"Public transit within reach

I had the good fortune to travel to Washington, D.C. a couple of weeks ago. I flew into Reagan National Airport (still can’t get used to that name), collected my bag and headed for the Metro stop.

The Metro is what they call the rapid transit system in D.C. Planning for this system began in the 1950s; construction started in the ‘60s and the first phase of the project was completed in 1976. The Metro can take you all over the city, and deep into the suburbs of Virginia and Maryland. It’s clean, quiet and fast. Six hundred and fifty thousand people ride it every workday.

From the time I dragged my duffel off the airport’s rather funky baggage carousel, to the point of climbing onboard a Yellow Line car took all of ten minutes. From there it was another 20 minutes to Dupont Circle, where I had a two-block walk to my hotel. Total cost: $1.85.

As I made this journey, I couldn’t help thinking about the wheezing state of public transit in Indianapolis. It seems just about everybody except the highway and fossil fuel lobbies agrees we’ve made a hash of things when it comes to helping people traverse our fair city. And to think that, as late as the 1940s, Indianapolis had a public transportation system that was the envy of the nation. How we let that get away is a story in itself. The point here is that a little more than 50 years later we find ourselves wishing we could get it back.

This wishing is driven by a number of practical necessities. Not only would better public transit make it easier for locals and visitors to get around an increasingly large metro area, it would cut down on traffic congestion, pollution and wear and tear on infrastructure. It would also spur economic prosperity in neighborhoods in need of a boost — more on that in a moment.

As I hummed along on the D.C. Metro, it was tempting to imagine a similar service operating in Indy. But no sooner did this vision come to mind than a Hoosier voice with a certain adenoidal twang spoke up from somewhere deep inside saying, “Are you kidding?”

This city can barely find the money to repair its antiquated sewer system. People are in a lather over property and income taxes. We’re strapped for cash, but even if we weren’t, the inevitable arguments over where and how a D.C.-style system would be built would doubtless run on interminably, like something out of Dickens.

It turns out the leaders in Bogota, Colombia, were faced with a similar situation. When they assessed the state of public transit in their city in 1988, they found it slow, inefficient, dirty and dangerous. The average travel time took over an hour, roads were crowded by private cars, which accounted for 70 percent of the particles being spewed into the atmosphere, not to mention a high accident rate resulting in a significant number of casualties.

Funding was also in short supply. But rather than commission another study to tell people what they already knew, Mayor Enrique Penalosa oversaw the creation of a state-of-the-art bus system. That’s right — a bus system. But the buses in this system are beautiful, design marvels with a cool-factor that attracts people of all classes. What’s more, the Bogota system uses existing roads to create traffic-free bus corridors and a network of new bus stations that allow for off-board fare collection. As one observer put it, the TransMilenio, as the bus system is called, has become to 21st Century Bogota what the subway was to 20th Century New York. Travel times have been reduced by 32 percent and gas emissions in the city air have dropped by 40 percent. Accident rates in the corridors where the system operates have fallen by 90 percent.

And get this: It took just 36 months for TransMilenio to go from the design stage to implementation. Eventually the system is expected to carry 1.5 million passengers a day.

The Bogota strategy — to think rail and use buses — was not only cheaper and quicker to implement, it also improved the city’s economic productivity. Public transportation isn’t just about moving people from place to place. In city after city it’s found that public transit stations become destinations that spur economic development in neighborhoods where they are located. Is there a part of town that needs revitalizing? Put a public transit station there and watch what happens. First comes commercial development, followed by an increase in residential property values.

We won’t solve our public transit problem with a single stroke. But Bogota shows how existing infrastructure can be used as the basis for massive change. We know we need this; here’s a way to make a start.  



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