One of the chief criticisms of Dallas Area Rapid Transit’s sprawling rail system is that, while it’s the largest in the country, it’s inefficient. You see that in ridership, which trails per-capita numbers from the public transit systems in Houston, San Antonio, Austin, and El Paso. It shows the challenge of a 93-mile rail system that was built largely along existing freight lines that don’t effectively serve many of the neighborhoods where residents live and work and recreate. Its most efficient use is for suburban office workers to zip to their jobs downtown and back again.
All of this is argued in an ambitious new book by Houston-based transit planner and Rice University professor Christof Spieler. In Trains, Buses, People: An Opinionated Atlas of U.S. Transit, Spieler spends 250 pages judging the public transit systems of 47 metro areas across this country. He traces the history of these systems, cataloguing ridership and size to determine the highest performers. Dallas doesn’t exactly rank at the top in terms of ridership for any of its services, be that commuter rail or light rail or buses or streetcar. Despite being the country’s longest, it does not rank in the top five of total ridership. Per capita is even worse.
However, ironically, DART is something of a success when you consider its own goals. Spieler writes that the agency’s primary desire was to scale, to stretch 93 miles and incorporate as many member cities as would pay into it with their tax dollars. The easiest way to do this was to snap up right of way in the form of existing freight lines, which only created a suburbanized transit system.
“One of the things I’ve noticed across the country is that it’s really tempting to build transit in places where it’s easy to build,” he said in an interview. “Freight rail fits in that category. It’s easier from an engineering planning standpoint, it’s easier politically because you have less disruption when you do that, and there’s some sort of tendency on people’s parts that when they see a track running somewhere to assume that must be a good place to put rail.”
Spoiler: It isn’t. Here’s the excerpt from Spieler’s book:
“DART light-rail lines skirt the medical center rather than running through it, pass within 600 feet of the Love Field runway but don’t serve the terminal, stop on the opposite side of freeways from both Southern Methodist University and the University of Dallas, and miss the densest neighborhoods in Dallas.”
As a result, the DART system as a whole carries “half as many people per mile as San Diego, Phoenix, or Houston.” And the policy is only continuing today—the $1.1 billion, forthcoming Cotton Belt commuter rail line will stretch to Addison and carry a projected 16,000 riders, “in part so that Addison would be the 11th city with service.”
“Arguably, DART has achieved its primary design goals,” the book reads, “high ridership was just not one of them.”
One of Spieler’s interesting findings is that DART has relatively high peak usage, when trains are coming between every eight and 15 minutes. During midday, evenings, and weekends, that frequency tumbles to between 10 and 20 minutes. So once you get beyond downtown, the rail not only doesn’t get you to where you want to go within the city’s core, but the trains are infrequent. You rely, then, on buses—and all but one of the routes are considered infrequent.
“Part of this equation is that it’s fixable,” Spieler says. “If you look at Houston compared to Dallas, Houston takes more advantage of the rail lines in designing the bus network. This is something Dallas can do now. Maybe there are more crosstown buses that intersect rail lines.”
In many ways, Spieler’s findings further cements the challenges that DART faces as it pertains to serving the residents of Dallas. It shoots riders on trains in and out of the city, offering buses that travel along inefficient and questionable routes, underserving 42 percent of the populace of a city that accounts for a little over half of the agency’s funding.
There are chances to improve. D2, the forthcoming downtown subway alignment, is meant to reduce the bottleneck of trains as they all convene downtown. D2 only extends the line as far as the Perot Museum; it’s a capacity project. But this should at least offer an opportunity to boost the frequency of its trains. Implement new bus routes that connect to the city’s densest neighborhoods, and we could be in business.
As Spieler finds, DART has actually stimulated development around its light rail stops. But these transit-oriented mixed use havens haven’t boosted ridership. He uses Richardson’s CityLine as an example: 2.6 million square feet of office space, 3,925 residential units, a hotel, a Whole Foods, and 230,000 square feet of retail and restaurants. And yet, ridership at the attached station has actually declined since it opened—in 2013, before construction, it counted 1,517 average weekday riders. In 2016, after its completion, that had dipped to 1,354. It’s just so easy to drive and park. That is changing a bit, as DART noted in a recent presentation to its board:
Ridership at CityLine/Bush Station has begun to observe small increases in ridership based upon riders who live and work adjacent this station. Previously almost all of the ridership was from park & ride commuters destined for somewhere other than CityLine/Bush Station.
“A lot of these places are in very car oriented surroundings so even if you have an island of walkability, you’re in a place where getting around in a car is so easy that it’s hard for transit to be competitive,” Spieler says.
How can that change? By prioritizing density and reliability. Seattle is the highly-touted example, which prioritized customer service and frequency after making sure the buses connected to the parts of town where people actually were. Spieler’s book lists Dallas not as a failure, but as a “Missed Opportunity.” And that’s in part because it’s fixable. Uptown had inadequate access to public transit, but the McKinney Avenue Trolley system could be improved to be more reliable and frequent and change that.
“For short trips, frequency is everything and that trolley goes the absolute right places,” he says. “But the wait for the next streetcar can be quite a while, and I’ve experienced it myself at times. Simply adding frequency on the routes that exist could do a lot of good.”
Basically: Spieler’s book shows that Dallas is hardly alone in its problems. There are pockets of residential density that do not have quality access to public transit—be it for reasons related to location or frequency—that would support it. Cities like Houston, Denver, Portland, and Seattle have used their bus routes to improve the access to and reliability of public transit. Challenges will remain. Houston’s bus ridership was down 1.5 percent from 2016 to 2017 even after its grid-based reconfiguration, of which Spieler helped with. (He’s a former METRO board member.) But DART’s drop clocked in at 4.7 percent. The only peer system that saw an increase was Phoenix.
“If you measure success as ‘we opened a project’ then you will make a different set of decisions than if you make a success as ‘we carry a lot of people,’” he says.
DART may have achieved its goal of sprawl. But now, Spieler’s book contends, it should tackle efficiency. He doesn’t believe it’s too late.