referendum.

Holding such a referendum drew widespread support in the community, with Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard and the Central Indiana Corporate Partnership getting on board. But, last January, members of the Indiana House Ways and Means Committee torpedoed the idea.

Bringing the idea of a tax increase before the voters is crucial if the Indianapolis metro area is to ever have an up-to-date transit system. Irwin sees the issue as one of local control, whether or not the people in our community will be permitted to vote yes or no on an issue that affects us directly. She is "cautiously optimistic" about the referendum's chances this time around.

"No other transportation project in the state has withstood the scrutiny and analysis and the level of scenario planning and detailed economic forecasting that this has. At a certain point, the objections don't make sense any more."

Irwin recognizes that asking people to call or email their state legislators isn't that sexy. In this case, though, she says it is the most important thing anyone who wants to vote on transit in Central Indiana can do. The people, she believes, are ahead of their legislators on this issue. It is vital you let your state rep or senator know how you feel. Last but not least, Irwin and the Health by Design coalition are hoping to right what they see as a legislative wrong perpetrated in the 2011 session.

For 30 years, the budgets of Indiana's 65 regional transit agencies were linked to the state's sales tax. But in 2011, the state legislature decoupled transit funding from the sales tax, creating what Irwin calls "a huge policy change with profound implications." The decoupling has meant that transit now has to fight with every other funding demand for its own line item in the state budget. Now, says Irwin, it is not only important to battle to keep the amount of transit's funding intact, but to recouple transit to its previous percentage of the sales tax.

Dealing with public health in Indiana can feel like an uphill climb. A recent study by the United Health Foundation ranked the Hoosier state 41st in the nation, citing our persistently high smoking and obesity rates, lack of exercise and lack of funding for public health. We spend $44 per person, placing Indiana 47th in the country. Irwin, however, seems energized by the challenge.

In part, her optimism comes from the coalition represented by Health by Design. "It's like having 200 colleagues!"

But Irwin draws her greatest inspiration from her fellow citizens. "I've heard the real stories. I've talked to the people who can't get to work because they don't have a good transportation option. I like to think - or I hope - that I'm always trying to communicate their perspective.

"It makes it personal."

To learn more about Health by Design, go to, or call 317-352-3844.

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