Yesterday afternoon, I drove up Cockrell Hill Road near Davis Street and saw about a dozen or so people sitting in the grass by the side of the road. There was no clear reason for them to be there. There were no benches or chairs, no source of shade. There wasn’t a pocket park or any other sort of urban amenity that might draw people to this random spot of grass bordered by a parking lot and a six-lane divided boulevard. They also weren’t vagrants or homeless, though at a glance you might wonder. The only indication of why so many people would have taken up residence on this perfectly manicured strip of lawn was a small rectangular yellow sign with the number 549 printed on its face. It took me a second to spot it. The bus stop sign was attached to a steel pole that had sunk so deeply into the relatively newly laid sod so that the sign stood barely four feet off the ground.
I sat in my air-conditioned car waiting for the red light to turn and watched the scene. I felt like a prince of capitalism, mounted in my oil-guzzling, carbon-emitting, foreign-made, bank-financed chariot of privilege which had managed to speed me from my office downtown to my afternoon appointment near this location out here on the fringes of Oak Cliff in a few minutes. Meanwhile, there was no telling how long these people — men and women, some who looked as young as 20 and others who were looked to be in their 50s or older, mostly black or Hispanic — had been waiting, or, more importantly, how much more time they would spend waiting at intersections like this one before they got to their destinations.
Actually, there was a way to estimate their wait time. Their bus, the 549, only comes every half hour. It travels a simple north-south route, towards the Cockrell Hill Transfer Station and then on to the Westmoreland light-rail station. Unless these people had the good fortune of living along the five or six blocks between this spot and the transfer station (in which case, it might be faster to walk than to wait for the bus), they were likely waiting on a bus that would take them to a spot where they could then wait, perhaps for another half hour, for another bus.
And even though they were sitting less than 50 meters from Davis Street, a major east-west thoroughfare — the old U.S. Highway 80 — which runs from Dallas to Fort Worth and intersects with every major north-south thoroughfare west of the Trinity River on its way toward downtown, they couldn’t walk up to the corner and catch the Davis Street bus. That’s because, rather than connect the many neighborhoods of northern and western Oak Cliff to this rapidly expanding warehouse district job center, the Davis Street bus veers southward a few miles before it gets here, snaking its way through side streets toward the Cockrell Hill Transfer Station.
And so, if anyone has a job at Pinnacle Park’s warehouses and wants or needs to take the bus, they must take two or more buses, and maybe the train as well, which means plenty of time to wait on the side of the road, watching the cars that drive by watching them.
Encountering this scene yesterday, I remembered something I wrote a week or so ago about DART: that having to rely on riding DART means having to suffer a daily indignity.
I remember the feeling from the many times I have relied on public transit while living in Dallas — a total of almost five years during the 12 years or so that I’ve lived here. One time was involuntary. My car broke down, and I couldn’t afford to fix it. That led to my first encounter with the winding, incomprehensible, Medusa-hair routes that pass for a bus system in Dallas. Another time came during a three-year stint when I had a job that was near (relatively) a light-rail station when I lived (fortunately) a few blocks from another one. I remember traipsing across parking lots in the summer heat, overcrowded trains with broken doors on some of the cars, long transfers for buses whenever the needs of the day veered from a single straight line shot from home to office, missed appointments, blown plans, and suffering all the other little daily nuisances that riding public transit in Dallas entails.
Public transit does not have to be this way. I’ve lived in New York, Chicago, Munich, and Rome, and I’ve visited many, many other cities in which riding transit is hardly a thing you think about. Yes, there are annoyances and delays, just as there are annoyances and delays when driving. Yes, many of these cities are older, more mature, are working with denser street grids, but some are not, and some faced other unique challenges. But nothing — nothing — compares to the experience of riding DART. That’s because riding DART is more than an annoyance. Rather, Dallas’ public transit system provides a constant reminder that the fact that you must rely on public transit is a statement of your own lowly status as a human being who has somehow found his or herself in the unfortunate situation of having to rely on a transit system. It is a system designed to function like mobility welfare — not to efficiently move people around, but to offer a bare minimum of mobility to people who have no other choice in the matter. The long waits, transfer times, inadequate service can feel like punishment for not being a member of the car-having classes.
Then there is the actual experience of riding DART. People often talk about safety concerns on DART. I have had experiences on DART that I can only compare to the feeling of riding the NYC subways in the late 1980s, early 1990s. I can only imagine — though I have heard many stories — about how the feeling of vulnerability is heightened if you are a woman, and in particular, a woman traveling by herself.
That said, I think some of the perceptions of safety are rooted to another ugly reality when it comes to DART. Poor people ride DART. The people who prey on the poor ride DART. The mentally ill ride DART. Most anyone who can afford not to ride on DART doesn’t ride DART. And it is no secret that in a segregated, inequitable city like Dallas, DART can feel like the conduit through which moves the oft-unseen inhabitants of our secret southern sister city of color.
What often strikes me about these stories about dangerous or bad DART experiences — the fights, threats, public urination, groping, harassment, theft, etc. — is that they are a kind of self-fulfilling prophesy of perception generated by a system that is designed in a way that concentrates its ridership flow into single locations. Take the often complained-about West End Transfer Station. The entire ineptitude of DART’s system comes to a boil at this spot. It is the place in which the greatest number of bus and rail lines come together as part of its hub-and-spoke design. The streetscape is poorly designed, dangerous, with little natural connectivity or flow between the rail and bus centers. There is nothing to do or buy or visit outside of a liquor store and a McDonald’s — you can’t even buy a ticket at the bus station.
