06/01/13| Rapid Transit: The Downtown Approach

Background: In 2013, Indy Connect was in the public comment stage regarding proposed regional rapid transit routes and how/where they originate, network, and converge on the Indianapolis Downtown. Two specific route alternatives werepresented for the Green Line from Noblesville as it departs the NE Corridor rail alignment and enters the street network near East 10th Street. Technologies in contention are either Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) or some Light Rail Transit variant (LRT).  From there, two route alternatives wereproposed: Mass Avenue or 10th Street/Fort Wayne.  Our strong preference for a modified Fort Wayne route was coupled with the recommendation that an urban design system of places and connections be integrated into the process rather than an an afterthought.

In 2013 public discussion began for the current round of rapid transit alternatives. Mass Ave was one of several alternatives for how the Green Line rapid transit gets from the East 10th terminus of the Hoosier Heritage Port Authority rail corridor, which partly parallels the Monon Trail, to a downtown  transit center (or, though unlikely, to Union Station). It had been called the Northeast Corridor in earlier studies for a rapid transit line from Noblesville to Downtown that resulted in selection of the interstate lane expansion alternative. This round is strictly about transit.

Like many transit supporters, we had disassociated from what had become a repetitive and interminable process of studies going back to the late 1990's, some of which our firm had a hand in.  So we missed an Indy Connect public session regarding the Mass Ave/Chatham Arch District (where both our home and our studio are located).  Sipping martinis at a Chatterbox sidewalk table rearranged our mental calendar about the event. But sitting there and conversing with Avenue regulars also reinforced interest in keeping/improving the local and pedestrian scale of Mass Avenue as a pedestrian priority street  rather than it becoming a transit street.  Not necessarily mutually exclusive concepts until more closely examined through an urban design lens of appropriate scale.

Make no mistake...we absolutely need the right balance of regional and local mass transit, and Indy Connect seems to be getting this very complex issue defined as a comprehensive system rather than a single corridor question of transit or highway.   But while the big picture is emerging, the urban design considerations that are so critical to weaving transit into and through our districts and neighborhoods still aren't evident in the proposals revealed so far.  Indeed, that level of design is scheduled much later in the federal process, a logical though unfortunate sequence of the plan's development.  The Mass Ave proposal is a case study of the not-quite-comprehensive level of design that is forming a basis for route planning decisions that will have big impacts, some good, some not so good.

We have mixed feelings about rapid transit throttling down from the NE corridor route and onto the Avenue. While we  love the imagery of an electric Citadis tram gliding down the Avenue, that’s not likely to happen given BRT start-up economies and a tram's lower usefulness on long runs such as the NE corridor. Trams are essentially modern streetcars that share light rail traits, with some advanced European models such as the Alstom Dualis performing well at both scales, and colocating reasonably well on city streets. Of all the proposed rapid transit routes, the NE corridor and its transition to street routes would appear to be the most likely to be a rail variant that could merit that advanced technology. But even that technology's  commuter-train scale is  not right for Mass Ave for many reasons.  And conversely Mass Ave is not right for rapid transit's operational efficiency needs whether BRT or LRT.  While a modern streetcar/tram size vehicle could operate at a local scale on the same tracks, that is unlikely given problems of interoperability, at least for the foreseeable future.

This Citadis tramway actually can go some distance without deploying its overhead catenary connection while cruising through this historic district. But it’s still a long train operating at commuter scale. Note the Mass Ave scale street beyond with sidewalk cafe …but also not that its not on the tramway! 

Regardless of the technology ultimately deployed, and while we crave rapid transit for the region and  the NE corridor,  we don't like rapid transit in either form on Mass Avenue.  Lots of reasons from a transit perspective to not place either light rail or BRT there.  For efficiency, neither mode likes frequent stops. Stops for passengers are one thing but stops for intersections and backed-up traffic kill efficiency to the point of being noncompetitive with the personal car's convenience. Mass Ave possesses a great geometric relationship to the Monon-paralleling corridor that ends at East 10th Street.  But from there on southwestward it's a series of multi-legged intersections and stop/go traffic in which signal preemption would have mixed benefit. That's great traffic-calming for pedestrians but not conducive to efficient BRT or LRT commuter operations in which travel time advantage over an automobile commute is crucial to achieving the needed ridership levels.  The alternative route that heads west on East 10th Street to Fort Wayne makes much greater sense for its relatively uninterrupted character.

