Riding the Red Line: Why Indianapolis May Now Be America's New Gold Standard for Bus Rapid Transit

Taking a Critical Dive into Indianapolis's New Bus Rapid Transit Line
A red line bus arrives at Broad Ripple station A red line bus arrives at Broad Ripple station

Bus Rapid Transit tends to get a bad rap in the United States. In theory, BRT—that is, a bus system that operates like a train, with clear stations, off-board fare payment, (preferably) dedicated lanes, signal priority, and the like—seems like an ideal technology. It should not only allow cities to build high-quality transit, but allow them to do so quickly and inexpensively, leveraging their existing road space, expertise in road construction, and familiarity with bus operations. In actual practice, however, BRT in the United States has largely been disappointing. All too often, American BRT projects have suffered something of a death by a thousand cuts. Slowly but surely, conflict-adverse politicians and locals hostile to change chisel away at once-grand plans, removing a bus lane here, reducing the size of stations there, reducing service everywhere, and so on. As a result, the final systems are frequently a double compromise: transit that is not only a step down in capacity and comfort from rail, but which has been so thoroughly diluted as to seem like little more than an extravagantly branded local bus line. In American transportation circles, this phenomenon is so sadly common that it even has a name: BRT creep.

Nothing about this process, however, needs to be endemic to bus rapid transit. While it may be surprisingly easy to implement BRT poorly, when it is implemented well—that is, when it offers a quality service that travels to and from the places that people want and need to go—it is a powerful transportation tool, one especially suited to less dense cities and/or less busy routes. To illustrate that point, perhaps no American city to date has implemented BRT better than Indianapolis, IN. While this mid-sized, Midwestern city may not be the first name that comes to mind when one thinks of quality of public transportation, its new Red Line—the first of its three planned BRT routes—is actually a sterling example of how to do transit investment right. Indianapolis has demonstrated that, even in the face of a hostile political environment and physical landscape, it is possible to build effective, high-quality transit—transit that is legible, fast, frequent, easy to use, and which supports a diversity of ridership. As the Red Line shows, while the path to BRT success is not necessarily easy, the route itself is not particularly complex: all it takes is the institutional attention to detail—and the local political will—to put riders at the fore. Of course, no system is perfect, and the Red Line does still have some kinks to work out. On the whole, however, it stands as an object lesson in how to implement truly high-quality transit in a low-density city on a tight budget. It may well be this country's new gold standard for bus rapid transit.

The Indiana Statehouse in Downtown Indy The Indiana Statehouse in Downtown Indy

First opened in September of 2019, just six months before Covid would shut down the world, the Red Line may seem to have gotten off to an inauspicious start. In truth, however, the project has, from its inception, had to face far more than its fair share of obstacles. As a blue city in a deeply red state, transit investment was always going to be an uphill battle in Indianapolis. Not only were Republican state legislators unwilling to contribute funds to any urban transit project, they actively worked to block their capital city from charting its own course. The legislature would first explicitly forbid Indianapolis from constructing light rail. Then, it would demand that any new rapid transit line in the city derive 10% of its operating revenue via an unprecedented mechanism: a charitable foundation. While this demand was ostensibly designed to obviate the need for downtown corporate taxation, its nigh poison-pill-like nature made the hostility of the legislature crystal clear.

Even had funding been a cakewalk, however, the project would have still had to contend with the city's challenging built environment. While Indianapolis does have a robust central business district and a handful of walkable, urban neighborhoods—urban fragments, most of which were once streetcar- or interurban-oriented suburbs—it is primarily a low-density, suburban city. Indy's flat, flat, gridded landscape is laced with wide, auto-friendly boulevards, which connect vast swaths of detached, single-family houses to strip malls and office parks—all environments that are decidedly difficult to serve effectively with public transport. Making matters worse, the city's pedestrian infrastructure—as one might predict from its suburban typology—is woefully lacking. The situation on the ground is so bad, in fact, that some expert observers have estimated that the city will require as much as $1 billion worth of sidewalk construction and repair just to enable full pedestrian connectivity. As a result, to have any chance at success, a transit investment would also need to find funds to improve the walking infrastructure along its route.

Market Street in Downtown Indy
Broad Ripple, a former streetcar suburb
Suburban Indy
Indy's downtown (left) may be dense, and some of its neighborhoods are lively (center), but by and large it is a suburban city (right).

