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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."
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."
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."
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