What is the state of public transit in Fort Wayne?

This story is part of Input Fort Wayne’s Solutions Series, made possible by support from the United Way of Allen County, the NiSource FoundationNIPSCOBrightpoint, and others in Northeast Indiana. The 10-part, 10-month series explores how our regional community is addressing residents’ essential needs during the pandemic. Read the first story here.

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Every year, Nathan Miller conducts a public transportation experiment.

As a Community Wellness Coordinator at Purdue Fort Wayne (PFW), he spends a day testing how long it will take him to go from campus to a nearby grocery store using Citilink Fort Wayne’s bus system.

The first year, he missed one of the buses and wasn’t able to finish the journey. Since then, he’s found that going to a grocery store just south of downtown Fort Wayne is actually more efficient than going to one closer to PFW's campus, which is harder to access on local bus routes.

And when he makes the roughly 8-mile round-trip—which would take about 24 minutes in a car—the results are shocking.

“It’s about a three-hour trip to get to the grocery store and back,” Miller says. “If you don’t own a car and you depend on the bus system, who has three hours to go to the grocery store?” Nathan Miller is a Community Wellness Coordinator at Purdue Fort Wayne (PFW).

That doesn't even count the time you spend shopping.

Miller doesn’t blame Citilink for the inconvenience. He believes the local bus service is efficient with the resources it has, and it does a lot of good for the community. After all, Citilink is limited by its own set of barriers, mostly related to funding. 

More fundamentally, what Miller sees as a bigger obstacle to public transit in Fort Wayne is the way the city is designed. Fort Wayne is a geographically spread out community, and it has an overall lack of access to alternative transportation beyond personal vehicles. While options, like trains and streetcars, once provided accessible transit in and around the community, these options have largely been reduced to the car-and-bus dominant system Fort Wayne has today.

“We’re a city built on the idea of driving a car,” Miller says. “The problem is, for people with low incomes, a vehicle is a very expensive proposition. Also, if you get in a car to go two blocks down the road, you’re missing out on an opportunity to have physical activity.”

In many ways, Fort Wayne is a city designed for cars and personal vehicles.

Across the state, many communities in Indiana are lacking safe and accessible active transportation options, contributing to an adult obesity rate of more than 35 percent statewide. Policies and changes to the built environment, which encourage physical activity, can help reverse this trend, according to the 2019 Indiana Active Living Guidebook.

In recent years, growing investments in trails and bike lanes have extended transportation networks in Fort Wayne, but gaps in connectivity still make commuting by bike or foot more challenging than driving. The COVID-19 pandemic has further complicated matters for the city's most economically vulnerable residents who can't work from home or don't have access to the internet. 

About 9.2 percent of Fort Wayne households don’t own a vehicle, according to planning work conducted by Citilink in 2020. That means these residents rely on alternative transportation, like buses, cycling, and walking to get to grocery stores, therapy, vaccination clinics, and other appointments, on top of their typical work and lifestyle routines.

Citilink buses are a primary provider of Fort Wayne's current public transit.

But while Miller has spent years studying how transit affects Fort Wayne's residents, he's noticed that this critically important topic, underpinning community health, growth, and upward mobility, seems largely overlooked.

“The transit gaps and challenges in Fort Wayne today are almost exactly the same now as they were before COVID,” says Miller. “We need to shift our focus from getting cars around really fast to getting everyone around well. In a car-centric community, if you have a lower income, the burden of owning a vehicle is astronomical. By not having a walkable city, we’re hobbling our lower-income populations.”

Fostering a 'larger vision' of what public transit could be

As a primary provider of Fort Wayne's current public transit, Fort Wayne Citilink has been undergoing changes and facing challenges of its own in recent years.

In April 2021, a new General Manager, John Metzinger, took the helm at Citilink on the heels of a pandemic year, which greatly reduced ridership.

John Metzinger became General Manager of Citilink Fort Wayne in April 2021.

Citilink had 1,676,800 passenger trips in 2019, with ridership holding steady around that number since 2017. Then, in 2020, Citilink had 1,104,835 passenger trips, a decrease of 34 percent.

As Citilink's new leader, Metzinger is keenly aware of these challenges and looking to improve the bus system's offerings across the board. Some items at the top of his list include the need for improved bus access for people with disabilities, which goes beyond the minimum ADA requirements, as well as a downtown circulator route to improve movement around the city's urban core.

Citilink also hopes to add a connection to the Fort Wayne International Airport and to increase the frequency of its fixed-route bus services.