The result: everyone sits around waiting — tons of people waiting for their buses with nothing to do. People with nothing to do but look for places to hang around with other people with nothing to do; people looking to steal or harasses or bum a buck. Where else would they go? The bus and train takes them right there. And the result is crime. It’s like standing water and mosquitoes — you have one, and it attracts the other.
But while we often hear about calls to clamp down on security and police presence in the area — calls which intensify around events that draw non-typical DART riders to the area — we rarely hear anyone suggest that DART has created the problem, not because DART is public transit, but because DART has created an idiotic design of its public transit system.
And the indignity of having to rely on DART extends beyond the actual rail and bus system. A few months ago, while working on a story about the history of Dallas’ Negro parks, I had the privilege of spending a few hours with a woman who grew up in one of those parks at a time when African-Americans had to ride in the back of the bus on their way to sports tournaments and dance classes in this city’s few designated “Negro Parks.”
Felicia Agent has become a caretaker of much of that history, a history that she lived and which she fought to change, in both her public and private lives. In addition to serving on numerous park and community boards, she once ran for county commissioner against John Wiley Price. Ms. Agent also raised two children in Dallas. To get them a decent education, she drove her children for hours each way every day from her home in South Dallas to nice private schools in North Dallas where they had earned scholarships. Ms. Agent spent years in the car in an effort to provide her children a decent education. After her children graduated college, they left Dallas for good corporate jobs in cities on the East Coast. Given their experience of Dallas, can you blame them?
The first time I tried to interview Ms. Agent, she had to cancel our appointment. That morning she had taken DART paratransit to her regular kidney dialysis treatment. In the afternoon, however, her DART bus never showed. So she waited in her wheelchair on the side of the street for hours before finally giving up and calling a cab to take her a few miles to her home in Buckner Terrace. A simple, routine doctor’s appointment ended up costing the 69-year-old an entire day of her life which she spent waiting for a DART paratransit bus.
After hearing Agent’s story, I looked at DART’s internal reporting on its paratransit service. According to DART’s numbers, all looks swell. The number of complaints trend down, as do the number of missed rides, and travel times appear reasonable and reliable. And yet, when I asked Ms. Agent if she complained about her missed rides, she said she had stopped calling them in. What was the point? Nothing ever changes.
Last night we found out that when it comes to DART, nothing ever changes. The transit system’s board approved a 20-year financial plan that, on the surface, looked like a win-win. DART would build a second downtown light-rail line, which is necessary to allow the transit agency to increase capacity on its maxed-out, bottlenecked light rail system, as a subway. Dallas officials and stakeholders have advocated for the subway because the cheaper at-grade option, which DART officials tried to ram through approvals late last year, would greatly disrupt street connectivity and the development potential of downtown.
The 20-year financial plan also included the plan to sink a billion in debt in order to build a skimpy version of the Cotton Belt line, an east-west light rail connector through the northern suburbs. Ridership projections for the Cotton Belt have been low, its potential development impact minimal, and many neighbors along the route don’t want it. In addition, the level of debt needed to build out the project would weaken DART’s financial position, potentially putting a federal grant application for the D2 line in jeopardy. For those reasons, the Cotton Belt line was deliberately omitted from a Dallas City Council resolution passed earlier this month which advanced the city’s preference for the D2 subway, as well as a downtown streetcar and improved bus service.
And yet, last night, all but three of Dallas’ appointed DART board members voted for the Cotton Belt.
Think about that for a second. The elected representative body of a major American city passes a formal resolution endorsing a specific transportation policy it would like to pursue, and then five of the eight board members it appoints (one in partnership with the tiny town of Cockrell Hill) vote against the will of the council. How is that even possible?
Wait. It’s even worse than that. Over 30 years, DART has built the most expensive to operate, inefficient transit system in the country. To this end, it has invested billions of taxpayer dollars, building rail lines justified as highway traffic relievers and economic development incubators that have shown little substantiated impact in contributing to either at a level or rate that justifies the investment of capital. Meanwhile, it continues to direct attention away from — as it did last night —the kinds of projects like the downtown streetcar and revamped bus networks its peer cities have long had (Chicago) or recently adopted (Houston), systems that would actual help DART deliver on providing real mobility.
DART has failed to decrease the number of cars on North Texas roads and failed to deliver on the promise of offering a transit option that could impact air quality and decrease automobile carbon emissions. And its failure to provide an efficient means of transportation has greatly impacted the economic opportunity of countless people, like those bus riders in Cockrell Hill, who are forced to waste hours each day waiting on buses and bus transfers — hours they could spend at second jobs, at home helping children with homework, or pursuing any of the things we all take for granted in our daily lives.
In any normal boardroom in any normal corporation throughout the world, the failure to deliver on so many of the basic services most cities routinely expect from their public transit systems would spark an all-out board revolt. Instead, in Dallas, the council passes a resolution asking DART to finally focus on mobility, and the council’s DART board appointees turn against them.
It seems nuts. There is really only one way to really wrap your head around this, and that is to face the reality that Dallas doesn’t really have a transit system. Sure, there are buses and trains running about this way and that, but what Dallas — and the region — really has is an agency that runs an economic development subsidy scheme that routes massive quantities of public dollars through large-scale infrastructure projects that benefit, cursorily, a handful of development sites scattered throughout the region.
Some people in Dallas may want DART to be a public-transit system. They have been showing up at board meetings and council meetings. Sometimes they wear matching shirts, sometimes they make noise on social media or share dreams of someday living in city that, like so many cities around the world, has figured out how to provide its constituents what most places consider the most basic of city services. Maybe — maybe— if they can build the right political inertia, they will be able to realize their dreams someday.
But for now, DART is still DART. And we were reminded last night that, whether it comes to pushing for political change or catching a bus on Cockrell Hill Road, DART wins by making us wait.