Our First Day Trying the New IndyGo Red Line, Which Sucked

Red Line Anne!

My wife Anne hanging out in the bikers’ wing because there was no room for us anywhere else aboard.

I love the idea of mass transit. I got used to buses as a wee tyke when my mom and my grandma took me on them all the time. As adults my wife and I have had positive experiences in Denver, DC, Chicago, Philadelphia, New Jersey, and Manhattan. (Baltimore was a mixed bag.) I loved the NYC subways so much after our first visit, I begged Anne to let me dig a subway tunnel connecting NYC’s MTA and our front door. My request died in committee.

Meanwhile back in Indianapolis, “mass transit” doesn’t mean quite so much. Our medium metropolis was built over the course of decades with no room allotted for subways or light rail. There’s no such thing as “hailing” a cab here — they exist but if you want one, you have to phone for one. We have a bus system called IndyGo, which is…well, it’s certainly a set of things on wheels that provides a traveling alternative under certain limited conditions. It isn’t exactly renowned. From time to time, some idealistic, would-be innovator comes to town with an idea to do a “mass transit” thing and improve quality of life for commuters and folks without cars. Nine times out of ten, those benevolent thinkers are sent packing. I’d use the old cliché “they’re run out of town on a rail”, but this would be an obvious lie due to the lack of rails to spare.

This year IndyGo and our city government conspired to introduce a new concept to our Indy road scene: Bus Rapid Transit. Per their grand vision and ubiquitous marketing boilerplate, it could change the very face of Indianapolis mass transit if their plans and dreams come true. If.

Sadly, buses are not a part of my personal, everyday life. We live out on Indy’s west side, the Indy black sheep of sides-of-town. The nearest IndyGo stop is a mile-and-a-half from our place, a dangerous path with nearly no sidewalks the entire way, and buses brake for that particular stop only a few times per day. Using the bus is an extreme measure we’ve had to do in times of car trouble, but even then it required workarounds on our part. It is in no way a “convenience”. If busing were a must, we never could have moved into our current house in the first place.

But I do love the idea living in a city where the buses are awesome. Ours have more than their share of defects. Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover, in our very first entry dated April 28, 2012, I tackled this very subject and wrote of our bus system’s fatal flaw:

…the archaic wagon-wheel design of our IndyGo routes. Once upon a time when downtown was everything to everyone, designating it as a transportation hub was a logical plan. You could take the bus from nearly any point in the city to downtown, transfer to another bus for only a few cents extra, then head back out to any other point in town. If you enjoyed the stopover in the heart of the city and didn’t mind spending an hour on travel time each way, the bus was a great option. If you need a ride from West 38th Street to West 71st Street and aren’t up for bicycling, the bus is an absurd option.

That spoke-shaped layout remains in effect today. Every city planner strongly believes it’s the only route design allowed. We’ve seen other cities where the bus layouts were more grid-like and flexible for planning trips in various directions. I’d be curious to know if any other American city deals with self-imposed limitations like ours. If your Indy home and workplace just so happen to be collinear with downtown, it’s a perfect situation. For most folks that’s rare. Also hindering matters is Indy’s naturally sleepy-head traffic speeds on every road that isn’t an interstate. Without your own car, getting from any point A to any point B is a time-consuming event.

Hence the entire point of Bus Rapid Transit. Totally electric buses (yay environment!) are given their own dedicated lanes, separate traffic signals, and fewer obstacles. Buses are supposed to run every 10-20 minutes, a dramatic increase over current service levels, therefore theoretically offering more pickups, faster routes, shorter travel times, happier citizens, and more of a big-city performance to our mass transit. For once we might look from the outside as if we can actually handle our teeming population. To test the theory behind this invention, one (1) IndyGo route was overhauled over the course of several months and millions of dollars. Dubbed the Red Line, the stressful upheaval and its results stretch along Indy’s densest, busiest corridor, from the formerly trendy Broad Ripple neighborhood on the north side to the University of Indianapolis campus on the south side (fun trivia: I’ve never knowingly met anyone who went there), with key stops along the way naturally including downtown or else the project specs would’ve been taken straight from the drawing board to the shredder.

If the Red Line is successful, plans for other dedicated, equally colorful BRT lines will move forward. albeit not quickly. Naturally those plans include the upper-class neighborhoods to the far north, as well as a Blue Line running from downtown (of course!) to Indianapolis International Airport on the southwest side, and farther beyond to Plainfield in Hendricks County. Years ago, Anne knew a lady who moved from another major city to Plainfield under the assumption that she’d simply use “mass transit” to go back and forth every day from Plainfield to her workplace on Indy’s northwest side. Oh, how we chuckled ruefully at her misinformed, suddenly dire situation. Perhaps the BRT plan will indeed work and one day her dream will come true through the Blue Line…which as of last update has been delayed till at least 2025.

The Red Line officially opened for business September 1st. Because so much of the process comes with a learning curve, the first month’s rides will be free for all. One week in, Anne and I found an excuse to try it for ourselves, for fun and science.

This past Saturday we attended HorrorHound Indianapolis at our very own Indiana Convention Center. Both it and my workplace are downtown, but they’re not next-door neighbors. We can park at my work for free and walk to any given Indy convention, but it’s a bit of exercise that’s getting more difficult as we age, and is downright miserable during inclement weather. (I still remember that damaging time during Star Wars Celebration 2002 when we walked back to the car through a monsoon straight out of the Vietnam War. Not fun.) We love saving money on parking and can handle the walk on an average day, but if we can find ways to save steps in the future and burn ourselves out a little less either before or after a show, we’re absolutely open to it.

