Transportation in Indianapolis: Then and Now

Indianapolis has a rich transit history driven by rail, streetcars, trolleys and buses. Fast forward to today and you’re left wondering what happened to it all and can we ever get it back.

The country’s first “union depot” was constructed in our city in 1852-1853, centralizing the many independent rail lines into one location for passenger convenience. The abundance of rail lines resulted in Indianapolis being referred to as the “Railroad City.”

Union Depot Union Station
Union Depot, c. 1855¹ Union Station, c. 1905¹

Because of the tremendous growth in train demand, the first station was replaced in 1887-1888 and is still in use. The current Union Station is one of the finest examples in the Midwest of Romanesque Revival architectural style. By 1900, approximately 150 passenger trains a day passed through the station. In 1910, the number peaked at around 200 passenger trains a day.

Construction of the city’s first streetcar system began in 1864, employing horse-drawn cars and operating on 15 miles of track. The first electric streetcar hit the scene in 1890 and by 1898 there were 340 electric streetcars and more than 100 miles of track. The last electric streetcar was taken out of service in 1953.

In 1904, the Indianapolis Traction Terminal was built, making it the largest interurban station in the world. Interurbans were electric rail cars that ran between cities and were essentially extensions of existing streetcar systems. At its peak, the station served nearly 500 trains a day and 7 million passengers annually.

Streetcars1 Traction Terminal1
Streetcar Scene, c. 1910² Traction Terminal and Traction Terminal Building¹

The trackless trolley, a 40-passenger electric rig running on rubber tires and drawing power from overhead wires, debuted in Indianapolis in 1932. Then in 1957, it was replaced by the bus. From 1955 to 1974, the Indianapolis Transit System, a privately operated company, ran the city’s public bus service.

Subsidized public transportation in Indianapolis began in 1973 when the stockholders of the Indianapolis Transit System voted to go out of business. By November 1974, the city of Indianapolis, through the newly established Indianapolis Public Transportation Corporation, began negotiations and officially purchased the Indianapolis Transit System in January 1975. The city dubbed the bus system Metro, which was renamed IndyGo in 1996.

In 1982, Metro carried a record of 15,048,000 passengers. Ridership peaked in 1984 at 15.5 million. That same year, Metro started festive trolley buses on some of its downtown routes. By July 1989, a study revealed Metro ridership fell 11.3% in the first three months of the year. Two years later, the Indianapolis Public Transportation Corporation voted to slash some downtown trolley and express buses to avoid an anticipated 1992 deficit of $1.1 million.

Indianapolis Amg 2 New Diesel Bus 3
Metro Bus, c. 1982³ IndyGo Bus, 2010

Unfortunately for Metro, ridership started to decrease in 1992, delivering approximately 7.6 million rides for the first 10 months of the year. Ever since then, it seems public transportation in Indianapolis has gotten off track. Today, IndyGo’s annual trips average around 8 million, which is quite impressive given the city has half the bus service it did 30 years ago.

So what happened? Aside from the obvious expansion of roads and highways for personal vehicle use and urban sprawl, public transportation has battled decreasing community investment for years. In fact, IndyGo does not receive the same level of revenue support as some of its peer cities, a crippling problem that has kept the bus service from expanding to meet the needs of our growing community as well as dulled our economic development edge.

Despite funding problems, support for transit in Indianapolis continues to grow. In 2012, IndyGo has seen impressive increases in ridership, and community members are looking for more transportation options. And while consumers are using transit to save money and go green, community leaders are working toward increasing funding for transit in Marion County and the surrounding counties. Indy Connect is the long-range regional transportation plan for central Indiana that includes more frequent and direct transit routes and more bike and pedestrian pathways in addition to road projects.

Backers of the Indy Connect initiative are working with the state legislature to create enabling language for Indiana counties to opt-in to a regional transportation authority. If successful with the legislature, supporters will shift their focus to county leaders then ultimately to voters who may decide to increase transit funding through a referendum. Learn more about transit planning and view our transportation partners

(Updated July 2012)


"History of public transportation in Indianapolis." Indianapolis Star. March 30, 2005
"Indianapolis Transit System Records, 1955-1975." Indiana Historical Society. Processed 1985.
The Encyclopedia of Indianapolis. Page 1,149.
City of Indianapolis Economic Development Portal

Photo Credits:

¹ City of Indianapolis, Division of Planning, Bass Photo Collection
² Indiana Historical Society, Bass Photo Collection
³ John Veerkamp, January 1982

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