DART wants you to want to ride this. (photo by Ethene Lin/Flickr)

Transportation

DART’s New Bus Network Hints at the Future of Public Transit in North Texas

It's not as flashy as a light rail extension, but creating a more efficient bus system signals that DART is finally focusing on the people who actually use public transit.

In the fall of 2019, DART ran a simple little experiment. The transit agency would run more buses on seven routes and see what happened. Would higher frequencydefined here as a bus arriving at a given stop at least every 15 to 20 minutes midday, if not fastermotivate more people to get on board?

“We were seeing immediate ridership gains within weeks,” says Rob Smith, DART’s assistant vice president of service planning and development. “There were more than 10 percent increases in ridership. On some days as much as 25 percent.”

It confirmed something that makes intuitive sense. People are more likely to ride a bus if they know they won’t have to spend a lot of time waiting around for one. This was what DART heard directly from riders, many of whom were also apprehensive of the impenetrable tangle of multi-colored lines that make up the current bus network map. “When we’ve talked to riders, we keep hearing the same stories,” Smith says. “They’re looking for routes that are more direct and easier to understand.”

DART’s new bus network is an effort to give people what they want. Yes, it will hopefully get more people to ride. But the proposed network, recently unveiled via a nifty interactive map, is in large part designed to make DART better for the riders it already has.

The transit agency is accepting feedback on the draft through June 8. The agency will polish it off this summer and present a final version of the plan to DART’s board of directors. If they sign off, the new network will become operational in January.

Whatever tweaks may be coming between now and then, the network will have fewer and longer routes concentrated in the places where people actually ride. This means straight lines over zigzags and curlicues, with fewer transfers for riders. These routes will enjoy higher frequency, meaning more buses and less waiting at bus stops. They’ll run for longer hours and on weekends. Where routes have been eliminated in areas with low ridership, they will be replaced by GoLink, the DART equivalent of Uber or Lyft that provides on-demand rides to connect with the higher-frequency network. The system map will look a little less like a 3-year-old was given a box of crayons and creative direction over the street grid.

A new bus network is not sexy. Not compared to downtown subways or light rail extensions connecting northern suburbs to DFW Airport. But it signals a quiet revolution in how the regional transit agency is approaching the task at which it has too often failed: helping people get around North Texas without their own vehicle.

DART has sometimes been hamstrung by its very structure. Sales tax revenue from 13 member cities helps pay for the agency’s operations. Each of those cities, stretched as they are across North Texas’ greater sprawl, expect DART service. Providing that breadth of coverage is what led DART to build the country’s longest light rail network. It is also partly what led that rail system to rank as one of America’s least efficient.

The biggest philosophical difference in this new bus model is an emphasis on ridership over coverage, although DART officials may prefer to describe it as a hybrid approach. Smith says that with GoLink filling in for many discontinued bus routes, especially in several suburban areas with low ridership, DART’s coverage area is technically expanding. Regardless, you should see fewer empty buses rolling through places like Preston Hollow and North Irving, where riders will instead have to dial up a GoLink shuttle.

Existing network: Three bus routes heading through Lower Greenville toward downtown, with a midday frequency of 31 to 45 minutes for the light blue line on McMillan Avenue, and 46 to 60 minutes for the green lines on Matilda and Skillman streets.
New network: One bus route with improved frequency running through Lower Greenville toward downtown. The red line on Matilda Street turning on to Ross Avenue indicates that on this route at midday a bus will arrive every 11 to 15 minutes. Frequency is also being improved for that route in the lower right corner of the image, which now runs along Gaston Avenue from the southwest corner of Lakewood to downtown. Under the new network, it would continue on to Jefferson Boulevard in Oak Cliff and through all the way to Cockrell Hill.

The new plan also had to be “budget-neutral,” Smith says, meaning that running the new network will cost as much as operating the one DART has now. Increasing bus frequency required tradeoffs. These are small sacrifices the agency believes riders are largely willing to make. Last summer, DART surveyed riders and found that most people would prefer a slightly longer walk followed by a short wait for the bus over a short walk with a long wait. This kind of planning should also address one of DART’s most immediate problems.

Transit ridership has been on a downslide since 2006. The COVID-19 pandemic pushed it off a cliff. DART is now running with about half the ridership it had before the pandemic, Smith says. The network redesign was in the works before COVID, and the problem hasn’t changed. It’s only grown more acute. The answer, planners are betting, remains the same. Increase bus frequency and more people will ride.

“The bus should come every 15 or 20 minutes all day,” says Jarrett Walker, a lauded transit consultant who DART hired after he helped successfully transform bus networks in Houston, Seattle, and elsewhere. “That’s the level of service where people start perceiving that a bus is going to come when they need it. It’s an important inflection point in ridership, where ridership tends to be disproportionately higher on high-frequency services.”