As it happens, there’s a Red Line stop not far from my work lot. That morning a sudden whim popped into my head for a test ride. We drove from home to my work lot and walked from the car to the Red Line stop. One minor drawback: I wasn’t sure exactly where the next stops were. No maps were posted or distributed at the stop. I pulled out my phone and Googled for info. The first search result took me to an IndyGo page discussing the original Red Line project and the designers who competed to work on it. The second result took me to IndyGo’s official “Welcome to the Red Line!” page, which confirmed it is a new thing that will do things with buses that will be cool in bus-like ways for people who like buses.

The only “map” link I saw — and, for that matter, the first few Google Image results — pulled up a vague image of several unlabeled dots in a row against a field of white nothingness. Then I noticed an alternate version that placed those same unlabeled dots on a map of unlabeled streets. I recognized the street shapes around the Convention Center, noted the closest stop to them, and planned to get off there from what I was pretty sure was our starting point.

A southbound Red Line bus had pulled away just as we approached. The next southbound bus arrived a mere five minutes later. So far, promises were kept and expectations exceeded. I was reminded of that time we stayed in a Weehawken hotel in 2011 and rode buses across the river to the Port Authority for each day’s NYC activities. Those buses were constant. Crowded, but constant. We cheerfully boarded the crowded Red Line and stood in the middle next to a pair of bicyclists who’d brought their rides aboard with them. Fortunately the Red Line was equipped for them. We never found out how the seats felt or looked, and couldn’t tell if there were amenities for those lucky sitters. We stood and waited as the bus headed south toward the Indiana Statehouse and then hopefully toward the Convention Center.

After the Statehouse it took a sharp left turn away from the Convention Center. To my sheepish chagrin, the Red Line path continued onward to the east end of downtown, where its next stop was the IndyGo Transit Center. Using that crappy quasi-map, my starting-point guess had been off the mark. We immediately disembarked and walked the rest of the way to the Convention Center. The distance was roughly the same we would’ve walked from my work lot anyway. No steps lost or gained, I think. As a serendipitous bonus, along the way we ran into an old friend from church and chatted for a few minutes. If I’d found a competent Red Line map earlier, we would’ve missed that opportunity.

We spent the next five hours having our usual brand of convention fun. At some point during the day, I rechecked online and finally found two different, complete lists of fully labeled Red Line stops. The best version was, of all places, on its Wikipedia page. The average commuter doesn’t expect to use Wikipedia as a city travel resource, and frankly shouldn’t have to, but there it was. With that I was able to figure out where I’d gone wrong earlier, though I wish official IndyGo documents had been there for us to do their jobs to begin with.

(I also found a version of the list which included stops that don’t yet exist. The long-term plan is for the Red Line is to stretch as far north as Carmel in Hamilton County, and as far south as Greenwood in Johnson County. For now those legs are entirely hypothetical until and unless any of those governing bodies devises plans to fund their portions. As of this writing, none of them have any such plans afoot. At all. Meanwhile, Plainfield is already gearing up for a 2020 referendum years in advance of their optimistic Blue Line future.)

When the time came to go home, I figured, now that I know how this section of the Red Line looks, maybe we could test-ride again but on the next northbound bus back to my car. Maybe this time we’d see a seat or two.

A northbound Red Line bus had pulled away just as we approached. We sat and waited for the next northbound one. A promise of 10-15 minutes was acceptable in our fatigued states. We would’ve accepted twenty, but would’ve grumbled a little. A five-minute wait, as the morning buses had managed, would’ve been marvelous. It would equal the high end of our average NYC subway waits.

A southbound bus approached a moment later, dropped off riders, and kept on its way.

Minutes dragged on. No buses. The sun’s position changed and it began to shine into our formerly shaded seats. The stop only had three seats. I got up so others could enjoy the perk of sitting.

After twenty minutes we got a bit surly as we realized we were trapped. We could’ve walked back to the car long ago and been halfway home by now. But saving steps would feel good and might still be fun somehow. And, well, someone had to hold the Red Line accountable. Besides, if we got up now, you know that’s exactly when the next northbound bus would arrive and make us look silly and feel impatient. We chose to be stubborn and wait it out.

Half an hour in, another southbound bus approached, dropped off riders, and kept on its way.

Two minutes after that, two more southbound buses approached back-to-back, dropped off riders, and kept on their way.

Nearly forty minutes into our wait, a northbound bus arrived at last. Soon we would hop aboard, jaunt a bit with it, then be delivered near our car, having successfully done mass-transiting.

The bus stopped where it was supposed to. The doors stayed shut. No one got off. No one was allowed to get on. At all. No words of explanation were forthcoming. We several wannabe passengers on the platform stared at the windows. Implacable glass reflected our bewildered glares back at us.

After this awkward 20-second silent showdown, the bus resumed its northward journey with zero change in head count.

At this point we gave up and walked the dumb stupid rassa-frassin’ short walk back to the car. After the long, draining day we’d had, we were ready to punch through walls. I can’t imagine how the others waiting at the stop felt, many of whom probably had no choice but to stay put.

Blocks later, just as we got back to my car and unlocked the doors, the next northbound Red Line drove by, far too late to help us out or give us a reason to say nice things about it.

Our first impression of the Red Line: basically it’s “what if buses but slightly more of them.” That’s not innovation.

I still love the idea of mass transit. I can’t wait for our next annual road trip, when we’ll maybe get to visit some other big city that has some mass transit and demonstrably makes it work. Until then, you can find me behind my wheel, controlling our itinerary and doing my part to contribute to the hazy smoke and never-ending gridlock as a west-side black sheep whether I like it or not.

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