In this highly constrained environment, bus rapid transit was a natural choice—even before political interference left no other real option. Not only would BRT easily meet the capacity demands of this low-density metropolis, it would also allow the city to dream big on its limited budget. On the back of a single, modest transit-funding referendum (and with the help of federal funds), IndyGo—the sadly not-particularly-blue-colored local transit operator—was able to draw up broad plans, including three new BRT lines, a new fare payment system, and a full bus network redesign, to boot. The Red Line would be the first part of this new system to come to fruition. In total, the entire 13 mile, 28 station route would cost only $96.3 million to build—a price which included the purchase of an all-new fleet of battery-electric buses—and would take only 18 months to construct.

Given the sky-high costs and drawn-out construction times of so much of America's infrastructure today, those numbers certainly seem welcome. If the past twenty or so years of American urbanism have shown anything, however, it is that supposedly "faster, better, cheaper" projects are often none of the above. The real question for Indianapolis is whether the Red Line actually represents an effective bargain, or whether it is just another watered-down waste of resources. With the pandemic finally beginning to recede in the United States (or, at least, so it seemed at the time) and travel again possible, I was finally able to visit and investigate the Red Line. And happily, I can report that not only is it as good a first-time rapid transit investment as this country has seem in some time, it is also an absolute joy to ride.

The Red Line does almost everything right. It is frequent: in normal times, buses come every ten minutes or less, all day—and even now, at the tail end of the pandemic, they still come every fifteen—meaning riders don't have to schedule their lives around transit. It is quick: buses travel mostly in dedicated lanes, whisking passengers past stopped traffic. And unlike far too many local bus systems, it is easily legible: buses stop at clearly-defined stations, travel along a straight, easy-to-understand route, and use automated announcements to keep passengers informed about where they are at all times. The result is a line that not only supports show-up-and-go riding, but which is as easy for new and irregular riders to use and understand as it is for regulars.

Walking map at Broad Ripple station
Strip map on a Red Line bus
Countdown clocks at Vermont Station
Thanks to its legibility, the Red Line is easy for all riders to use.

The Red Line's physical infrastructure is generally top notch. Stations are both functional and handsome, with (mostly) clear signage, roofs, benches, and real-time bus arrival displays, all clad in stylish brushed steel and warmly stained wood. The entire line is accessible: custom, low-floor buses (with doors on both sides to allow for flexible station design) stop at raised, level platforms. Should it look like a rider need even more help, the operator can quickly and remotely deploy flip-out boarding ramps at every door, which turn an already small gap into a fully level surface. The buses, too—while nothing incredibly unique—have everything that one might want, including digital displays, WiFi, USB chargers, and even on-board bike racks.

Vermont Station
Vermont Station Platforms
Broad Ripple Platform and Bench
Red Line stations are both functional and handsome.

In short, the Red Line meets all the vital requirements that a high-quality transit system must: it is frequent, fast, legible, easy to use, and supportive of many different types of riders making many different types of trips. Better still, the line integrates all these elements into a system that is at once attractive and accessible.

Bus ramps
Bus bike racks
Red Line buses are fully accessible and have niceties like bike racks.
Central, reversable bus lane A not-insignificant chunk of the Red Line uses central, reversible lanes.

There are many clever design decisions that make all of this work, but to my mind perhaps the most interesting has to be the use of central, reversible bus lanes along a not-insignificant chunk of the route. In these sections, buses drive on a single lane in the middle of the road, travelling over a concrete median that they are just tall enough to straddle. At stations, the route widens back to two full lanes to allow buses to pass, and computer-controlled signals ensure that no more than one direction of bus enters any given section at a time. The result is a clear path for buses that only appropriates the equivalent of 1/2 of a traffic lane from either direction of the street. There are also some unexpected benefits, as well. For one thing, the median prevents cars from making left turns anywhere but at intersections, freeing buses from having to wait for turning vehicles. What's more, the median also helps segregate the bus lane from normal traffic, as neither side has enough room for an entire car. Of course, there is a downside to this design: it limits the Red Line's ultimate capacity and flexibility. Not only can just one direction of bus enter any given segment at a time, but the buses themselves must adhere to schedules rather strictly, lest they conflict and be forced to wait at stations. Even considering these limitations, however, the central lane model still represents an intriguingly clever compromise: it allows high-quality transit to be installed along streets that are either space constrained or particularly politically querulous.

