Dallas Really Can Have a Great Public Transportation System

I thought about titling this post “Two car-centric cities that are kicking Dallas’ rear when it comes to figuring out public transportation,” or something like that, but then I remembered that Dallas is a “can do” city. We can do this public transit thing.

All aboard?  (photo via Wikimedia Commons)
All aboard? (photo via Wikimedia Commons)

I thought about titling this post “Two car-centric cities that are kicking Dallas’ rear when it comes to figuring out public transportation,” or something like that, but then I remembered that Dallas is a “can do” city. We’re optimists. We like big projects, and then we like taking years to debate and tackle them. So rather than get all pouty and boo hoo about how other Sun Belt cities are further down the line when it comes to figuring out how to offer quality public transit in cities defined by sprawl, I thought I’d frame the comparisons as an opportunity. After all, there’s some positive buzz circulating on the topic now that the city council’s transportation committee gave DART a big thumbs up on its ramped-up plans to connect the Oak Cliff and McKinney Avenue streetcar lines through downtown, as well as add the long-overdue D2 second light-rail alignment through the center of the city. Those projects are being acted on thanks to the promise of a private developer bringing in a high-speed rail line to downtown Dallas.

Those are vital projects, particularly the D2. Currently the DART light-rail system capacity is maxed-out because it has been constructed with a built-in bottle neck downtown. We can’t fit anymore trains in the system because they all pass through a single line on a city street downtown. I mean, think about that for a second. We have a rail system that stops at stop lights. Seriously. Giggle. Moving on.

We need the D2. And connecting the streetcar makes sense. These are the obvious big ticket projects, but they’re not the lowest hanging fruit. In fact, we could have better public transit in Dallas in a few weeks. How? Rethinking our bus system.

Last week, at a panel discussion hosted by D Academy, the Dallas Morning News’ architecture critic Mark Lamster offered one simple suggestion about how to improve Dallas transit: redraw the maps. They are largely incomprehensible, he argued. He pointed specifically to the D-Link map, which is supposed to promote a free downtown shuttle largely aimed at coaxing out-of-town-ers onto DART. But the D-Link map is about as difficult to decipher as that equation Michael Caine works on for 30 years in Interstellar.

Design is part of DART’s biggest problems, and it’s not just the maps. The routes themselves need to be rewritten. As they stand today, DART’s bus routes are impractical, inefficient, difficult to understand, and dissuade broader ridership.

This is not an uncommon problem. Most low-density cities face a difficult challenge when thinking through bus transit: do you offer bus stops close to as many of your residents as possible, or do you offer bus routes that get those residents to their destinations as efficiently as possible?

Houston faced this problem, and last year, they made a dramatic — though simple — change. They redrew their bus routes in a way that could promote high-performing routes rather than maximizing geographical coverage. And they’re not alone:

The idea of shifting service to maximize ridership rather than geographical coverage isn’t new. Portland introduced a high-frequency grid, which seeks to maximize ridership at the expense of some coverage, in 1982, as did Oakland’s AC Transit around 1990. Cities like Chicago and Los Angeles, with their strong street grids and relatively high-ridership routes inherited from old streetcar companies, have always had such high-frequency grids.

More recently, Salt Lake City’s Utah Transit Authority did a similar reorganization, seeking to get more ridership out of an unchanged operational budget by increasing frequency along well-traveled routes while cutting service on meandering, suburban routes. The authority expected a 12 percent increase in ridership over three years due to the changes, which went into effect in 2007.

Daily weekday ridership on UTA buses ended up growing from 77,500 in 2007 to 88,700 in 2011, an increase of 14.5 percent.

As I’ve written before, DART has the dubious honor of being one of the most inefficient public transit systems in the world. A big part of the problem is that the public transportation system is incomprehensible unless you are forced to sit down and decipher its routes. Even then, routes tend to be inefficient. For example, I often take the 11 bus from downtown to Oak Cliff via Jefferson Boulevard. This bus is a workhorse. It’s typically crowded, and it runs up a major business corridor, servicing businesses, residents, and lots of health care services. But for some reason, after we cross into Oak Cliff, the bus rears off and spaghettis its way through side streets before finding its way back out onto Jefferson. Often we get stuck behind parked cars, have to slowly make hair pin turns on tiny streets, and stop at multiple stop signs. One or two people get on and off during this part of the route.

This routing probably allows DART to claim they offer bus stops close to their riders, but it also offers their riders inferior service. I’d rather walk an extra few blocks and get a bus that ran more quickly, more frequently, then have it zigzag like a school bus up to my corner.

Los Angeles is another city that has been thinking about how to make their traffic system function more efficiently. They already have dedicated bus lanes, something Dallas should invest in. But last year they embarked on another ambitiously simple project: a complete synchronization every single one of their street lights. Now, if you get on a bus in LA, it runs like train, with no stops except to let people on and off. It’s just one of a very comprehensive list of initiatives Los Angeles has undertaken to figure out how to offer a public transit system that actually works.

I bring this all up because while yesterday’s positive vibes towards Dallas’ downtown public transit expansion is a step in the right direction, we can be doing even more with even less. D2 is one of the most important transit improvements the still hasn’t built. That needs to happen. But I would argue rethinking our bus system is right there at the top with it.

The problem is, in part, that in addition to practical challenges, there are cultural stigmas when it comes to buses. A lot of people view the bus system as a kind of transportation welfare, and not as a city service – a viable and practical transportation alternative. Under the welfare model, the system needs to be extended equitably to cover the most people who need a car alternative. The result is a system that provides poor service to as many people as possible. It’s like punishing people for their need. Instead, we need to a multi-modal transit system – light rail, streetcars, and buses – that is as efficient, practical, and comprehensible as possible. That will make it useful, and if it is useful, people will use it. Ridership will grow. And the people who really do rely on DART will enjoy better service.