Thursday, May 08, 2008

The Monon Trail dilemma

The Senator from Delaware made a speech recently on the need for more mass transit, especially in the face of rising gas prices.

From Planetizen, I found this IBJ article about planners in Indy looking to add streetcars as a form of mass transit to relieve congestion. This is something I think every city needs to look into. I know lots of people back home would always bring up population density and how no one would use it, etc. And to look at the comments at the IBJ article, the same short-sighted view is on display. One reader questions why his taxes should pay for a line that only goes to Irvington, overlooking the simple fact that we can't build a full network immediately. Start with Irvington, then slowly add and build up.

I went to public meetings about this while I was at Purdue, the city was discussing building a line from Union Station out to Noblesville in order to relieve some of the congestion on I-465. It would have been a great idea had it worked, but people were up in arms about everything. About how they'd be inconvenienced waiting at RR crossings for the trains to pass. One couple stood up and actually made the argument that they'd bought a home along the rail corridor the city wanted to use in hopes that it would turn into a Monan Trail and up their property value. They were aghast that people would want to use an existing rail corridor for - get this - a railroad!

And this brings us to the Monon Trail. In all, it seems to be a very noble idea - build a greenway that cyclists, skaters and pedestrians can use, that connects various neighborhoods and will bring people together. I admit making use of this trail, albeit only 3 or 4 times in the time it has existed. Frankly, I think it should go, and a light rail service be put in place. Wikipedia claims that it's successful for its promotion of healthful activities such as walking and biking, and that it promotes local businesses along the trail. I'd beg to differ.

The climate of Indianapolis is not the most favorable. It changes frequently, from bright and sunny to sudden downpours with strong winds, neither of which is conducive to cycling or walking. In addition, the weather from about October to April is chilly, if not dangerously cold, while the summer months often find people hiding indoors from the scorching heat, something that a walk on a sun-beaten asphalt path wouldn't help. In addition, the Trail passes through some unsavory neighborhoods as it moves towards downtown. While that may change, it means that at the moment many people, primarily women, are afraid to go anywhere on the trail south of Broad Ripple, especially alone (this is based on conversations with several friends and hasn't been scientifically studied. Who knows, maybe all my friends are wusses).

I believe a light rail service that ran the length of the Trail would be far more useful to the city and beneficial to its residents. The trail extends for quite a long distance and passes through several central commercial areas. The city should put stops in at, say, downtown, the Indiana Fairgrounds, Broad Ripple, Nora, 116th Street by carmel, probably another one farther north, as well as one or two more in between downtown and Broad Ripple, which would connect several popular destinations, primarily downtown and Broad Ripple year-round and the Fairgrounds during the summer with the exploding populations of Fishers and Carmel. Doing so would revitalize the perrenially empty Nora area, as well as bolster the already popular destinations downtown and in Broad Ripple. Something like this should be done in conjunction with another line headed NE out to Noblesville, as well as another stretching to Zionsville. These would cover the parts of Indianapolis that I have extensive knowledge of, connecting popular residential and commercial areas in a bid to reduce congestion and parking space, as well as provide a safe alternative to driving. Such a system would be a boon to the pubs and clubs downtown, in Broad Ripple and in Castleton and would hopefully reduce drunk driving.

While this would mean the loss of a somewhat popular (Indiana Greenways claims a study has shown "thousands of users" but neglects to tell us if that's per day, week, month, year, or ever, which wouldn't mean very popular, methinks) exercise trail, I think we as Hoosiers need to question why we need a greenway separated from cars - a greenway that I have always needed a car to travel to so that I can make use of it. The city itself should be a greenway, more friendly to bikers and pedestrians, and designed in a way that benefits those who make use of more healthy, less space/energy-consuming modes of transportation. If the trains were designed to allow stowage of bicycles, these could be taken to the destination points, taken out and ridden around. In addition, bus lines could run out from the station along major roads. From Broad Ripple, for example, a bus running eastward could run to Castleton and beyond, which a westward-bound bus could follow the canal (another popular bike path) all the way to Butler University, connecting residential areas along the way. Tram lines like the ones featured in the IBJ article could also be used, although they move slower and would not be very efficient on the Monon itself. As well, transfer stations around I-465 could allow a loop train to connect various spokes of the wheel if a train could be made to run in between the two major lanes of traffic.

A side benefit would allow for fewer parking spaces and for certain areas to utilize parking lots and turn them into open-air malls that are more pedestrian-friendly could hold more businesses. One other thing that should be done is to redo zoning in areas around the station to allow for taller buildings with commercial street-level properties. This would allow for essential stores to be placed closer to larger amounts of people. Taking over the various big-box stores, razing them and their parking lots and building an apartment complex maybe three stories high with streetside grocery stores would certainly be an improvement to the urban blight we have going on now. And if you believe a person wouldn't want to live in a condo around Nora within walking distance to a train line that runs to the commercial center downtown as well as the party district of Broad Ripple, I've got a nice portfolio of subprimes you might be interested in. I'll even throw in a bridge to sweeten the deal.

So yeah, this a wild, incoherent rant, but it's one that needs to be ranted. I've lived in several cities now, and I definitely know the benefits and drawbacks (I lived next to one of the most heavily-travelled train lines - the 4am freight train wasn't fun) of public transport. But the reality is, not everyone can own a car. This would help poorer people to travel to work affordably, and allow others who are better off to be more efficient in their time. What do you do during your 45-min commute? Drive and get stressed? I could sleep, read a book, check out the pretty girl across the aisle from me, etc. Of course, you occasionally get the old drunk with horrible breath leaning on you, but the good things more than make up for it.

Indiana Greenways says that from 10th street to 96th is roughly 16km (well, they say it's 10 miles, but I'm going metric here, get used to it). From Hiratsuka to Tokyo is 50-60km, or roughly an hour with several stops. 16km would probably get you from here to Ofuna, or 20 minutes with three stops in between. Would you like be able to go from Broad Ripple to downtown in 20 minutes, without having to drive. That means no $50 taxicab back from the bar, and a whole heap of other hidden costs taken out. If there was a monthly pass system, that would mean a free ride all the way, making it an absolute steal.

The ways are out there, they just need to be seized. On this note, I'm off to bed. Let me know what you think if you manage to read this far.


Ana said...

I agree wholeheartedly of course with the need for public transport in Indy. I came across a public forum on the subject in the Indy Star. Most of the comments are pretty positive, but some are just downright ignorant. (I can't seem to paste the link here, but if you want to find the forum just go to the front page of the Star website and the link is near the top)

Jeremy said...

Yeah, like I wrote, I think the comment on not wanting to have one's taxes contribute because the tram line wouldn't go directly to where you live is representative of most Hoosiers' thinking.

But the thing is, when people think of public transit, they think of New York subways and how dangerous it was (which in itself had almost nothing to do with it). The stigma's there, the same way people at the hearing I went to tried to characterize the trains as the loud, noisy clunkers from back in the day.

Many people who've never experienced public transit - or only experience the extreme end like NYC's - don't realize that there are many ways to skin this cat. Essen, Germany has a wonderful tram system that runs through the city and doesn't hold up traffic. There's so much innovation going on in urban planning, but always in other countries. Americans are missing the bus on this, literally.