Why Public Transit Needs to Be Part of the Teardown Conversation

Forgive me if I dive into the recent past for a quick diatribe. I’ve been out of town for a week, and after arriving back in Dallas from the gut-punching landscape of central Wyoming -- via a soul-sucking drive down 114 from the northern Fort Worth suburbs through such bucolic havens of American life as Southlake, Grapevine, Las Colinas, and Irving -- something jumped out in a Jim Schutze column from last week:

Forgive me if I dive into the recent past for a quick diatribe. I’ve been out of town for a week, and after arriving back in Dallas from the gut-punching landscape of central Wyoming — via a soul-sucking drive down 114 from the northern Fort Worth suburbs through such bucolic havens of American life as Southlake, Grapevine, Las Colinas, and Irving — something jumped out in a Jim Schutze column from last week:

“Of course people should be free to live where they want to live in the way they want to live,” Schutze wrote in reaction to this Dallas Morning News report about the failure of DART to increase ridership despite 35 years of heavy investment. “But they should have to pay the true price for their lifestyle. At the very least those of us who live in cities should not go on paying subsidies to prop up raw land sprawl, which is pretty much what DART and free highways have become.”

And there, in the typical brevity and clarity that is Schutze when he is at his best, is the nut graph to the entire conflict of opinions that has unfolded over the past few months as we debate all sorts of road issues, from teardowns to construction stoppages to off ramps to South Dallas to Arlington. Too often this debate has reached an impasse when the values of two not necessarily conflicting, but often cannibalistic development models are defended. Regional-minded development has created the North Texas of today, a vibrant, growing, successful, and increasingly unsustainable economic zone. Downtown has become little more than just another commercial development located at an interstate exchange growing out of the skeleton of what once was an urban center. The central city is a version of suburbia, its residents reliant on a patchwork of commutes that zig-zag hither tither to wherever a company happened to locate.

There is no need to undo the successes of sprawl, but as Schutze points out, those successes have been propped up by the disinvestment in Dallas itself. For sixty years, the region has ruled. The results are clear: population loss in Dallas (excluding Uptown), migrating jobs, a stagnated Southern sector. The Dallas Morning News outlines the cost in their Future Dallas project: rising poverty, income inequality, floundering city services.

You might say who cares? After all, why do Dallas dwellers continually harp on the suburbs when the ‘burbs have driven the region’s growth. Most of us have jobs here precisely because of the model that is driven by that ‘raw land sprawl,’ and it continues to attract companies. So what if Dallas is little more than a potholed, slightly denser southern suburb to the city of “I-635-Dallas North Tollway Interchange-ia?”

The problem is this dismissive attitude is underwritten by a provincialism that doesn’t place high enough esteem in the value – economic, social, political – of urbanity. The idea of the city these days is too often associated with a kind of designer lifestyle, which is as much a byproduct of how new urban development is branded – what Mark Lamster coined as “bro-chitecture” – as it is of the reality that real urban life hasn’t really existed in Dallas since the late-1950s. In Dallas, we only see the gains of sprawl, while its costs remain invisible.

When we get lost in the details of the debate – tear down this road, don’t built this road – we can lose sight of the fundamental problem facing Dallas. North Texas may be successful, but it is unsustainable. Suburban development can drive growth, but it does so in a tremendously inefficient way when compared to urban development. And the politics of the region are skewed toward perpetuating the status quo. Dallas has made too many mistakes in its own efforts to redevelop, too often opting for suburb-like solutions in the city rather than holding ground and investing intelligently in things like creating a real public transit system.

In the context of this debate, public transit needs a stronger voice. DART plays its role as a commuter rail network, but it is built out to capacity. If we are really trying to develop a future Dallas that can anchor the region, then Dallas needs a better transit system. And there is no reason why those who support tearing down inner city highways and those who are fighting for the southern sector should not be aligned on this.


  • Bushwood Smithie

    So who is going to pay for this “better transit system”?

    Not the riders — their fares don’t pay a penny towards capital costs like trains, rail lines and buses. Fares only cover about 15% of the operating costs. From what I’ve heard, farebox revenues don’t pay for much more than the cost of collecting and processing them.

    Not the feds. The Federal Highway Trust Fund — which gets it’s money from those car drivers you hate so much — has been pillaged into insolvency. It’s funny how just a couple years ago the Secretary of Transportation was in town for a photo op, handing over a check for $10 million in highway funds to pay for a park. And there’s the $700 million they gave DART for the green line, which each days carries about as many folks as a minor arterial road. But now they don’t have any money left for the highways that the folks whose gas taxes went into the fund actually use.

    The existing DART cities? Maxed out on sales taxes. The state would have to lift the sales tax cap, which isn’t going to happen. Then the voters would have to vote to increase the sales tax, and that’s not going to happen either.

