This is an adapted excerpt from the new book Better Buses, Better Cities: How to Plan, Run, and Win the Fight for Effective Transit, by Steven Higashide, which releases this week.
Like many other Midwestern regions, Indianapolis sprawled outward throughout the latter half of the 20th century, and its expansive transit system was gradually cut back during the same time period. By the 2000s, buses were failing most city residents, including the one in five Indianapolis residents who lived in poverty. In 2014, only a quarter of jobs in Indianapolis could be reached on IndyGo’s frequent transit network, and only 16 percent of low-income house-holds had access to frequent transit.
What turned it around was years of effort from an odd-bedfellows coalition of businesses and faith-based poverty advocates, as well as an idiosyncratic right-wing mayor.
In 2008, Indianapolis elected a new mayor, Greg Ballard, a conservative whom Mark Fisher, the chief policy officer at the Indy Chamber, described as part of the “first wave of the Tea Party” but who held heterodox views on energy and transportation. A retired Marine and veteran of the Gulf Wars, Ballard strongly believed that the country was too dependent on foreign oil and that it needed to support alternatives to the automobile.
The Indy Chamber, the city’s leading business group, was also an enthusiastic supporter of transit as a way to attract a talented work-force and advocated a plan to build rail between the airport and downtown. But Ballard warned the group that he wouldn’t support a single line that didn’t improve regional mobility.
Fisher recollected that Mayor Ballard told him, “I can sell a system, but I can’t sell a line, and that’s all you’re giving me.”
Instead, the mayor asked the Indy Chamber, other business organizations and universities, and the Central Indiana Community Foundation to come up with a transportation plan for the region. They commissioned an analysis that found that transit projects would have the highest return on investment, and they recommended an expansive plan: a nine-county regional transit district that would pay for commuter rail, light rail, and expanded bus service.
This behemoth funding proposal made little headway in the state legislature, failing in 2012 and 2013 despite the support of Ballard and the business leaders.
By this point, the pro-transit forces in Indianapolis had broadened to include the Indianapolis Congregation Action Network (IndyCAN), a coalition of faith-based groups representing seventeen different denominations (it has since changed its name to Faith in Indiana). They made an unusual pair. While the Indy Chamber focused on Republican legislators, IndyCAN talked social justice and held weekly vigils at the statehouse. Whereas the Chamber talked about attracting Millennials, IndyCAN sent discussion questions to Catholic congregations asking members to reflect on how Jesus’s parable of the loaves and fishes related to mass transit.
In 2014, the advocates finally broke through, securing passage of legislation authorizing local transit funding increases. State legislators, however, had managed to insert a ban on light rail into the law. And the nine-county district was a no-go. Instead, the state agreed to grant individual counties the ability to raise their own taxes to pay for transit, if voters first approved it in a nonbinding referendum.
Advocates had won at the state legislature after years of work — and had years to go.
Now that new transit revenue was a potential reality, the county transit agency, IndyGo, had a responsibility to show citizens what it might do with it. Its proposed plan included three rapid bus corridors and a redrawn local bus network that put more focus on frequent buses in high-ridership areas. Service would increase by 70 percent, opening up frequent transit access to half of jobs and half of low-income households in the county.
Knowing that the decision to put the transit plan on the ballot could occur later that year, IndyGo and the region’s metropolitan planning organization ran a blitz of public outreach sessions to educate residents on how the bus network would expand if the county were to raise revenue for transit. Agency staff organized or attended twenty-five meetings over the course of 10 weeks in February, March, and April. These included open houses at neighborhood libraries and affordable housing complexes, neighborhood association meetings, young-professional dinners, and even a downtown salon called “tech + fashion + transit + urban.”
Although these sessions were nonpolitical, the agencies could present statistics that showed how far behind on the transit score-board Indianapolis was. Although it was the 33rd largest region in America, Indianapolis was 86th in transit investment per capita. But an expanded bus network could give a majority of low-income households access to frequent transit.
IndyGo also had a secret weapon: Fisher, who had been named to the agency’s board in late 2014. Whereas IndyGo staff were restricted to giving neutral presentations, Fisher was often present to follow up and offer his personal opinion as a board member — which was that expanded bus service made sense.
Once the City–County Council voted in May 2016 to put the measure on the November ballot, campaign efforts sprang into action.