All that said, no system is perfect, and the Red Line does have faults that deserve scrutiny. At the moment, the largest of these has to be fare payment. IndyGo is currently transitioning to a wireless, RFID- and smartphone-based payment system called MyKey. On paper, this should allow the Red Line to operate like any other modern proof-of-payment transit system: riders show up at a station, buy or refill their card at a vending machine if they need to, tap in at a validator (or activate a ticket on their phone), and ride—offering their card or phone to be scanned by a fare inspector if requested. This is a proven formula, and Indianapolis has all the necessary components to make it work. Each and every piece of this new system, however, needs refinement.

A paper MyKey card The paper MyKey

At least at the time of my visit, IndyGo's website was still indicating that MyKey was coming soon—even though it was already in use on the Red Line. Making matters worse, once on the platforms, there was no obvious signage indicating the need to purchase a card and tap in before boarding—a debacle in the waiting for new or infrequent riders. If you do need to purchase your ride, the station vending machines are also a disaster. Built around a painfully slow Android tablet, they are both frustrating and incredibly confusing to use—to the point that I (a seasoned transit rider) had great difficulty explaining how they worked to an older, Spanish-speaking woman who needed help. Assuming you do figure out how to use the machine, you will then discover that the MyKey cards that they dispense—which cost $2 all on their own—are made of paper, not plastic. While integrating an RFID chip and antenna into a paper form factor may be an interesting technological achievement, the cards' long-term durability is a dubious proposition. Given their upfront cost, that is simply unacceptable.

Riding with a fare inspector Riding with a fare inspector.

The capstone to these fare issues, however, has to be the fact that at least some of IndyGo's own frontline staff still do not fully understand how their own fare system works. On my very first Red Line trip, I happened to wind up riding alongside an (incredibly friendly) fare inspector. From the beginning, however, it was clear that something was off: he spent the trip glancing at people's cards, instead of scanning them with his handheld device. After doing this for a number of stops, he struck up a conversation with me about, of all things, the card system. I wound up having to explain that, yes, the cards cost $2, but no, you cannot purchase them without at least some fare already loaded—meaning that possession of a card at least theoretically implied having paid some fare at some point.

On one hand, of course, the image of a New York urbanist—fresh off the plane, no less—being asked by a local transit agency's own staff to explain how their own fare system works is hilariously surreal—it feels like it should be a scene out of some oddly-specific, urban-planning-oriented comedy. On the other hand, however, these fare issues are more than significant enough to give anyone pause. For just one example, during that first ride, I happened to be travelling with a local friend who rarely rides transit. Watching all this play out, she readily admitted to me that, on her own, she would have been hard pressed to figure out the fare system—and may well have given up. Worse, I'm sure there will be many riders (such as the aforementioned Hispanic woman) who are ready and willing to pay the fare, but can't figure out how the system works—or even that you need to pay prior to boarding—before the bus arrives. Should they then encounter a fare inspector having a bad day, the situation could fast turn ugly—especially if the rider in question is a member of a marginalized group.

On one hand, of course, the image of a New York urbanist—fresh off the plane, no less—being asked by a local transit agency's own staff to explain how their own fare system works is hilariously surreal—it feels like it should be a scene out of some oddly-specific, urban-planning-oriented comedy.

Now make no mistake: IndyGo is making all the right moves. They are utilizing off-board fare payment, transitioning to a smartphone- and wireless card-based fare system, and even implementing weekly and monthly fare capping—ensuring that riders who pay per trip will never be charged more than the amount of an equivalent unlimited pass. As it stands, however, the fare system is currently the Red Line's Achilles heel. Even as a soft launch along a single line—and in the reduced ridership environment of the late pandemic, no less—MyKey clearly needed a lot more fine tuning before it was ready for prime time.

Bus lanes in Downtown Indy A police car blocks the Red Line's bus lane While the bus lanes are welcome, they are largely unprotected and sometimes serve double duty as turning lanes, allowing them to be blocked.

