Indianapolis transit at present mainly provides service for the former, those who can’t drive. But the need for that is small. The Census Bureau says just 7 percent of Indianapolis-area households lack cars, and just 17,000 workers live in households that don’t have cars (nearly half of them drive to work alone anyway, presumably in borrowed cars).
Nearly all of the region’s car-less households are in Indianapolis itself and won’t benefit from regional transit. Advocates of regional transit, then, are mainly interested in promoting the second goal: getting people, and particularly suburbanites, out of their cars.
Ever since Ralph Nader’s 1965 book, “Unsafe at Any Speed,” Americans have been barraged with claims from anti-auto groups that cars are evil, gas-guzzling, polluting monsters. There may have been some truth to that in 1965, but since then auto fatality rates and air pollution have declined by more than 80 percent, and cars today are 40 percent more energy efficient.
Nationally, cars and transit are about tied for energy consumption per passenger mile. IndyGo actually uses more energy and releases more greenhouse gases per passenger mile than the largest sport utility vehicles.
And transit, especially transit aimed at getting people out of their cars, costs a lot more than driving. Americans spend about 25 cents a passenger mile on driving, including all subsidies to highways. Transit typically costs four times that much, and those costs only rise when cities start running empty transit vehicles to suburbs where people have three cars in every driveway.
Worse, the costs of regional transit are so high that most cities with regional transit systems have had to cut bus services to those who lack cars and need transit the most. Atlanta, Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area are just some of the regions where transit riders have suffered in order to build a regional transit system.
This doesn’t mean IndyGo can’t be improved. Contracting out bus routes to private operators can save up to 50 percent of the costs, allowing IndyGo to provide more service without higher taxes. Suburban cities that want to send buses into downtown Indianapolis should be allowed to do so.
Increasing taxes to create a regional transit system, however, will provide no significant transportation benefits while actually hurting Indianapolis’ competitiveness.