In 2011, Indiana’s Public Mass Transportation Fund, which helps support public transit systems, changed the way it funds these systems by detaching funding from sales tax. This reduced the funds available for public transit systems across the state, making it even more difficult for services, Iike Citilink, to keep pace with rider demand. 

When this change went into effect about a decade ago, Citilink reduced almost all of its service from a 30-minute frequency to a 60-minute frequency, which is where most routes still stand today.

“A 60-minute frequency is a very low standard of public transit service,” says Metzinger. “If you want to become of greater value, you need a minimum frequency of every 30 minutes, or ideally, every 15 minutes. At that point, riders don’t have to understand a complex bus schedule; they just go to the bus stop, and within 15 minutes or less, the vehicle will be there.”

Almost all of Citilink's bus service in Fort Wayne is operating on a 60-minute frequency.

Another key issue Metzinger looks to address in Fort Wayne is the need for transit to and from employment centers on the fringes of Citilink's current bus service or just beyond those borders. 

“Transit riders are using public transportation to gain access to opportunity, but those opportunities are beyond their reach,” Metzinger says.

He notes that the pandemic did bring change to the conversation around public transportation, at least from Citilink's perspective. 

“COVID had a really interesting effect on public transit in the United States, in that agencies experienced record-low ridership, and the federal government made a record-high investment through the CARES Act and other relief packages,” says Metzinger. “What that says is that political leaders who may not have supported public transportation before COVID began to understand and realize that workforce mobility is a key need that public transportation delivers.” 

Buses depart from the station at Citilink Central Station in downtown Fort Wayne.

While federal investment has grown, the flip side is that state and local leaders may view that investment as "enough funding" and not want to provide additional support. 

“What we really need is long-term, sustainable, public support just as other amenities and infrastructure are supported,” says Metzinger. “This means building a coalition of support. We need employers, business leaders, the healthcare industry, and many others to come around public transportation and to understand the value it delivers. Then, advocate for it.”

Citilink has prioritized getting the organization ready for growth when additional funding becomes available. One of the projects it's taken on involves reevaluating how it collects transit data to more accurately grasp the needs of its riders. This includes the installation of a passenger counting system that’s tied to GPS and provides a more robust data source beyond how many people are riding, including where they’re boarding and getting off. 

Citilink is also using federal funding it received during the pandemic to offer free fares for everyone through Nov. 30. Its goal is to increase ridership and to encourage people who haven’t previously ridden the bus to try it out. 

Buses wait for riders to board before departing from the station at Citilink Central Station in downtown Fort Wayne.

Since offering free fares, fixed-route ridership was up 26 percent in June 2021 vs 2020, though still 20 percent lower than June 2019. Citilink’s Access ridership, which provides a van service for people with disabilities who are unable to use its fixed-route service, was up 69 percent in June 2021 compared to 2020, and 3 percent higher from June 2019.

Citilink has also introduced the DoubleMap App to its offerings for riders, which shows an interactive map with real-time location and arrival information. It helps eliminate questions like "Did I miss the bus?" or even "Is there a bus?" and reduce confusion for riders. 

With the free bus fare period and improved tools like the DoubleMap App, Metzinger hopes to show residents that public transportation is a valuable resource for all members of Fort Wayne's community. 

“Cities are all about people living in close proximity and moving from here to there," he says. "Whether it’s walking, biking, driving, or taking public transportation, it’s the essential lifeblood of a city. I would love to see the community be able to grasp hold of a larger vision of what public transportation could be—more than what it’s been before. It could really enhance access to opportunity and equity for all citizens of Fort Wayne if we’re willing to invest and make it great.”

Providing 'equal access' for all

Part of Citilink’s goal to improve access for riders with disabilities comes with the help and advocacy of Turnstone Center. Turnstone works to empower people with disabilities to achieve their highest potential through its comprehensive services and programs. It cites transportation as a big obstacle for clients in both reaching their center and accessing Fort Wayne, at large.

Turnstone unveiled its official U.S. Paralympics training site signage in March.

Tina Acosta, Director of Program Outreach and ADA Coordinator at Turnstone, helps advise organizations, like Citilink, the Fort Wayne International Airport, the Fort Wayne Trails, and others, on how to make their services and facilities more accessible. 

“Transportation is vital for a city in a lot of ways,” says Acosta. “If we’re going to push for people to come to Fort Wayne to live because we have an All-American City, then we have to meet the needs of those people and get rid of the mindset that everyone owns their own vehicle because that's not the case.”

