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On The Ballot In Indianapolis And Across The U.S., Can Expanding Transit Improve Public Health?

Indianapolis is ranked America’s least fit big city, according to the American College of Sports Medicine. Nearly a third of its citizens are obese, and fewer than one in four meet aerobic activity guidelines set out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But while it may not be obvious, a referendum on the ballot this election could help improve some of the city’s poor health statistics by expanding the city’s transit system, supporters say. The ballot initiative asks voters to support an income tax increase to fund more frequent bus service, which proponents argue will get more people riding and ultimately improve the city’s health.

“When you ride transit, you're a pedestrian at the beginning of your trip and at the end of your trip,” says Addison Pollack, who works for Health By Design, a group that promotes healthy city planning strategies.

Pollack says  when more people riding public transit, it can improve health across the community, in part because people who use it get more exercise,walking to and from the bus stop.

Pollack also points out that statistically, you’re safer in a bus than a car. And getting cars off the road could could cut down on pollution. “There’s a huge environmental impact that goes along with that,” he says. The American Lung Association gave Indianapolis an F for its air quality.

Indianapolis is not the only city considering the value of transit. Around the country — from Raleigh to Detroit to Sacramento — other cities will also be deciding about funding their own transit systems on November 8th.

“Those ballot referenda often are a good way to go, simply because it really is a bottom up process,” says James Corless, director of Transportation for America. He says the goal of mass transit is not to force people to give up their personal vehicles. “The goal is to provide a convenient, affordable transportation choice."

And he says the key to realizing the health benefits associated with mass transit is getting people to actually use it — which is where Marion County’s expansion plan comes in.  

“We have a pretty anemic system,” says Bryan Luellen, spokesman for IndyGo, the city’s public transit system. “We're the 33rd largest metro region in the country, and the 86th in terms of how much service is on the street.”

Currently, many buses only run once an hour. If the referendum in Marion County passes, IndyGo says it would increase service by 70 percent, removing some routes but also making many buses run more frequently. It would attract new riders, Luellen says, but it would also help people with lower incomes who rely on the the bus.

“They don't have the opportunity to … make a better life for themselves without reliable access to transportation,” he says.

In the long term, this could have an impact on the city’s health, according to public health researchers. Multiple studies have tied access to transit to job access and income. And in general, people who earn morelive healthier, longer lives.

Not everyone is on board with the transit expansion. It requires a 0.25 percent income tax increase, so for a family that makes $40,000 a year, it’ll cost another $100. (Median household income in Marion County is $42,378.) To some that’s too much, especially if they don’t plan to ever take the bus.

Opponents also argue that the expansion will likely raise bus fares, and that because some routes will disappear, it will force some people to walk even farther to a stop, which could be a problem for the elderly and people with disabilities.

Indianapolis is not the only city considering the question. Around the country -- from Raleigh to Detroit to Sacramento -- other cities will also be deciding about funding their own transit systems on November 8th.

For many, the decision will affect their lives every day.

“I take the bus two to three times a week to get to work,” Gricelda Diaz says in Spanish at a bus stop near her house on the Near Eastside  of Indianapolis. Diaz has a job cleaning at a local hospital. The bus near her house runs every 20 minutes, but she has to transfer to a another bus that only runs once an hour.

Ultimately it’s up to the voters in Indianapolis to decide, but Diaz hopes the referendum passes.

“I would love it if they ran more often,” she says.

Jake Harper is an investigative reporter for Side Effects Public Media, and he is a co-host of the Sick podcast. He can be reached at