The Indy Chamber assembled a “grasstops” coalition that represented many of the region’s growth-focused leaders, including the Indy Chamber; MIBOR, the regional realtors’ association; Indy-Hub, a young professionals’ organization; the state AARP chapter; the Indianapolis Urban League; and the Indiana Latino Institute.
Together, they raised $500,000 to fund polling and voter modeling, direct mail, social media advertising, and other voter engagement efforts.
Their polling found that accessibility resonated with Marion County voters. “From our earliest poll to our last poll, the message that resonated across demographic groups was, ‘Transit is an investment in providing better access to jobs, education and health care,’” Fisher said. Some form of that message made its way into mailers, TV spots, and social media.
Meanwhile, IndyCAN headed a grassroots mobilization effort. While the organization sat alongside business leaders and realtors on the steering committee of Transit Drives Indy, its real strength was in pews and living rooms. IndyCAN’s four full-time staff and two paid fellows organized volunteers to knock on people’s doors, make calls, text, and host community events and house parties.
The key outcome of those activities, in many cases, was voter turnout. As Nicole Barnes, IndyCAN’s director of voter engagement, explained, the fact that the referendum was nonbinding meant that the win had to be large enough to demonstrate a popular mandate. The transit referendum was also part of a broader project of building power among people of color and low-income voters. IndyCAN’s “voter universe” — the pool of potential voters that organizers wanted to turn out — was 82 percent African American. More than half were “low-propensity” voters who did not have a history of voting.
The polling that the Indy Chamber and MIBOR paid for helped IndyCAN’s door-to-door messaging. Barnes said that, depending on whether the person who answered the door had liberal or conservative tendencies, IndyCAN volunteers could steer the conversation in one of two directions by asking “Is Indianapolis a fair city?” or “Is Indianapolis a competitive city?” Regardless of how the conversation started, the volunteers tried to steer it to the same place: “The people who need the jobs the most can’t even access the jobs,” Barnes said.
IndyCAN also linked lack of transit access to broader structures that hurt residents of color. “We had to engage people on a variety of levels. . . . Folks who may not necessarily use the bus system, they were able to see the connection to mass incarceration and how it all works together,” Barnes said. “We can’t have people locked up at the rates that they are, and we also can’t suffocate communities of color — who utilize the bus the most.”
On Election Day, IndyCAN had teams of poll watchers across the city. At one polling station, where lines ran around the block and rain was coming down, Barnes recalled, “We ran to CVS, we bought ponchos; we went to Speedway, got people hot chocolate and umbrellas. Just to make sure that people stood in line and stayed there to vote. We needed them to understand . . . even the way the voting system is set up is a way to keep us from getting what we need, so we need you to push through.”
After the last ballot was counted, six in ten Marion County voters had said yes to more transit. IndyCAN’s organizers had signed up more than 1,200 volunteers, who had collectively made more than 165,000 phone calls. Pro-transit television ads had been seen 1.7 million times. According to Fisher, it was the first time a referendum on raising taxes for a service other than education had passed in Indiana history. The popular mandate proved to be convincing enough for Indianapolis’s City–County Council, which approved the income tax increase a few months later by another lopsided vote, 17–8.
Since then, IndyGo has been gradually ramping up to the promised increase in bus service. The agency made a first set of service expansions in 2018, and transit ridership increased by 3 percent, turning around years of decline. Its first bus rapid transit corridor, the Red Line, opened in fall 2019, providing a spine of high-quality bus service connecting key destinations.
“We took our time, we got a system that made sense, and we very clearly communicated what people were going to get in return for their investment,” Fisher said. “We [didn’t start] off with . . . a line to the most affluent suburb, or the airport. [It was], ‘how are we going to design a system that the taxpayers — the people that live in this community — are going to be able to take advantage of?’”
From Better Buses, Better Cities: How to Plan, Run, and Win the Fight for Effective Transit, by Steven Higashide. Copyright © 2019 Steven Higashide. Reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington, D.C.
Top photo via Wikimedia Commons.
About the Author
Steven Higashide is one of America’s leading experts on public transportation and the people who use it. As director of research for the national foundation TransitCenter, Higashide has authored groundbreaking reports that have redefined how decision makers and journalists understand transit. He has taken the bus in 28 cities around the US and the world.
You can connect with Steven on Twitter at @shigashide.