Tina Acosta is Director of Program Outreach and ADA Coordinator at Turnstone.

Acosta is encouraged by Metzinger’s plans with Citilink in increasing access for people with disabilities, but greater support is still needed. 

“We’ve come a long way, but we still have a long way to go,” says Acosta. 

As an example, she explains how a curb cut is important infrastructure for someone who uses a wheelchair or someone who is visually impaired and can track the curb cut with their cane. However, rain, debris, and snow accumulating in the curb can eliminate the accessibility of these markers completely. 

“Once you have that perfect curb cut installed, who’s going to take care of it?" Acosta asks. "We need to take it one step further and make sure someone is monitoring it.”

Alfred Woods uses the wheelchair ramp in front of Turnstone.

It takes coordination between organizations, the City of Fort Wayne, as well as businesses and storefronts, to each do their part in maintaining transit infrastructure and creating an accessible environment for all.

Infrastructure remains a constant concern, with the maintenance of curb cuts, the disrepair of sidewalks, and the volume of crosswalk signals just a few of the many obstacles that can be detrimental to someone with a disability trying to navigate the city. 

Uneven sidewalks, like those at the 1500 block of Kentucky Ave. in Fort Wayne, make transit challenging for wheelchair users.

Additional transportation challenges, such as how to get to COVID-19 clinics and vaccination sites, presented themselves for Fort Wayne's residents with disabilities as the pandemic went on. 

“There were several instances where the mainstream needs were being met, but the extra step of how people with disabilities are going to reach these resources wasn’t considered,” says Stasha Carrasquillo, Chief Marketing Technology Officer at Turnstone.

Stasha Carrasquillo, Chief Marketing Technology Officer at Turnstone.

On the flip side, she notes that innovations intended to make life easier for everyone, such as grocery store pickups, ended up serving a need that people with disabilities could benefit from continuously having available. 

“Going through COVID, the problems we all faced, collectively, were problems that people with disabilities face regularly,” says Carrasquillo. “As we move out of COVID and the rest of the world returns to normal, people with disabilities are concerned that some of the efficiencies and conveniences are going to go away.”

Turnstone was able to find a silver lining in the pandemic by diversifying its own service offerings to include telemedicine with its therapy services. What started as a necessity during the pandemic proved to be a success for many of its clients who are more comfortable receiving therapy virtually in their homes. 

“There are so many benefits for having virtual as an option, and COVID was absolutely the catalyst,” says Carrasquillo. “It also cuts down on the transportation issue because patients don’t have to line up transportation to get here or rely on something that’s inconsistent.”

Alfred Woods uses the wheelchair ramp in front of Turnstone.

Carrasquillo and Acosta both note that while there’s still a lot of work to be done, they’re encouraged by the support of the city and local leaders to make Fort Wayne more accessible for all. Working with the city, businesses, and organizations allows Turnstone to be a community leader and represent the voices of their clients and community.

“Equal access is what stands in the way for a lot of people, and it starts with transportation,” says Carrasquillo. “You could be the most talented, skilled person, but if you can’t get to work or can’t get in the door for the interview, you don’t even have a shot. That’s not because of your lack of ability, that’s because the world is not acting in a way that supports all abilities.”

Increasing connectivity and changing mindsets

Beyond public transportation, Fort Wayne’s trail systems play a key role in the city’s transit ecosystem. The importance of being able to get around by foot, bike, and other means of active transit moved front and center during the pandemic, at a time when record numbers of people were hitting the trails. 

Cyclists meet for a weekly Trek the Trails ride.

Fort Wayne Trails is a nonprofit advocacy group that works at the heart of the city’s trail needs. They gather input from the public about where trails are needed. Then they relay that information back to the city to help meet those needs. Connectivity of trails was the biggest issue for Fort Wayne’s trail system before the pandemic, and it remains so today. Megan McClellan
 
“Connectivity is so important, and became even more so during COVID when people were using trails for commuting or getting to the store,” says Megan McClellan, Executive Director of Fort Wayne Trails.

One of the urgent connectivity needs for Fort Wayne residents is what Fort Wayne Trails calls the Golden Spike, which is a 1.78-mile section of the Pufferbelly Trail. Once completed, this section will connect 30 miles of trail north of Washington Center Road and 85 miles of trail south of Coliseum Boulevard. This connection will allow residents who live north of downtown to safely and easily commute into the city by bike or foot, increasing access to jobs and active mobility for a large portion of the Fort Wayne community.

