Can Transit Reverse Indianapolis’ Center-City Slide?

Despite Indianapolis' reputation as a flourishing Midwestern city, many of the demographic and economic trends spell bad news for the downtown core. This chart shows downtown residential growth compared to similar cities. Image: Urbanophile

At the Indiana statehouse today, a committee is discussing a transit plan that could revolutionize Indianapolis. The proposal would drastically expand transit investment, and add a rapid transit element, in an attempt to make this relatively auto-centric city a more authentically urban place.

But changing the transportation culture of a city is hard. And some of the state’s top opinionators have dismissed the whole idea, most recently Andrea Neal, a columnist at the Indianapolis Star. Since Indianapolis is so low-density and oriented around the car, according to Neal, it’s foolish to devote more resources to transit.

Aaron Renn of Network blog the Urbanophile says Neal may be right about the current transportation dynamic, but argues there are important reasons to support transit anyway. Like the future of the region’s economy:

Let’s take a look at the stark reality. Indianapolis has long boasted of having one of the best downtowns for a city its size in America — and with justification. From nothing, Downtown Indy has been successfully revitalized as a world class events and entertainment center, something all Hoosiers can be immensely proud of.

But the successful side of revitalization has hidden the less pleasant truth that downtown Indianapolis has been losing large numbers of private sector jobs and has been a national laggard when it comes to attracting residents. More troublingly, the larger urban core is in an advanced state of collapse.

Renn points out that Center Township — the centermost portion of Indianpolis’ Marion County — experienced pretty significant population loss over the last decade: 14.5 percent, a statistic that puts it in league with cities like Buffalo and Cleveland. Meanwhile, as shown in the above chart, residential growth in the city’s downtown areas has been anemic and the city has been hemorrhaging jobs to suburban locations.

It is difficult to look at these numbers after the extensive efforts — including large amount of public investment — put into the downtown and urban core and conclude otherwise but that these have not yet delivered on their goal of reversing population and job declines, except for population in the core of downtown — and even that has failed on a competitive basis.

I certainly wouldn’t rate a major investment in transit as the most pressing need. But it is something that is a key facilitator of things that need to happen in order to differentiate the urban core residential and commercial product so that it is not just in direct competition with the auto-oriented suburbs. That direct competition, as I noted, is doomed to fail. Only producing a distinctive product that you can’t get in the suburbs and that people are willing to buy on its own merits, will change these numbers.

Neal’s point of view is that the battle’s over and the suburbs won. But just ask places like Cleveland and Detroit if you can have a thriving metro area once your core goes down the tubes.

Elsewhere on the Network today: Second Avenue Sagas say the many recent news reports about NYC subway deaths don’t reflect a new safety problem, but a heightened level of scrutiny. Twin City Sidewalks says residents of greater Minneapolis need to shake off cabin fever and get out on the sidewalks. And The Greater Marin reports that officials in San Rafael, California, have a plan to pay people to give up solo commuting.