But more importantly,  from an urban design perspective,  Rapid transit would bring local traffic and spatial impacts which could be huge and negative in the Mass Ave context.  It would, arguably, dramatically change the scale and character of the Avenue in a destructive way. Things like net traffic increase, with through rather than to characteristics, Transit stop dwell-time congestion on an already stop/go Mass Ave between 3:30 and 6 pm would lead to efficiency measures of added lanes and/or loss of parking for most of a block at BRT stops, or simply no stops and no local advantage. The "typical cross section" of an "apparent 90 foot wide right-of-way" does not apply to Mass Ave which ranges between that and more often 76-80 foot wide.  That 10-14 foot difference equates to a sidewalk or two bike lanes. The space just isn't there unless something important to a walkable pedestrian district goes away. Maybe the  landscape beds that give character to the avenue? Or the Chatterbox bump-out cafe where I sipped the aforementioned martini?

There would be even higher net impact when combined with more frequent regular bus transit to serve more local needs and to feed the regional BRT ridership needs.  And  boarding a 100+ passenger multi-unit train or bus for a local trip makes little sense.  These are commuter-scale trains that drop off or pick up long-haul passengers at (realistically) half-hour headway not the 5-10 minute or less headway of a well-run circulator service.   The travel lane re-configuration to allow efficient rapid transit through Mass Ave would likely include measures that impact the essential walkability,  pedestrian priority and physical scale of the the avenue as we know it today.

But while the  impacts of operating on the Avenue would be severe, reasonable proximity and connectivity to a BRT or LRT network will bring convenience, and (in the economic development sense) traffic and exposure to the Avenue.

The choice needn't be a zero sum game of Mass Ave as a transit street geared to commuters because its conveniently placed for that vs. Mass Ave as a pedestrian priority street…… because that’s where its success lies today, and hopefully that success will be enhanced by future improvements that build on that success. It’s not a No Transit on Mass Ave NIMBY argument; it’s about Right-scaled Local Transit with proximate access to regional rapid transit nodes at Mass Ave's termini , respectively Bellefontaine near 10th Street and Delaware/New York Streets.

MASS  AVE  AS  A  TRANSIT STREET  (as proposed by Indy Connect)

Inbound Regional Center Stop 1:  the proposal appears to place a station at a proposed East 10th Street TOD. That's good. Its now a wasteland between the CSX tracks and the interstate. That area would be a good NE quadrant transit hub serving the Green Line and connecting bus service on 16th, 10th, and Mass Ave, and particularly if good mixed-use development were to be generated there as well (this is a site that could support an IKEA-like destination retail if interstate access could be worked out, while also providing space for the requisite light rail marshaling yard. We developed a view of how this under-performing backwater could become an edge of downtown circulator hub (see  NE/TOD map below) as part of our work on the 10th Street connection to Mass Ave. It still makes sense to us, especially since the CSX rail corridor appears to have become a difficult co-locate for the "last mile" to union station (that's another story that needs discussion).

Map of an earlier storrow|kinsella proposal for a NE Portal Transit Oriented Development  that would serve as interface between NE corridor rapid transit and circulators running on Mass Ave and 16th Street

The historic Coca Cola site nearby could be Stop 2  since that has huge development potential, and would also serve the Mass Ave East End, breathing life into that isolated outpost of shops (running it through that development on its Carrollton central pedestrian core does not make sense however). And running it from there to downtown along Mass Ave is not a good route for the reasons cited earlier.
Stop 3: a stop at the proposed IFD Fire Station development might have worked had it been integrated into planning for that and Barton Towers development.  But those development initiatives are too far along to really integrate that well without loss of the curbside pedestrian amenities and continuity important to their success. That leaves a mile long run with no viable stops and lots of local spatial impact.  And don't forget about tracks along shared-use bike routes. Yikes!
Stop 4: The Delaware Street area would be really difficult to handle on Mass Avenue itself,  but when considered as a stop on a Delaware route (see how below) would provide a bridging access point between Downtown and the southwest end of Mass Ave.

