Dallas’ bus system is broken.
It doesn’t reliably get people where they need to go. That’s because, for years, Dallas Area Rapid Transit has emphasized both coverage and frequency. As bus specialist Jarrett Walker said at an event earlier this month, it’s this inability to prioritize that has made the agency’s approach so ineffective.
About 56 percent of the system’s routes are built to enhance ridership, while 43 percent maximize coverage. When Walker helped Houston recalibrate, the city was at 55 percent ridership and 30 percent coverage, plus 15 percent route duplication. It landed on 80 percent ridership to 20 percent coverage. Dallas doesn’t have a duplication issue but, with Walker on board as consultant, it will have to decide how to reprioritize.
On Monday, DART went before the Dallas City Council’s Economic Development Committee, taking some of the first formal steps to gauge where priorities stand. In so doing, we got a glimpse at a few details. DART has been working with city staff as well as Walker’s team to hammer out the two concepts.
If DART ultimately chooses to focus on ridership, it will emphasize high bus frequency but a less extensive map of coverage, with a particular focus on “places with high transit demand potential.” The concept would be built from a blank slate, the agency’s VP of service planning and scheduling, Todd Plesko, told the committee on Monday. It would feature routes with gaps of 20 minutes between buses during the middle of the day and as little as 15 minutes during peak hours. Prioritizing frequency would also mean an end to GoLink, DART’s on-demand service currently available in certain neighborhoods. The agency’s goal would be to have everyone about 10 minutes from a transit station, or about half a mile.
On the other hand, the opposite, coverage-focused concept cuts that distance in half, down to a five-minute walk. But that means a continuation of the less frequent and unreliable service that makes riders pound their heads on the concrete. DART says many routes would continue with between 40 minutes and an hour between rides during the day. With this concept, the agency would expand five GoLink zones and add nine new ones.
No matter which way they go, DART will attempt to redesign the system without a hit to the budget.
Keep in mind that these are general summaries. One hopes that we’ll get a much more detailed look at the plans as we move further along in the process. The information Plesko and DART President Gary Thomas presented Council on Monday was limited.
North Dallas Council member Adam McGough said that he’s heard from his constituents a general plea for better reliability, which would mean sending buses around at higher frequencies—the ridership route. But he wanted details about the impact to other areas of the city.
Council member David Blewett, too, leaned generally toward boosting ridership. He said that he would prioritize differently depending on which of his district’s neighborhoods he was discussing. East Dallas’ transit needs differ from downtown’s, for instance. But, speaking from an economic development perspective, “it seems to me that we should be very much focused on ridership,” he said.
Thomas says the agency is doing a deeper analysis about which areas would be left out with a stronger ridership model, and that it would share that analysis with DART’s board this spring. He said the agency could come before Council again, as well.
The public will be next to weigh in on their priorities. DART will hold a summit in downtown Dallas on April 17 and 18, bringing together community leaders and transit users. The agency will also put out surveys online and at transit stops, and will hold community meetings.