My 6-year-old kid loves taking the train. Wherever we’re going—to the zoo, a Mavericks game—he sits the same way: sideways, knees in the seat, face and hands pressed against the glass, wide eyes watching the city blur by. To him, the train is not transportation. It’s not separate from the fun thing he’s going to or coming from. It’s part of it.
I hadn’t thought about trains in that way in a long time. I ride them like any bored 9-to-5er, staring straight ahead into nothing, sometimes trying to puzzle out the signs written in Spanish. It isn’t that I stopped thinking of trains like a child does; I stopped thinking of them at all. That’s sort of the point. They’re for moving people physically, not emotionally.
Then DART opened the Green Line in September. Billboards announcing the occasion showed a corny dog with green mustard on it (the State Fair!) and a guitar with a green amplifier cord (Deep Ellum!). The Green Line intrigued me. I had the naïve idea—or maybe it was hope—that it was different.
The Red and Blue lines, those were utilitarian, strictly for commuters. The Green Line, I thought, with its stops in entertainment districts, that was something else. It wasn’t the end unto itself, obviously, but maybe it wasn’t merely the means, either. The people on those trains—party people—would be loaded with potential or fulfillment, depending on the lateness of the hour. I know: no matter the stops, it’s still just a train. Maybe I’d just gotten caught up in the marketing.
Late one Friday night not long ago, I set out with an agenda (to find those people, or maybe be one myself) but without an itinerary, bound only for wherever the Green Line wanted to take me. But there was a sword of Damocles hanging over the whole operation: the trains stop running around midnight. (DART says there are no long-term plans to extend the hours of service.) The schedule didn’t necessarily matter to me. I had a car parked nearby. What about my fellow travelers, though? Does a train serving entertainment districts make sense if DART stops serving customers several hours before the bars near the Fair Park and Deep Ellum stations do?
Short answer: no.
I stepped aboard a train at Fair Park containing one other passenger. The next stop was Baylor University Medical Center Station. The doors opened and closed for no reason. Next came Deep Ellum: again, nothing. Just the guy slouched into the aisle one car up, and me, leaning into a window. We finally became a trio at Pearl Station, when an older woman with a scarf tied around her head boarded. She had no business on the Green Line. She just wanted out of the cold.
We glided through downtown, the lights of the city streaming by at a remove. With so few people aboard, it felt like being on the wrong side of aquarium glass. I grew restless on the near-empty train and got off at the first station where I saw people: West End. There were maybe a dozen or so people scattered near the platforms on either side of the tracks—mostly young, mostly black—but none of them seemed in a hurry. They did not appear as though they were headed for fun, certainly, or at least not the kind of fun directly adjacent to the Green Line.
After a few out-of-service trains rolled past, I boarded another Green Line train, along with a handful of others. The same one I’d ridden earlier, as it turned out, sitting in the same seat across from the door that opened only halfway. I still had hope. There was still time. But it never happened. No one ever got on or off in Deep Ellum, or anywhere else. I gave up and got off at Fair Park. I walked to a bar and had a drink. After all, my car didn’t turn into a pumpkin at midnight like the trains did. I had to face the realization that the Green Line was not different from the Red or Blue lines, and it never would be. It was a commuter train like the others, only with better PR.
I also realized something else: that is not a bad thing. At all.
The future of the Green Line is not what it will be now, and it is not even what it will be in December. If everything goes to plan—and DART spokesman Morgan Lyons says it’s “on schedule and under budget”—that’s when the Green Line extends its reach to Pleasant Grove (Buckner Station) to the southeast, and Carrollton (North Carrollton/Frankford Station, near I-35) to the northwest. Fifteen new stops will be added, almost tripling the current number (nine, with only the Victory Station and the four stations between the Deep Ellum and MLK Jr. stops unique to the line).
The temptation will be to look at the Green Line as it exists then, in December, as a finished product. But it won’t be. That is too simplistic. Even when the new stations open, the Green Line will not be what it will be in five years, or 10. The current setup is a newborn; even fully functional, it will remain, at best, a toddler.
Transportation, more than anything else, can change the landscape of a city or a region. But it takes time, like a river carving a canyon through sedimentary rock. That’s especially true when it comes to a train line, and even more so in an area still adjusting to light rail travel, almost 14 years after the first Red Line and Blue Line stations opened.
“Eventually the Green Line and all of DART will have a positive effect on the city that most people can’t even fathom yet,” says Patrick Kennedy, an urban planner and designer who runs the website Carfreeinbigd.com. “While it may not seem like a worthwhile extension to hop on DART to Fair Park now, it is likely that we are thinking about Fair Park’s current state rather than its potential.”
What Kennedy means is this: Fair Park is not just the State Fair, and it’s not the bars on Parry and Exposition avenues. Maybe Fair Park turns into a year-round entertainment complex. Maybe more bars and restaurants open. That is not irrelevant, but it’s somewhat beside the point. The station at Fair Park—and the same goes for the other current and future stops along the Green Line—is not meant to make it easier for people to get there. It’s meant to make it easier for them to stay there. Kennedy says that the new transportation options, along with low land values and the city’s interest (and investment) to keep crime down, make these stops prime candidates for resurgence. More local business. More residents. More life. The density every city planner dreams of.
“Perhaps thinking about Fair Park as a destination is what is holding back the area,” Kennedy says, gently correcting my original thesis. “We need to think about it as a point of origin for DART riders, as a new, safe, affordable, urban neighborhood where riders live and get on DART to ride to other places. Once it becomes an origin, then it becomes a destination for others because it is already a more interesting, vibrant, and unique area.”
A place where we can all watch from a passing Green Line train, sitting sideways, knees in the seat, face and hands pressed against the glass, wide eyes watching the city blur by.