May 26th, 2010
on the road

Aaron Woolf, Director/Producer/Writer, Blueprint America: Beyond the Motor City

Touch down in Indianapolis, and the weather is hard to gauge. It’s somehow cloudy and sunny all at once, and I wonder if there is something wrong with my eyes, or if the glass on the airplane window has some kind of homeland security haze filter on it. When I get outside, I see there is indeed a paradoxical sky over the city. And as I discover throughout my visit to Indianapolis as part of the Blueprint America Screening Tour, forecasting the future of Indy’s transportation system proves equally hard.

Let’s begin with the city’s new air terminal, the first airport to be constructed in the wake of the September 11th attacks. Not even two years old, the airport is an impressive testament to transportation infrastructure: soaring spaces, bright light, and impeccable cleanliness. Despite the size of the main room, there is also a sense of community on a human scale, with comfortable couches and lounge chairs provided in a living-room arrangement. And as I make my way toward the ground transportation center (after being shamed on my trip to St. Louis, I am of course taking the public option to get downtown), what do I see but an exhibit on TRANSPORTATION!

I take in the exhibit’s neat and simplified chronology, beginning with its quaint woodcuts of horse-pulled canal barges, its black-and-white photographs of the great age of rail, and its gleaming images of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The exhibit presets a classically American idea of inevitability and progress: as centuries pass, a new transportation mode seamlessly replaces the last. I muse that the obvious next step in the exhibition might be the kind of futuristic, jet-pack infrastructure I hungered for as a kid.

But my adult vision of what American transportation needs in the 21st century is a more nuanced—and sustainableone than the jet-pack dreams of my childhood or the onward-and-upward march of this airport exhibit. Our ability to build the future of American transit may well lie in our willingness to learn from the lessons of the past. Floating freight on water is still often the most efficient way of moving weight over distance, for example. And rail, whether diesel or electricity-powered, is much more energy-efficient than trucking. Considering the enduring efficiencies of these 19th-century technologies, I wonder if it really does make sense to approach this century’s infrastructure by going back to the future?

These thoughts are in my head as I search for public transit from the airport to the city. In contrast to the tidiness of the transportation exhibit, signage for modern-day transit remains unclear. Still, I finally find a booth for the Green Line Express, which provides public bus service downtown. The booth is unattended, and there’s little indication of which routes stop at the airport and where they go. A clerk at an adjacent booth even suggests that I take a cab instead! Eventually a car-rental agent says there’s a sign out under the parking garage where the bus stops, and indeed, when I make my way out there, there is a Green Line bus just pulling away. Fortunately, another bus comes in exactly 24 minutes. It’s a rather old “short-bus” and there’s only one other passenger. As we make our way toward the city, we pass a massive construction project to widen I-70.

As it happens, I’m not the only one to recognize the city’s lopsided transit priorities. On the afternoon of my arrival there’s a public hearing downtown to discuss further cuts to the city bus system, and in response, a small group of dedicated protesters have gathered on the city streets. Representatives for the elderly, the disabled, and the transit unions speak, and a common theme emerges: Until Indianapolis provides a wide range of transportation options for its citizens, the system will remain broken. As in many mid-sized American cities, decades of investment in freeways and parking have left little room for alternative transit. Laura Barrett of the Transportation Equity Network has pointed out, for example, that more than 84% of U.S. transit agencies are cutting service, raising fares, or both.

In Indianapolis, as elsewhere, there’s little chance that those who can drive will choose not to or that those who can’t drive will find another easy option.

Still, there are reasons for optimism everywhere. After stopping by the transit rally, I head several blocks away to Lockerbie Central Methodist Church, a thriving community center in Indianapolis’s oldest neighborhood, where local transit advocacy groups, commuter organizations, and city bicycling enthusiasts have mustered a Transit Fair to help spread the word about alternatives to Indy’s car-centric culture. On the heels of the fair, Beyond the Motor City plays to an enthusiastic crowd in a screening hosted by Lockerbie Central’s film series, Earth House Film, and by community design advocates, Health by Design. After the screening, the audience notes that like Detroit, Indianapolis once boasted an extensive network of electric streetcars. These streetcars’ legacy is still in evidence: they once ran close to Lockerbie Central Methodist, contributing to the development of the neighborhood, and laying the groundwork—literally—for the church’s still-vibrant audience.

In addition, on the morning of my departure, I pass dozens of bikers on their way to a Bike-to-Work Day rally at downtown’s Monument Circle. A sign that Indy’s transit woes are being heard lies in the Mayor’s presence at the rally…and his morning commute to City Hall by bike. This year, in fact, is the first that Indianapolis has been designated a bike-friendly city. By the time I make my way back to the airport my perspective on Indianapolis has brightened. This time I wait just three minutes for a Green Line bus and I have an affable driver who says he thinks the airport line is one of the best in the system. I’d like to share my new hopes for Indy’s potential for transit reform with someone else…but in a reminder of my trip into the city, the driver and I are still the only ones riding. Indianapolis has the makings of a transit revitalization in place, but as transit advocates across the city remind us, they’ve still got a long way to go.

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