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Building Communities Through BRT

Updated: May 6

IndyGo’s Jennifer Pyrz drives the build-out of Indianapolis’ bus rapid transit infrastructure, helping connect communities to better jobs and faster, more convenient travel options.


Indianapolis' new Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system is bringing a "light rail-like" experience to local transit riders. IndyGo photo

Growing up in the small town of River Falls, Wis. about 40 miles east of Minneapolis, Jennifer Pyrz hungered for more adventure than her farming community of 16,000 could offer. When her high school chemistry teacher handed her a flyer about a summer Women in Engineering camp at the University of Notre Dame, Pyrz jumped at the chance to travel somewhere new and learn about potentially more exciting career paths.

 

“I convinced my parents to send me to Notre Dame for three weeks that summer to learn about engineering,” she recalls fondly. “I also learned how fun it was to be away from home for a few weeks.”

 

Since then, Pyrz, now a professional civil engineer, has also learned how fun it is to be involved in the design, development and construction of urban infrastructure projects that make a genuine difference in the lives of everyday people.


Environmental portrait of Jennifer Pyrz
Jennifer Pyrz, Interim President and CEO, IndyGo
Delivering Rapid Change

Today, as interim president and CEO of IndyGo, Indiana’s largest public transportation provider, Pyrz leads the development of Indianapolis’ new Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system, a fast, efficient bus-based transportation network that features dedicated bus lanes, traffic signal priority, off-board fare collection, and level boarding on elevated, center-of-the-street platforms.

 

Bus service has been a part of the Indianapolis cityscape since 1953 (including several years of overhead wire-powered trolley buses) but BRT promises to add new dimensions of speed and convenience to that public transit experience.

 

“Transit is such a necessary and essential part of people’s lives in Indianapolis,” Pyrz observes. “BRT will provide customers in our highest ridership corridors with a service that’s more rapid and more direct than traditional bus service. It will support areas where our ridership needs and the potential for economic development are highest.”

 

She is particularly enthusiastic about the benefits of BRT for mobility-challenged riders.

 

“People using strollers, wheelchairs or other types of mobility devices love BRT because they can roll right onto the bus from the station platform without having to navigate steps,” she explains.

 

Reaching for the Stars

Pyrz grew up in a household defined by hard work and a strong work ethic. Her entrepreneurial mom ran consignment shops, sold real estate and provided secretarial support to the local school district, while her dad sold insurance annuities.

 

In high school, Pyrz excelled in math, and after her summer workshop at Notre Dame, figured she’d end up in engineering. But secretly, she was in love with transit.


3/4 view of BART train in underground station
Pyrz fell in love with transit while riding BART during family summer vacations in California.

“During summers, my family often went to the San Francisco Bay area to visit my aunt, uncle and grandma,” she remembers. “And every time we visited, we would ride BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) to an Oakland A’s game. As a kid, I loved riding that transit system. It was just so cool.”

 

Connecting with Infrastructure 

When it came time for college, however, Pyrz set her sights on Purdue University—“I was not accepted by Notre Dame, and Madison (Wis.,) and Minnesota were way too close to home for me”—and a career in aeronautical engineering. But after her first class in thermodynamics, she decided she’d be more successful developing engineering projects that didn’t require wings.

 

Pyrz discovered her passion for civil engineering—and her future husband—at Purdue University, West Lafayette, Ind. Photo by Diego Delso via Creative Commons.

"I started in structural (engineering) thinking I wanted to design bridges, but then I figured out that civil engineering offered me a way to help develop the infrastructure that helps people live their lives,” she notes.

 

Pyrz graduated from Purdue in 1995 with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering, then worked briefly designing airports for engineering firm TKDA in St. Paul, Minnesota. Within about six months, however, she was begging her Purdue professors to take her back to earn a master’s degree in civil engineering, which she completed in 1997.

 

Her next stop was Pflum, Klausmeier and Gehrum Consultants, a small, Ohio-based engineering firm where she worked until 2006.

 

“I loved that job,” she says. “Our office in Indianapolis was only five or six people, so I got involved in everything that came through the door. I also got to take on leadership roles much earlier.”

 

Boarding the Public Train

Over the next 14-plus years, Pyrz honed her skills in traffic engineering and transportation planning, moving up through the ranks of several large civil engineering consulting firms including Parsons Brinckerhoff (later acquired by WSP), WSP, and HNTB. 

 

The Julia M. Carson Transit Center in downtown Indianapolis is the hub for all of IndyGo's public transit networks, both traditional and BRT - IndyGo photo

But then one day in spring 2020, an opportunity in the public transportation sector came knocking. IndyGo was looking for a chief development officer, and Pyrz was encouraged to apply for the position, even though she wasn’t looking for a new job.

 

“I knew that if I stayed in consulting, I might get to work on more transit projects, but there was no guarantee,” she says. “Taking this job was the only way I would be sure to work on projects that I enjoyed the most.”

