As a citizen of Indianapolis and a major supporter of mass transit, it should come as no surprise that I am always thinking about how we can pull off a successful light rail system. When I think about the key components that would create the best first step, there are many things to consider. First off, we must define the key characteristics of a transit line that will make it succeed:
I have given a lot of lip service to the benefits of a Broad Ripple to downtown light rail service. Many people when asked where a light rail route would make the most sense in Indy also come up with the same answer. Geographically at it’s core, a Broad Ripple to downtown service would connect activity centers and connect dense neighborhoods that are on the way to employment centers. It is the other three criteria which, if mishandled, would make a route of such proportions a pointless endevour. So it is these three points I intend to examine and bolster in this post.
As I pointed out in my initial summary, a route that connected these two activity centers would provide access for thousands of people to thousands of jobs. If a primary goal of light rail is economic development and environmental justice, a route like this would take thousands of vehicle miles off the road daily while successfully transporting people to their jobs. Thousands of jobs lie within walking distance of a potential route that connects these two activity centers.
Rapid service must be offered so that a reasonable commuting time can be acheived. Why spend the money if the resulting service offers a travel time that is woeful in comparison to taking a car? Knowing that this is a priority can also assist in picking an appropriate travel route. Limiting mixed traffic operations and road crossings where possible will insure that the most rapid service can be offered while still providing as many stops as possible to promote development near stations and reach as many dense population centers as possible. Finding that mix can be the most difficult part of designing a route.
If people are expected to abandon their cars and use transit, then a worthwhile level of service must be offered. Why won’t people wait for 30 to 45 minutes on a bus or train? Getting across Indianapolis in a car can be done in a half hour at a majority of times of the day. Thus, offering a service that arrives every 15 minutes or sooner must be designed. Anything more, will be the inflection point at which people opt to grab the keys when they leave for a trip.
The Proposed Route
Shown at the top of this post is a map that I created for my post, “Why Route Matters” from this past February. In that post, I laid out the basics of why a north/south route through midtown would provide a better return on investment compared to the NE Corridor currently under study by the MPO. Given the constraints that I have laid out above, lets look at the available geography afforded to the north and near north side of Indianapolis. Possible candidates for right of way include existing streets, private property and elevated tracks over existing roadways (ie: Clarian People Mover). In selecting the best route versus cost required to purchase right of way, existing streets offer a fantastic right of way. First, there is minimal need to purchase land from private property owners. Second, if the goal is to supplant cars from these areas, what better a way to do it then putting a train in place? Replacing cars with trains offers what may be the most politically difficult “sell” when it comes to planning a light rail system. However, that debate could be an entire post of it’s own. Furthermore, elevated tracks have become a thing of the past in most modern designs. Elevated tracks create barriers much like freeways do and are also unsightly and expensive.
I will divide my proposed route into multiple portions examining key focus areas. The lower portion will examine the Capitol & Illinois corridors. They provide excellent paths to the downtown job & activity centers. The upper portion will include a short jaunt on 38th street that would lead to College Ave. and ultimately Broad Ripple Ave/62nd Street.
Capitol & Illinois are currently one way streets with 3 or more lanes for autos. Does asking for one lane for LRT upon each of these corridors seems like a good compromise between providing reasonable automobile access as it currently exists and creating an option for rail transit? I believe that they do. Furthermore, a route that utilizes these streets provides virtually front door access to the thousands of medical jobs from 16th street on south; an area poised to grow as an employment center thanks to the construction of the Neuroscience Center at 16th street and future investment via the Biocrossroads innitative.
38th Street Portion
The 38th Street portion would utilize a short jaunt across 38th street between Capitol & College Ave. The least invasive way of doing this is by way of a median running transit route.
One station along this corridor would privide access to a number of apartment complexes as well as shopping centers and other locations in the neighborhood. Again, this is an area with a number of lanes in each direction in an existing wide right of way. Is asking for 1 dedicated lane each direction for this short portion asking a lot?
Perhaps the crown jewel of transit for Indianapolis could be summed up as the College Avenue corridor and Broad Ripple Avenue. Contained along these two corridors are the best preserved legacy of the streetcars of yesterday. At many intersections along College Avenue, from downtown to 62nd street, are existing or relics of past dense retail nodes surrounded by dense housing. Broad Ripple Village is the top node of them all boasting a complete strip of shops still standing up to the street itself. Various apartment developments dot the surrounding area providing a dense retail and residential neighborhood. It is this dense form of yesterday that combines with the automobile culture of today that creates the toughest sitution to shoehorn light rail of some sort back into the mix. College Avenue itself is a 4 lane automobile corridor with parking along both sides for much of it’s length. It is also a busy automobile corridor. A rough dimension to describe it’s width is 55′ between existing street curbs. Finding the right balance of dedicated right of way for transit and automobiles is a huge challenge. So how might we approach this opportunity to excel? One approach is to try shoehorning two dedicated lanes in the median as I proposed for 38th street. This could create some difficult situations for island platforms and could also lead to a reduction in automobile right of way making this a politically dicy proposal. It is the opinion of this author that this idea would not be a bad one. However, I live in the reality that weening people off of cars is going to take some compromise.