The Red Line has some other faults, too, although happily, most are fairly minor. First and foremost, although most of the line travels in bus-only lanes, there are notable sections of street running, as well. Thankfully, these seem to have been well chosen: they are often on wide roads with fairly fast moving traffic. However, they could easily prove troublesome in the long run, especially as normal traffic returns to the city. The bus lanes themselves, meanwhile, are largely unprotected—meaning that nothing separates them from traffic but paint—and even occasionally serve double duty as turning lanes. While most thankfully are not curbside lanes—a design that practically invites drivers to block buses—this layout makes it easy for other traffic to slow or even block transit. This was born out during my visit, when I came across a police car parked in one of the bus lanes—an endemic fact of life in my native New York that is distressing to see spread.

The new battery-electric buses have also seen their share of problems. From an operations perspective, they have been unable to meet their advertised range, especially during the winter—something fast proving to be common to first-generation battery buses. This has necessitated the costly installation of extra charging stations along the route—thankfully at the manufacturer's expense. Meanwhile, from a passenger perspective, the electric vehicles have something of a Jekyll-and-Hide-like quality. From either the outside or when travelling in the front section, they are shockingly quiet. In the rear compartment, however, the old-school, trolley-bus-like whine of their electric motors is actually quite loud. While I didn't break out a dB meter, it certainly felt louder than many of today's equivalent hybrid diesel-electric buses—a result, perhaps, of the motor's much higher pitch. Though this may make the ride more enjoyable for transit enthusiasts, regular riders are sure to be less appreciative.

The buses also have a few minor usability quirks, as well. When in motion, the on-board announcements tend to be too quiet when—even when seated in the comparatively silent front section. Meanwhile, passenger screens provide too little information in-between stations, only indicating the destination. Since drivers operate the vehicles like normal buses—skipping stops if there is no one to pick up and there has been no stop request—missing a station is a far greater risk than it ought to be. Finally, on the outside, the buses themselves are signed as "#90" instead of just "Red" or some variation thereof. While an incredibly small detail, it creates an unnecessary and confusing incongruence for riders.

Looking out the front of a Red Line bus Buses have quirks, like only showing the destination when in motion, not the next station.

To be perfectly clear, however, almost all of these issues—especially those beyond the fare system and certain lane layouts—are minor, perfectionist quibbles, many of which will hopefully fade as IndyGo continues to iron out their system's kinks. By and large, riding the Red Line is not only a breeze, but a joy. And happily, that reality seems to be translating into not just ridership (which, while still hard to judge in these pandemic days, feels decently healthy), but also ridership diversity. Unlike far too many American transit investments, the Red Line serves both well-off, growing areas and poorer neighborhoods of color—with more to come as the system expands. As a result, the line's ridership is not limited to one social or racial group, but is instead made up of a diverse bunch, ranging from blue collar service workers to high school and university students to members of the white middle class. For a city like Indianapolis, where transit has often been treated as nothing but a service of last resort—a hand out for those who cannot afford cars—this is an amazing turnaround. The Red Line demonstrates that, when it's treated as a high-quality public good, transit need not serve exclusively as either a lifeline for the poor or an amenity for the rich. Instead, transit can be a tool for unified, public interconnection—a true common good for a city and all of its denizens.

The Red Line pulls into the IU Health Station.

The Red Line is worthy of such plaudits because of the one final thing that it gets very right: its route. All too often, newly-built transit lines in United States are simply built in the wrong place, with no core constituency. This happens for many reasons: Sometimes, politicians want to spur the development of aspirational neighborhoods, instead of serving more established but quotidian locations. Other times, regional governance structures will prioritize wide-reaching but comparatively low-ridership suburban services over expensive construction in the dense core. Many times, planners and politicians alike will become enchanted by existing, tantalizingly cheap rights of way—paths which just so happen to be cheap and available because they are convenient to no one. Just as frequently, political bean counters will balk at the upfront cost of serving dense neighborhoods, ignoring the long-term rewards. Whatever the reason, however, such misguided investments are almost always disappointing. Building a transit line that strategically dodges density and urbanity is like taking a bus tour of the Grand Canyon with the blinds pulled down. It rather misses the point. At best, lines like these can eventually spur development along their length. While that may perhaps be a noble goal, it can take decades to achieve, all while existing neighborhoods struggle with subpar service.

The Red Line demonstrates that, when it's treated as a high-quality public good, transit need not serve exclusively as either a lifeline for the poor or an amenity for the rich. Instead, transit can be a tool for unified, public interconnection—a true common good for a city and all of its denizens.

