Getting On Board: My Conversion to Supporting Mass Transit

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As an economic development guy, I’ve heard and read story after story about the importance of mass transit. In fact, I’ve sat in on committees about this topic as it relates to Central Indiana. The reasons in favor always seem logical enough: billions of dollars in economic impact, alleviating traffic congestion, more accessible transportation leading to broader employment options for job seekers, and the like.

When the discussion goes from the theoretical to the practical, and nasty topics like referendums and tax increases come up, I start to wonder if this thing can actually pass a vote. And if I’m an economic development person having doubts, how will metro area residents support an initiative that will never provide the majority of its residence a direct benefit in their own lives?

Broadly wondering if the benefits of mass transit outweigh the costs, my mind admittedly, inevitably, shamefully finds its way to a wholly self-serving, anything-but-existential-question: How will this make my life better?

Maybe you find yourself with the same thought.

My personal experience with this issue is modest and dated. I am an Indianapolis resident, but I have not used public transportation on a regular basis since my sophomore year in college … in Madison, Wisconsin. In Madison, public transportation was a basic necessity. I lived off-campus with no car and the distance was too far to walk to class. My last time using “public” transit was an airport monorail.

My aha moment came a little over a year ago. I had to travel to Phoenix for meetings with local economic development officials about a project. On the commute from the airport I saw their light rail system in action and started to pepper my driver with questions about whether Phoenix’s foray into mass transit was a good decision. The answer was a resounding yes. During that day and several visits that followed, I saw it firsthand – from the redevelopment of declining areas along the route to the simple fact that residents now had certain and reliable transportation options. The benefits were many and substantial.

Those observations took me back to my days in Madison. Without metro transit getting me to and from school, what were my options? And that was simply to attend classes. What about those who need transportation for their livelihoods to get to and from their jobs – jobs that pay for the basic necessities? Better transportation options allow them to shop at retailers or eat at restaurants that are desired versus convenient. It provides the means to make appointments and meetings, visit libraries and parks, and participate in civic activities. Mass transit makes it possible for not a majority but many to do the simple, everyday things that make Central Indiana a better place for them to live and work.

I may not use public transportation, but others who live, work and play in this community will. My coworker who doesn’t like to drive; the friend for whom “being green” means being happy; the barista at the too-far-to-drive coffee place who now has a reliable way to get to work. Mass transit will allow all of them to live, work and play better. Doesn’t anything that makes those in our community live fuller lives also make this same community a better place for all of us to live? That is an existential question.

For the majority of residents who will vote on this issue, I cannot point to a single fact that guarantees this will make your life better. Mass transit is not a panacea to any one problem. But it is an important stitch in the fabric of our local community. Without a viable, dynamic option that makes it possible for some in our region to get to and from the places that allow them to live their lives, the Indianapolis area is a less good place to live. Helping to cure that ill is enough to get my vote.

Tim Cook is CEO of KSM Location Advisors.