College Ave Solution
Taking a page from the Bus Rapid Transit dictionary, comes the notion of mixed operation with traffic with demand lanes at major street crossings. The number of potential stop lights from 38th street to Broad Ripple Avenue are 7 if we include the one at Broad Ripple Avenue. Traffic normally flows reasonably well along this path except at traffic signal crossings. Finding a way to manage rapid transit movement at these intersections could be a key opportunity to mixing trains with autos and still have an opportunity to offer a premium rapid transit service. Another option could be to only operate these demand lanes during peak commuting times giving lane priority to light rail. Locals should be used to what switching traffic patterns look like by travelling on Fall Creek Parkway during peak commuting times. There, the middle lane is changed in the mornings and evenings to give an extra lane to the direction of majority commuters; southbound priority in the morning and northbound priority in the evening.
By doing this, existing automobile traffic lanes could be maintained with a minimal obstruction while still being able to offer a premium transit service. In the end, negotiating something for transit where nothing currently exists, cannot be seen as a large request given the potential benefits.
Broad Ripple Ave Solution
The other difficult portion of a northside rail route is Broad Ripple Ave. In the early days of streetcar usage, Broad Ripple Ave. was the home of a street located rail in both directions where automobiles currently travel. If you have ever visited the Village on a warm summer day or a weekend, then you know that automobile congestion is already a difficult issue. How do we solve this? Part of the problem today is the search for free or cheap parking. Now that the parking meter deal is in place, this should help aleviate congestion. A large majority of all traffic congestion is caused by people circling the block (link to Primer on Parking) looking for available parking. With the new meters in place, turnover should increase and people looking for parking should decrease. If the reported parking garage is to be realized, then congestion for the village could be a problem of the past. However, for the purposes of this case study, I will assume that the existing congestion will remain.
In that respect, I offer the center lane which is currently reserved for turning, to be converted to a 2 way dedicated transit lane. This could be used by trains and by buses travelling through the village. It would only be 1 lane through the most dense portion of Broad Ripple Ave from College Ave, to just east of the Monon where some sort of 2 lane dedicated service could be installed that either uses the median or shifts automobile traffic in some fashion. An alternative to the single center transit lane, can be seen as the dashed line in the graphic. A 2nd lane could be added via this route to facilitate a true 2 way transit path through the village neighborhood. While this could hinder rapid transit through the village, it could also offer access to the side streets of the village with the added benefit of a 2nd dedicated transit lane. It should be noted that any transit lane that traverses the Broad Ripple village is likely to be subject to heated debate as business owners and residents are quite proud of the built environment. Anything that might upset that is likely to be a hotly contested debate. Finally, extending service to the Glendale area could provide what I propose be the only park and ride facility for such a transit route. There are ample surface lots on the property of the old Glendale Mall (now turned Target anchored shopping center) that could be used as park and ride for north side residents wishing to commute downtown for their day jobs.
Have I presented an air tight case for a northside light rail route? No. However, I think I have presented a fair assesement of the geography and some possible solutions to one of the tantalizing rail routes of our region. If done correctly, a rail route through the midtown area could capture thousands of daily vehicle trips, provide economic development potential along old streetcar routes, provide access to jobs and activity centers for thousands of residents as well as conventioners/tourists who visit the downtown area as well as potentially relieve congestion. This case study also highlights a route that could set Indianapolis down a path that could stimulate the rehabilitation of multiple neighborhoods along it’s route which are currently bearing the brunt of disinvestment thanks to suburban sprawl which the recent census has indicated is still on a runaway pace in this region. My analysis also suggests a route that is 100% contained within current automobile right of way; a notion which has not been taken up very often in America. Phoenix, AZ has come the closest with nearly the entire portion of its 20 mile light rail line running along existing auto right of way. This case study is not an airtight one, however it is one that I believe truly offers an ENOURMOUS potential to outperform any commuter rail or BRT route currently drawn on a map by Indyconnect.
Special thanks to fellow Urban Indy writer Graeme Sharpe for some concepts applied in this case study