I just finished reading competing perspectives on mass transit by Indianapolis Star columnists Matthew Tully and Erkia D. Smith. The two are “debating” whether mass transit will ever get off the ground here in the area? Smith thinks it can with the right leadership behind it, Tully offers a more realistic (or pessimistic) view, depending on your perspective. The debate is not a new one. The Indy mass transit discussion has been taking place for years.
Having grown up in Chicago, I can appreciate a healthy, comprehensive mass transit system. I took the city bus in high school. I used the subway as an adult commuting to work in downtown whenever I would stay with my parents for a few days. And driving a car to a White Sox game was just not going to happen. And that’s what I think most advocates for mass transit fail to realize as we debate this issue, most people aren’t passionate about something they’ve never really had to use.
I asked a co-worker the other day if he would ever use mass transit, his response was, “I’m not getting on a bus with a bunch of smelly people!” That may sound harsh, but that’s the hurdle. Let’s be honest, what is the perception of most people who take the bus? Drive by the bus stop on Ohio Street look who is standing there. Yes, this is a horrible thing to say, but deep down inside, we all know that this is part of the problem. “I don’t take the bus, but those people do, so let them pay for it.”
So how do we get more people on the bus, rather than just “those” people? Well, I honestly think the best thing mass transit advocates can do right now is adjust their timetable, skip trying to convince this generation to take the bus or train and start working on the next generation. Here’s what I mean. Why doesn’t IndyGo form a partnership with the schools? Why not in exchange for $20 a month high juniors and seniors get a bus pass to use IndyGo to get to school? Not only could students use the bus for school, but they could also use the bus to get to work. We all know transportation is a big inhibitor for young people to find work, now we have eliminated that barrier. It would take some adjustment in the lines, but I don’t see why it can’t be done.
Think about this. School districts that are struggling to find money for their bus systems get a way to save money, since they no longer have to transport so many students, IndyGo increases ridership, gets a new source of funding and we get an entire generation of people who now think taking the bus is no big deal because they’ve been doing it all their lives. And now “those people” who take the bus are now just fellow commuters.
If I were IndyGo and IndyConnect and the Central Indiana Regional Transportation Authority, I would be on the phone Monday morning with every public, private and charter school in the city seeing what we would could work out. Let’s face it, if someone isn’t taking the bus now, the odds are they aren’t going to be taking it later. However, if I can get a 16 or 17-year old to start using mass transit, there’s a good chance I’ve got a rider for the rest of their lives.