The Red Line, by contrast, does not travel through underdeveloped corridors or along the far edge of the built-up area. Instead, it runs straight through the middle of many of Indianapolis's remaining urban fragments, binding them together. By serving places that are (at least comparatively) transit friendly today, the Red Line is not solely reliant on vague predictions of future growth. Instead, it serves a vital role from day one, connecting populated, vibrant places together.

Put all of this together and it becomes clear that, with the Red Line, Indianapolis has managed to avoid almost all of the common pitfalls of American BRT. The city didn't settle for a half measure: it built a truly high-quality transit line. While it may still have some kinks to work out—and while the lack of better bus lanes may yet prove deleterious—it built a line that is legible, frequent, fast, and (with some tweaks) easy to use. Nor did the city build a showy route along an empty corridor, instead crafting a line that works to reunite many of its remaining shards of urbanity. Even some of the Red Line's foibles have a positive reading: they can be seen as the teething pains that have arisen from IndyGo extending its existing, in-house expertise in bus operations to encompass a whole new service paradigm.

Building a transit line that strategically dodges density and urbanity is like taking a bus tour of the Grand Canyon with the blinds pulled down. It rather misses the point.

The Red Line demonstrates that there is no magic required to implement BRT well, just some fundamental principles to be followed. Use as many exclusive lanes as possible—and improvise where you need to. Connect urban and/or dense places together wherever possible, and don't just run routes wherever it is cheapest or most expedient. Design a system that is easy for even novice transit riders to understand and use. Build stations that meet rider's needs, with accessible, level boarding, seats, shelters, and real-time information displays. Have people pay their fares off-board to speed service. And above all, run buses frequently, all day long—every fifteen minutes at a bare minimum, and every ten if possible. Do this, and you will have built a service that is fast, attractive, easy to use, and actually meets the needs of urban denizens. What's more, as Indianapolis has demonstrated, such a service need not come at enormous expense or take decades to construct. While effective BRT may not necessarily be easy, it is straightforward: it merely requires both the political will and the institutional attention to detail to ensure that the needs of riders are put at the fore.

Downtown Indy's Monument Circle Right now, the future of transit in Indianapolis looks bright.

Right now, the future of transit in Indianapolis looks bright. If all goes well, construction will soon start on a second BRT route, the Purple Line, which will branch off from the Red Line north of downtown and travel to the northeast. At the same time, early design work is also underway for the Blue Line, the Red Line's east-west running counterpart. Not only will these two routes replace what are currently the city's two busiest bus lines, they will dramatically expand the reach of high-quality public transit across Marion County, making each line exponentially more useful in the process. Meanwhile, the city is also getting ready to radically reshape its bus network, switching from an older, hub-and-spoke paradigm to one based around a frequent grid of service. Not only has this model proven elsewhere to provide much higher quality service to many more riders, it will also help to feed the new BRT lines. Finally, IndyGo is already in the process of rolling out MyKey, which, by making fare payment and transfers quicker and easier, will ensure that all these components come together to form a coherent system. The onus is now on the city of Indianapolis to ensure that this investment lives up to its potential. To truly reap all the benefits possible, the city will need to modify its zoning code and otherwise work to encourage urban infill network along its new, nascent network. If it can do so, it will have leveraged bus rapid transit to effect an impressive feat: rebuilding urbanity in a place that has traditionally shunned it.

For that and so many other reasons, the Red Line is a tremendous achievement. In the face of tremendous challenges—including both a hostile state government and a largely suburban land use pattern—the city and IndyGo found ways to work together to construct fast, frequent, truly high-quality transit in Indianapolis. Better still, they were able to do so quickly and inexpensively. Perhaps someday, the city will outgrow its new Red Line, and wish it had built light rail or some other transit mode instead. Should that happen, however, the route will have more than served its purpose: it will have brought effective urban transportation to what had been a low-density, suburban city. The Red Line is as an object lesson in how to implement BRT right, and may well represent this country's new gold standard for bus rapid transit. That would be a remarkable achievement for any city, but for plucky, oft-overlooked Indianapolis, it truly is extraordinary.

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Correction, (8/30/2021): Original piece had a typo indicating that the Red Line has 18 stations. It has 28, and has been updated to that effect.