    Get new cities to join and contribute to DART? That’s a laugh. Let’s face it, the folks in the far-out burbs are just smarter than us. They know how to sort a spreadsheet. Pick your criteria: population growth, property value increases, sales tax collections…there’s an almost perfect correlation. In virtually every case the cities at the bottom have DART and the cities at the top don’t. It’s not just that most people don’t care about DART, it’s that they’re actively avoiding it. The masses are voting with their feet, and they prefer cities with lower sales tax rates or where the sales taxes are going to something that actually benefits them.

    But, for arguments sake, let’s say $10 billion falls out of the sky and lands at DART HQ. What does that get you? Well, based on past performance, absolutely nothing. Nada. Zilch. After all the billions we’ve flushed down that toilet, DART daily ridership has barely budged since day 1. The only year in which they saw a noticeable increase in ridership numbers was the year they conveniently changed their method of counting. The number of folks riding the train each day corresponds to the decrease in bus ridership. We’ve spent billions to get people out of busses — not out of cars. And these are the absolute numbers. Look at it from a per capita or market share basis and things are even worse — those numbers are negative.

    The bottom line is that after spending all that money the percentage of folks using mass transit in the region is lower than it was before DART even came into existence. There is no rational basis to assume that spending even more money would have a different effect.

  • Matthew

    What is your definition of the “suburbs”? Areas north of NW Highway, 635, 190, or 121? The City of Dallas has a large geographical footprint (http://maps.dallascityhall.com/), so just saying “Dallas” isn’t precise enough.

    While the rural reserve concept (http://www.oregonmetro.gov/index.cfm/go/by.web/id=31826 ) would never gain support here (and I wouldn’t support it), it is one of the only direct ways to address the issue you raise in your commentary.

    I agree that DART needs to create an actual hub instead of just endless commuter spokes.

  • CSP

    “such bucolic havens of American life as Southlake, Grapevine, Las Colinas, and Irving”

    Ah yes, another Simek post on this subject which reveals his contempt for those of us among D’s readership who have chosen a provincial lifestyle instead of sharing his love of living a more urban lifestyle.

    I know D certainly markets itself to people like me, with its contrived Best Suburb rankings (surprise, it’s a Park City at the top) and all. But does everyone else who writes and works for D hold those of us in the suburbs – and who prefer a suburban lifestyle – in as much contempt as Simek seems to? Surely the marketing yourselves to suburbanites isn’t merely a cynical ploy to increase revenue off those you look down upon.

  • Peter Simek

    Yep, you’re right. The entire way DART light rail is funded, conceived, and implemented is flawed. I once wrote that that’s why we needed to re-imagine our bus system. We have a bus system that serves everyone poorly instead of a core of the city well. That’s why ridership sucks. And that’s why I quit taking buses:


    I still like the idea of rethinking our bus network, esp. because it offers the most bang for the buck. Though I’m more open to a series of modern street car loops than I used to be. But again, the problem with that is money. Options for funding include tearing down the freeway loop, unleashing a few billion in pent up demand for dense urban development, and funneling some of that tax revenue into a transit system that can support that urban growth, ie streetcars, a second dart light rail alignment downtown. But that’s a bigger conversation.

  • Peter Simek

    My definition of suburbs today is everything north of Woodall Rogers and south of I-30. I’m kidding (sort of). I live in Oak Cliff, and its a pretty effing suburban way of life, despite the hype. But regarding the burbs and regionalism conversation, I think you make a good point. North Dallas representatives often side with tug of sprawl.

  • Peter Simek

    Actually, CSP. I had a wonderful time in Grapevine yesterday. There, I said it. And I even thought, as I was driving over a manicured bridge on the way from the lake, past horse farms, towards a lovely, too-picturesque ‘historic’ Main St., that I understand why people — even friends of mine — choose to live there. I also happen to understand why it would drive me insane to live there. But I think I started this piece by saying ‘to each his own,’ but just added the caveat ‘but my own shouldn’t suffer because of yours.’ Oh, and as I say in the comment above, my little life in Oak Cliff is rather suburban compared to, say, my sister’s in Astoria Queens. We don’t have much of an urban option here. Even downtown living can feel like contrived urbanity, or something or other. But it’s too late in the day to get into that.

  • ILoveWyoming

    Off topic but where is “the gut-punching landscape of central Wyoming” located?

  • Peter Simek

    Lander, Red Canyon, and the whole Wind River area. Bury me there, please.

  • TheBlaydes

    I agree we need to both reevaluate how we allocate transportation dollars as a whole, and how DART spends its part of that allocation. In other words we need to decrease funding on highways in suburbs and increase funding for public transit to intensify its network in more urban denser parts of Dallas.