An Alternative  Recommendation

Stop 1/2 (near Bellefontaine & 10th) and Stop 3 at Delaware  are good and would contribute to the Mass Ave economy. But routing rapid transit down the Avenue would be disastrous.  But the 10th Street/Fort Wayne Street alternative  could place stations at both ends of Mass Ave as transit nodes at which multiple modes converge. Connect those stations via East 10th and Delaware Streets (southbound Delaware becomes a dedicated counter-flow lane) rather than encumber the  Avenue as a rapid transit route. Concurrently (the BIG idea, though hardly new) develop a  right-scaled local access circulator system along  Mass Avenue connecting to those end-of-avenue BRT or LRT stations and distributing transit users to multiple destinations all along the avenue.  Plan/design at that level of comprehensiveness concurrently to build support early rather than lose support by dithering about unvisioned and feared what-ifs.  Design it now to demonstrate how transit is not one mode in isolation, and get to work planning a less car-dependent transit-served thriving Mass Ave pedestrian district. Transit planners know that, but are constrained by the step-by-step federal process.

NE Corridor Transit Coalition, 2011 neighborhood effort

A different approach for Mass Ave: a Pedestrian District.

The transit piece fully imagined: a Mass Ave Circulator that serves local needs while interfacing with rapid transit.

An Alternative  Recommendation

Stop 1/2 (near Bellefontaine & 10th) and Stop 3 at Delaware  are good and would contribute to the Mass Ave economy. But routing rapid transit down the Avenue would be disastrous.  But the 10th Street/Fort Wayne Street alternative  could place stations at both ends of Mass Ave as transit nodes at which multiple modes converge. Connect those stations via East 10th and Delaware Streets (southbound Delaware becomes a dedicated counter-flow lane) rather than encumber the  Avenue as a rapid transit route. Concurrently (the BIG idea, though hardly new) develop a  right-scaled local access circulator system along  Mass Avenue connecting to those end-of-avenue BRT or LRT stations and distributing transit users to multiple destinations all along the avenue.  Plan/design at that level of comprehensiveness concurrently to build support early rather than lose support by dithering about unvisioned and feared what-ifs.  Design it now to demonstrate how transit is not one mode in isolation, and get to work planning a less car-dependent transit-served thriving Mass Ave pedestrian district. Transit planners know that, but are constrained by the step-by-step federal process.

The Washington D.C. circulator uses low -loor Van Hool buses that are a model for a branded vehicle running intersecting routes that link key regional center destinations and multimodal transit centers. An even smaller 30-foot long, 17 passenger  vehicle would work well on Mass Ave.

A different approach for Mass Ave as a Pedestrian District

The transit piece:  place BRT  or LRT near but not on Mass Avenue's southwest and northeast termini  (Delaware and Bellefontaine/East 10th  Streets respectively).  A series of roundabout intersections facilitate the BRT's swing off the NE Corridor/Monon alignment  to a Coca Cola Plant Redevelopment-integrated station and on towards Fort Wayne along 10th. Yes, a roundabout can work with even LRT;  a "smart" roundabout has metering signals to balance traffic loads with gaps,  and to allow transit to pass straight through the center island.  Add a stop near Fort Wayne and Central to provide access to the Old Northside. Develop a counter-flow dedicated BRT lane on one-way Delaware Street to facilitate a station at the southwest and/or Northwest corner of Delaware and New York, right at the beginning of Mass Avenue. The IndyStar site is currently in play as a mixed use development that could be leveraged to become a TOD, as could the parking lot at Regions Bank. Either, or both as an integrated development, would be ideal co-locates for a Mass Ave circulator stop and the rapid transit stop.

 

The DC Circulator uses low floor Van Hool buses that are a model for a  branded vehicle running  intersecting routes that link key regional center destinations and multi-modal transit centers. An even smaller 30' long 17 passenger vehicle would work well on Mass Ave.

That circulator would troll the avenue at 5-10 minute intervals between these NW and SW termini and transit nodes. (which is a 10 minute-1.5 mile route each way....perfect!)  The circulator would connect to the proposed Washington Street Transit Center by a loop south on Alabama (shadowing the Cultural Trail), stopping at City market/CCB, continuing south to Washington Street, then back up Delaware to the Avenue. That would provide local access to and from the rapid transit stops and every destination along  the avenue with much smaller, quieter, slower, near zero-emission vehicles, with frequent stops and very short headway  between vehicles. That  describes an electric or hybrid tram or a hybrid circulator bus or even a trolley bus.