A silver lining that came out of the past year is the huge increase in trail use across Fort Wayne for everything from recreational use to exercise and commuting. In 2020, the trail systems saw a 45 percent increase in use from 2019

The City of Fort Wayne, New Haven, and Fort Wayne Trails host weekly family-friendly bike rides on Tuesday nights called Trek the Trails. 

McClellan echoes the sentiment that Fort Wayne needs a cultural shift to realizing that walking and biking are great alternatives, not just for exercise, but also for getting around town and foregoing vehicles. She notes that the pandemic helped move this idea forward with so many people utilizing the trails for the first time or at an increased rate.

“COVID helped people realize that a lot of the places they wanted to go weren’t that far away,” says McClellan. “People are recognizing the asset that they have in this trail system. The more people that use it, the more that support it, the more other people will try it, and it’s a ball that gets rolling, and it just keeps going.”

Bike lanes create connectivity for cyclists through downtown Fort Wayne.

Improving safety and neighborhood accessibility 

An increasingly connected trail system in the city further supports Miller’s goal of an active, transportation-friendly Fort Wayne. To drive forward the Purdue Extension’s initiative of building a world that promotes a healthy lifestyle, Miller helped launch the Active Transportation Coalition (ATC) in Fort Wayne. 

Formed in 2017, the ATC is a volunteer coalition of individuals, nonprofits, companies, and government entities working to create stronger communities through active transportation. The group advocates for safe transit throughout the city for those on foot, bike, or other active transportation, and it tests out-of-the-box solutions to help solve transit problems. 

Coordination between many groups like the Purdue Extension, Fort Wayne Trails, Turnstone, the City of Fort Wayne, and others are key to accomplishing the ATC’s goals. 

In one project funded by Indiana AARP, the ATC worked with local business owners to bring community activities to the corner of Columbia Avenue and St. Joseph Boulevard.

Anna Baer, who is a Project Coordinator in Traffic Engineering with the City of Fort Wayne and a member of the ATC, notes that a shift she saw during the pandemic was more of a concern among residents for the safety and accessibility of neighborhoods--rather than just major intersections.

“Even before COVID, there’s been a lot more of that question of: 'How do we make changes in the neighborhoods?’” says Baer. “Many neighborhoods have been designed where cars are the priority, but people have been starting to shift that perspective. Some neighborhoods are starting to question what they can do and what changes can be made.”

Fort Wayne's active transportation network has 10 miles of bike lanes.

One option is the Community Led Traffic Calming Demonstration Program to explore the possibility of making temporary traffic-calming changes to local streets. In coordination with both the City of Fort Wayne and the ATC, this citizen-driven program allows neighborhoods and communities to look for practical and innovative solutions to increase safety around and along roadways. 

Traffic calming projects have proven successful for the city and ATC in the past. A three-week experiment in the Hoagland Masterson neighborhood, which closed merge lanes and created a pop-up “parklet” for seating and programming, led the City of Fort Wayne to close these merge lanes indefinitely in October 2020. Thus, the short-term experiment proved to have long-term value. 

“This was before tactical urbanism started becoming more well-known or even seen in Fort Wayne,” says Josh Campbell, a Community Development Planner with the City of Fort Wayne and member of the ATC who was involved in the Hoagland Masterson activation. “As the ATC began to grow and do more tactical urbanism projects, the neighborhoods began to notice.”

He notes that while much of the project took place during COVID, the pandemic didn’t prevent it from being a success.

“During COVID, we put more focus on some of these short-term activations and how to get people out on the street because more people are wanting to be out and about,” says Campbell.

In one project funded by Indiana AARP, the ATC worked with local business owners to bring community activities to the corner of Columbia Avenue and St. Joseph Boulevard.

Looking to the future, the ATC will continue working with different neighborhoods and organizations to find solutions for their specific needs. It also offers a lending library of tools for tactical urbanism and placemaking. By connecting volunteers and organizations throughout all levels of transportation in the city, the ATC hopes to eliminate silos and make it safer and more accessible for residents to get around without a car.

This plays into the bigger ecosystem of transportation in Fort Wayne, too. From trails to buses to sidewalks, the more diverse and accessible the city’s transit options are, the more opportunity there will be for everyone in Fort Wayne.

“We made the decision to be car-centric generations ago, and it’s still affecting us,” says Miller. “The things we’re doing in transportation today have the opportunity to do really good things for a lot of people for decades to come.”