In redesigning the bus network, DART and Walker’s firm tried to start fresh. The revamp was long overdue. Most of the current network was designed in the 1980s. Some routes have been in place since long before DART even existed, dating back to World War II, according to a report by Walker’s firm. This new network at least slightly changes almost every bus route in North Texas. Its success can’t be measured by ridership alone, however. Public transit, Walker says, is meant to give people freedom. In other words, it should give people access.

“The whole point of cities is access to opportunity,” he says. “The point is for people to be close to lots of different things they can do.”

A transit system should be judged by how much access it provides: to jobs, to schools, to grocery stores, to your friends and family. This new system expands access, making more of North Texas reachable within a 60-minute trip, he says. And that will make more people ride. “People have trips they need to make and they only have so much time in which to make them. We’re simply increasing the likelihood that anyone who looks up their trip on a trip planner realizes the trip is reasonable for them.”

A report prepared by Walker’s firm breaks down access in numerical terms. Using the new bus system, the average North Texas resident would have access to more than 30,000 additional jobs within an hour, a 28 percent improvement. Better access benefits everyone, Walker says, including the low-income residents who make up much of DART’s bus ridership. According to his firm’s report, “nearly four times more low-income residents would be near frequent service at rush hours.” Residents who are losing some coverage are “disproportionately White and higher-income,” although your average rich White person will still enjoy better transit access by and large, according to the report.

“The reality of public transit is if you use it to get to absolutely every last person wherever they are you spend enormous sums trying to get the last 10 percent of them in the hardest-to-reach places,” Walker says.

DART’s numbers show that regular riders are more likely to use buses than rail, although the new network is intended to complement that system rather than be an alternative to it. “We do not care what mix of rail and bus riders use,” Walker says. “We care they get where they’re going.” However, the longer and more direct routes should translate to fewer transfers for riders. Several routes that now go to a rail station and don’t do much else would be straightened out to follow an east-west or north-south orientation. Other routes provide new connections that rail doesn’t. Addison, which has no rail station, is set to get a new frequent bus route to Garland, for example.

Existing network: Bus routes (shown by the green lines) running on a 46- to 60-minute midday frequency cross Irving just southeast of DFW Airport. The purple line in the top right is the light rail heading to the airpot.
New network: Bus routes (light blue lines) have been consolidated and made more frequent, now running every 31 to 45 minutes. They’re also longer and more direct. The route coming in from the left side of the image and heading southeast runs from the airport all the way to downtown Dallas. Where low-ridership routes were eliminated, in the beige cut-outs labeled “Central Irving” and “East Irving,” riders can now order a GoLink shuttle (DART’s version of an Uber) for a ride to connect to the rest of the network.

The new bus network will revamp DART’s service as soon as next year.

“First and foremost, before we can even talk about attracting new riders, we have to improve the lives of our existing riders,” says DART board member Patrick Kennedy, who spent years pushing the agency to rethink its bus network. In the meantime, DART is hoping to set itself up for the future. “Instead of thinking of 20-year capital projects where we get one or two rail lines, we’re going to start thinking in five-year increments,” he says. “This is a pathway for us to continue to invest and reinvest in our improved operations.”

President Joe Biden’s administration seems willing to help pay for this sort of smaller-scale transportation infrastructure. That is an enticing prospect for a transit agency that has so much money tied up in light rail extensions that may or may not happen it had to keep its big bus redesign budget-neutral.

Federal grants could help fund further investment in something like Bus Rapid Transit. Or the feds could just pay for more bus drivers to run more frequent routes. A route with 20-minute frequency is good, but a bus consistently coming every 15 minutes is even better. Some other small but significant improvements are already underway. DART has over the last several years been consolidating bus stops, and it has introduced a system to better prioritize stops that should qualify for improvements in the form of benches, shelters, and lighting.

Improvements like dedicated bus lanes would require buy-in from member cities. “Ninety percent of transit ridership is based on density, parking costs, last-mile connections,” says Kennedy, one of seven DART board members appointed by the city of Dallas. “There’s only so much we can do as a transit agency. We have to be much better aligned with the city.”

He suggests that Dallas work with DART on a municipal transit plan. Voters in Austin last year approved a massive $7 billion expansion of the MetroCap bus and rail transit there, evidence that transit advocates, city transportation officials, and transit agencies can in fact work well togetherand that voters can support spending on public transit. (Kennedy is eager to point out that DART’s bus network redesign creates more frequent core routes than Austin’s own redesign.)

For now, the bus network is a short-term bridge that can help link Dallas’ north and south “until we can get our act together and get the right design and incentives and policy in place to fix the jobs-people imbalance in the city,” Kennedy says. “This should be considered as a starting point and not an ending point.”

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