 

Pyrz also recognized that her skills and experience matched IndyGo’s needs well and that she’d probably never be more qualified for the position. So she took the leap. Three and half years later, when the agency’s president and CEO resigned, IndyGo’s board asked Pyrz to lead the organization.

 

Investing in the Community

IndyGo’s new BRT system traces its roots to the Marion County Transit Plan, a sweeping initiative to invest in BRT and the local bus network passed by Indianapolis voters in Nov. 2016. The agency launched its first BRT route (the Red Line) in 2019, a north-south line that served more than one million passengers in 2023.


Today, under the rubric of IndyGo’s 2027 Transit Network—aka its Future Service Plan (FSP)—the agency is building out the rest of its BRT system. When complete, expected in 2027, it will comprise three major routes: Red, Purple, and Blue, crisscrossing Indianapolis north to south and east to west. The east-west Purple Line, currently under construction, is expected to open in late 2024, while the Blue Line is nearing completion of its design phase.


IndyGo’s new Purple Line BRT will give Indianapolis' eastside residents access to more work, education and healthcare options near downtown. IndyGo artist concept

The FSP also promises to deliver faster, more reliable bus service, higher bus frequency, longer service hours and an expanded service grid that will enable better connections between IndyGo’s traditional bus service and its BRT system.

 

Delivering “Light Rail-Like”

Pyrz acknowledges that many of IndyGo's BRT key features were inspired by Cleveland's HealthLine BRT.


Pyrz is focused on creating a "light rail-like" experience for BRT riders. IndyGo photo

“We’re prioritizing our BRT lines to look and feel as much like light rail as we can,” she explains. “That’s why our BRTs feature all-electric buses, significant stations with level boarding, stations in the middle of the road, and dedicated lanes whenever possible. By emulating the speed, comfort and convenience of light rail, we think we’ll maximize the benefit of our investment.”

 

BRT is also cheaper to operate than light rail on a per-mile basis, takes advantage of Indianapolis’ existing street infrastructure, and offers real-time rerouting flexibility, something light rail will never be able to provide, she adds.


Upgrading Neighborhoods

Of course, no construction project is without challenges and IndyGo’s BRT is no exception. Pyrz is confident, however, that the system’s benefits will more than outweigh any temporary inconveniences experienced by its customers.

 

“Our BRTs come with significant infrastructure improvements such as bike paths, sidewalks, curb ramps and traffic signals,” she offers. “We’re building these improvements for transit users, but everyone who lives along a BRT line is also getting a new sidewalk and a safer path to walk or bike on. So that's important.”

 

Scoring at Home

Workdays begin early in the vintage house on Indianapolis’ northside that Pyrz shares with her husband, her youngest daughter and two dogs, a Labrador named Ernie (after Chicago baseball great Ernie Banks) and a mutt named Rizzo (after former Chicago first baseman Anthony Rizzo.)

 

After walking the dogs, Pyrz typically scans The New York Times over breakfast, then digs into the paper’s daily collection of puzzles (Wordle, Connections, etc.). On this subject, she admits to being “just a teeny bit competitive” with her family, including her two college-aged children.

 

“My husband and I mostly text each other to see who’s done better (with the puzzles) on a certain day,” Pyrz says. “But if I can’t get Wordle in five tries, I’m not going to share that fact.”


IndyGo opened its new East Campus headquarters in August 2023. IndyGo photo
Building Consensus

After dropping her daughter off at school, Pyrz either rides the bus (including the Red Line BRT) to IndyGo’s downtown offices or drives to its new headquarters on Indianapolis' eastside. Her typical days include meetings with staff, IndyGo board members and other transportation advocates.

 

As a leader, Pyrz shares, she values hard work, accountability and data-driven decision-making.

 

“I don’t want everyone to simply agree with whatever solution I might think of first,” she says. “Instead, I expect my team to ask good questions so we can figure out the best solution together.”


Wrigley Field, Chicago - Photo by Ryan Dickey via Creative Commons
Taking Time Out

When Pyrz is not at work or thinking about transportation, she can likely be found reading a good book, walking her dogs, or attending a Cubs game in Chicago.

 

“My husband, his brother and his parents are diehard Cubs fans, so season tickets run in the family,” she explains. “I usually get to about six or eight games per season.”



Believing in BRT

Looking ahead, Pyrz knows that the final innings of IndyGo’s BRT construction will not be without challenges, but she’s confident that BRT will benefit the entire community.

 


“Whether folks ride our buses or not, they likely rely on people who rely on transit,” she advises. “It could be their attorney, their employees or local students studying new ways to improve our city. By building a fast, reliable public transportation network, we’re creating new opportunities and mobility options for transit riders, and boosting the economic health of our entire region. I get to watch this evolution unfolding every time I ride the bus. And that really makes my day."


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If you enjoyed reading this article, please check out this profile of Joshua Schank, another innovator helping make transit work well in big cities. If you'd like to recommend someone to be profiled on this blog, please send your suggestions to brooks@personsofinfrastructure.com Many thanks.

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