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Bike lanes as mass transit evolution

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I was zigging and zagging along Illinois Street the other day. Like a lot of other drivers, I was trying to stay in my lane, but that was hard. Sometimes the lane was there, sometimes it wasn't. Sometimes it was marked with a solid line, sometimes with dots. And sometimes it just seemed to disappear. It was like trying to learn the cha-cha at 30 mph.

Fortunately, there wasn't a bike rider anywhere in sight because, based on the behavior of my fellow drivers and me, Illinois Street felt like a pile-up itching to happen.

That's been the funny thing about the new bike lanes suddenly in evidence in high traffic areas around the city: So far I haven't seen many bikers making use of them.

In part, that's because bikers aren't stupid. By now they've figured out alternate routes to get most places. It's safer to, whenever possible, avoid those roads where the snarling internal combustors roam.

But I suspect there's something else going on here. The new bike lanes aren't entirely about bikes.

Slowly, oh, so slowly, Indianapolis may actually be creeping toward reinventing its public transit system.

A recent front-page story in The Indianapolis Star titled "Bumps in the road" described the frustrations of some drivers in getting used to the bike lanes. It went on to suggest that the new street configurations were about creating a new "road diet" in Indianapolis, intended to make city streets friendlier, not just for bikers, but everyone, by deliberately slowing the pace on many thoroughfares. The story went on to say that while Indianapolis has, as yet, no formal policy regarding street design and traffic management, planners at the Department of Public Works are keeping new ideas in mind.

Well, here's an idea to keep in mind as you maneuver your car amongst the newly painted stripes and dots — it's called "disincentive." The city isn't just trying to make its streets safer for riders on two wheels. It has also embarked on a program to make driving a little more of a hassle.

If you want to see a new, improved public transit system in Indianapolis, this is a good thing.

Until now, revamping our public transit system has been a non-starter in Indianapolis for lack of support from a key player, the public. Business leaders want it, media types argue in favor of it, city planners say it's mandatory if the city is to grow and prosper. But, deep down, there is a nagging suspicion that if it were to be put to a vote, most folks in the metropolitan area would vote against shouldering the cost of a robust new way to get around town.

This is why neither of our recent candidates for mayor, Greg Ballard and Melina Kennedy, would take a strong stand on public transit, and why no mayor in memory has been a public transit champion. It's not because they think it's a bad idea. In private, they know we need it. But politicians have been afraid to stand up for transit because they know it has to be paid for and, without a clear public demand, they think it's a political deal breaker.

So the question has become how to create that public demand. It's certainly not going to be by telling us car lovers that riding the bus is, like brussels sprouts, good for us.

No, the way to get us to want public transit is to make driving our own cars as big a hassle as possible.

Turning many of our streets into fair approximations of driver's ed exercises is one way to do this. Heavily traveled streets, like Broad Ripple Avenue, that were previously two lanes, have been reduced to one lane in either direction. This has slowed the pace considerably, especially at rush hour.

As someone who spends a fair amount of time walking around Broad Ripple, this is a change for the better. It's more pedestrian-friendly. But it's also a first step toward making drivers wonder if maybe there could be a less stressful way of getting to and from.

Raising the rates on our parking meters is another sort of disincentive, by the way. Indianapolis meter rates haven't changed in decades. This has encouraged driving to the detriment of public transit. The more expensive parking gets, the more reason there will be to leave the driving to someone else.

Creating disincentives for drivers is, of course, a slightly dodgy way to make public policy. It's like a magic trick, where the magician makes you look at his left hand, while taking a silver dollar from behind your ear with his right. You have to be prepared to provide people with a reward for their aggravation, before that aggravation causes them to decide to give you the hook.

That's why my encouragement at seeing all the new bike lanes has very little to do with actually riding a bike. Now that he's gotten himself re-elected, Mayor Ballard has four years to build the popular support he needs to reinvent our transit system. The bike lanes should be an indication that the mayor has something even better up his sleeve.

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