Dallas Area Rapid Transit proved it is finally serious about fixing its bus system. On Wednesday, the DART board voted to sign a contract with public transit consultant Jarrett Walker, who will help the public transit agency draw up a new plan for bus service in the region.
Walker is a big name in the world of transit planning—and bus system planning in particular. He and his firm have worked with cities all over the world, and he has proven successful helping low density cities rethink how to organize their public transit systems and improve bus reliability and ridership. Perhaps most notably, in Seattle, Walker helped what CityLab deemed a “transit-backward town” become a national model in implementing smart, efficient bus service. Walker was also deeply involved in Houston’s bus redo. He writes about his ideas about public transit at HumanTransit.org.
That DART is bringing Walker on board is significant not simply because he is a smart transit wonk. Walker is known for being able to lead civic leaders and transit officials through the complicated political calculations that can inhibit transit reform. Earlier this week, I wrote about Steven Higashide’s new book Better Buses, Better Transit, in which the author argues successful conversations around transit need “to include process and politics, not just technology and policy.” That phrase pretty much sums up Walker’s approach.
“If the buses are terrible in your city, you may think that buses are terrible in general,” Walker wrote in a 2018 Atlantic piece. “In truth, a city’s bus service is as good as its leaders and voters want it to be. Where voters have funded better bus services and cities have worked to give them priority, as in Seattle, ridership has soared.”
Walker has already had an effect on DART. The agency’s staff hired him earlier this year to audit DART’s bus system. DART’s current bus system is a hub-and-spoke network, which generally emphasizes maximizing coverage by spreading routes extensively through the region, forcing riders to make many transfers as they navigate through the system. As a result, Walker found that only around 55 percent of Dallas bus routes are designed in a way that supports increased ridership. According to DART board member Patrick Kennedy, Walker explained that the board’s job was to decide whether they want to serve a lot of people poorly or fewer people really well.
“I think there were a lot of light bulbs that went off around the board,” Kennedy said.
After Walker’s audit, DART put out an RFQ for transit firms to rework the bus system, and Walker’s firm won the bid. He will now return to Dallas in October with a timeline for redesigning the bus system. Walker’s firm will likely spend six months mapping out possible new bus network scenarios. It will present those to the board to narrow down, then comes a nine-month outreach process to bring those scenarios to the public. The target date for rolling out a new bus system is August 2021.
What that final bus network redo will look like is anyone’s guess at this point, but Kennedy said that it may work out in Dallas’ favor that so many other cities have already experimented with redesigning their networks. There are a lot of models on the ground that DART can emulate and there are new technologies that can inform how the new system is designed. Kennedy, who has focused much of his time on the DART board on pushing the agency to rethink its buses, hopes that the new bus networks will focus on higher frequency routes along major thoroughfares with improved on-demand bus service available for parts of town that may lose existing routes. Ironically, Dallas’ zealous expansion of its urban roadways may allow for other improvements to the bus network, such as dedicated bus lanes.
“Our other advantage is that we have a lot of available capacity in arterials, so we can head toward dedicated bus lanes, signal priority, queue jumping,” Kennedy says. “We are at a place where DART staff wants to do that stuff and city staff wants to do those things.”
The city’s involvement will be key. Improving bus service is about more than redrawing routes and running buses more frequently. An efficient system will require coordination with the city to grant right-of-ways for dedicate lanes and new or improved bus shelters, as well as linking signal timing to buses and improving pedestrian and bike connections to bus stops. Kennedy would love to see fewer stops along each route so buses pick up passengers only every half-mile or so, and he would like the bus network integrated into a DART light rail system that runs trains every 15 minutes.
Although he has been pounding the pavement with these ideas for more than a decade—on his blog WalkableDFW and in D Magazine before joining DART—Kennedy says that he has observed a shift in thinking at the city and DART that makes many of these transit dreams more likely to become reality.
“I think there has been a generational shift at city staff and more alignment between city staff and DART staff,” Kennedy says, adding that part of Walker’s role in the conversation will be to smooth out any conflict between staff, public officials, and DART riders. “He’s really good about helping people see what the trade-offs are.”
One of the big trade offs is money. DART’s prioritization of high cost light rail extensions has left the agency with little room for any major increased investment in its bus system. Kennedy says the redesigned bus network that will be rolled out in August 2021 must be budget neutral, with any costs related to expanded levels of service coming from reducing redundancies within the current system. After that, he says DART will be able to plan for future capital investments around DART every five years or so. The good news? Improving buses is a lot cheaper than building rail.
“We can deliver rail-level of service without having to build rail lines,” he says.
Another trade-off will likely be eliminating existing bus lines, which will impact riders who currently rely on those lines—however inefficient they may be—to get to jobs or doctors. It will fall on Walker to help walk Dallas residents through the reasons why a certain amount of sacrifice will lead to a better bus network in the long run.
“In my work as a transit planner, I try to help transit boards think clearly about what balance they want to strike between ridership goals (putting service where lots of people will ride) and coverage goals (providing a little service to everyone),” Walker writes in the Atlantic. “Many citizens demand coverage service and complain if it is removed, but the more coverage service is offered, the less ridership a municipality can expect under a fixed budget. Finding the right balance is a painful process of balancing competing demands, which is the job of elected officials or the board members they appoint.”
In other words, that painful process begins now. But however painful it ends up being, it is a necessary one.