This branded Mass Ave Circulator system would be a model for its counterparts: a Tinker Street Circulator (serving the IU Health complex...a huge employer) with which it interfaces at the East 10th TOD, and a Fountain Square Fletcher Place Circulator with which it interfaces at the Washington Street Transit Center. Needless to say this route also interfaces with the proposed Blue and Red Lines at the transit center as well.  This secondary network (or is it  really the primary network?) provides connectivity at a scale at which Rapid Transit cannot efficiently operate.

The urban design piece: by incorporation of right-scaled transit specific to this pedestrian oriented district (we call it place-based transportation), much of the metered curbside parking and associated landscape beds can and should remain. The perceived need for wall to wall curbside parking for business viability would be reduced with distributed parking structures at ends of the avenue (and maybe at a central location) in place of surface lots,  with a distributing small bus/tram circulator.   That reduction in curbside parking demand allows more generous sidewalks, sidewalk cafes, more landscape, bicycle lane, but NOT more travel lanes or dedicated bus lanes. Some of that spatial gain is achieved by one or both sides going to parallel parking, reflective of the reduced need for curbside parking.  The wonderful landscape beds that help define Mass Ave remain, with minor reconfiguration since mid-block circulator stops don’t require a lot of infrastructure. Drive or walk down Mass Ave this spring and deny that landscape's importance to Mass Ave character and walkability. If done in conjunction with avenue terminating parking structure/stations, a circulator system would take away a lot of current parking/trolling congestion while distributing pedestrian traffic along the whole nearly mile-long Mass Ave (the park-once scenario of a true walkable district).

The circulator also allows taking all big bus traffic and noise and speed off the avenue, with more emphasis on local access. Blocks become rooms with pedestrians crossing at-will from side to side as a Social Street in which pedestrians rule and cars are visitors. Think Monument Circle.

The end-of-avenue nodes are the transfer points between all three modes; BRT or LRT, express bus and circulator.  Again, really cool, small, quiet, low-floor vehicles operating at 5-10 minute headway are key (with Mass Ave branding graphics rather than commercial wraps) in conjunction with parking structures at each end.  Imagine pre-theater or after-theater dinner at R Bistro without a driving/parking search near the Murat, or the same at Bazbeaux before visiting the (wished for) Heartland/Indie Film Screening Room at the inevitable Coca Cola Plant development.

Technical Note: the Mass Ave BRT route appeals to transit planners because its 45D angle works well for large vehicles (allows turning at speed without large curb radii which are scarce downtown) and for the theoretical shortest route advantage of the hypotenuse.  Not a good reason in itself for route placement.

Economic Development Note:  Pedestrian traffic and a sense of place, not commuter bus traffic, sustains the Avenue and is the future of the Avenue. The biggest potential increase of foot traffic correlates with downtown residential density, improved pedestrian facilities, reduction of parking place trolling while increasing overall parking capacity, and a circulator-scale transit system to serve local needs while interfacing with regional transit and supporting its huge appetite and fundamental need for ridership.  Long sentence....but it describes a true multi-valenced and interdependent system.

And while we are dreaming, why not consider a Free Fare zone (or $1 a ride max) along the Avenue subsidized by the user fees generated by the two parking structures proposed at each end of the avenue.  Agreed that politically correct parking theory is that parking structures induce demand for congestion-generating car usage.  But reality is we are still commuter and car dependent….and maybe those parking structures ultimately get topped out with apartments and condos when we have a full-fledged transit system and don’t need them.

The vision in 140 words for the time-challenged

  1. NE  Corridor Rapid Transit (Green Line) on East 10th/Fort Wayne/Delaware, with Mass Ave interface at the ends of the Avenue.
  2. Transit stops/nodes associated with mixed use development-integrated parking structures at each end of Mass Ave.
  3. A branded circulator system routed along Mass Ave from Bellefontaine/East 10th Street to a downtown transit center as an integral component of the regional Indy Connect system, but planned and implemented now in conjunction with new development.
  4. Continue to make Mass Ave a true pedestrian priority destination social street, more walkable and bicycle friendly, with a stunning year-round urban design/landscape sense of place and identity.
  5. Transit-integrated high-density mixed use development at the Coca-Cola site as Mass Ave's northeast terminus anchor and counterpart to its downtown anchor. Make it a car-share/bike-share hub as well.
  6. Develop mechanisms for  long term maintenance/sustainability for this walkable district infrastructure.

Other POV's?  Leave your thoughts in the comment section...but whatever your attitude,  support the initiative to get transit funding past a recalcitrant state legislature that has no clue about the imperatives of regionalism.