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Local Government

Under DART’s New Bus Plan, Some Riders Face Difficult Trips Between Stops

The transit agency’s new plan doubles down on reliability and frequency, but it also means that riders may have a trot ahead of them.
By Dalton LaFerney |
If we were not in Dallas, the phrase “walk a little farther” might produce no additional stress for residents who use public transportation every day.

Under its new bus network plan, DART calculates that as many as 75 percent of people within DART’s service area will be within walking distance of a bus stop, about a 6 percent increase from the current arrangement. The agency polled North Texans who live within the agency’s service area and found that most people would rather travel a longer distance by foot to a bus stop if it means buses will run more frequently. DART’s new plan refocuses its buses around core high-frequency routes, which it believes will be more reliable but will sometimes require a longer walk after a transfer.

But in a city as unfriendly to pedestrians as Dallas, what does 10 minutes of walking distance really mean, especially for someone taking their elderly mother to the doctor’s office? What about somebody who is already burdened to traverse to the stop that is across the street from him? What does it mean to walk a little farther in a city where even the most expensive and well-developed neighborhoods are dotted with pedestrian hazards?

For Barbara Jordan, 64, it means more time in the morning darkness as she catches the bus to make it to work by 7 a.m. She wrote to DART, pleading her case to save the 541 running next to her South Oak Cliff apartment. “Please don’t make me walk three blocks to get a bus,” she wrote.

And for Christopher Long, who uses a wheelchair and lives with severe pain, the 542 disappearing would require him to use the agency’s paratransit service more often, which he said would impact his ability to move around. DART’s scheduling system requires paratransit riders to make arrangements by 5 p.m. the day before their planned trip, but they can also book up to four days in advance. Long says that would limit his flexibility.

As we move closer to Jan. 24, 2022 — the day when the new route changes will be in effect — more people are reaching out to DART leaders to try and get a sense for how their lives will change. What might not be obvious from the stats and official framing of the changes is clear when you talk to some everyday bus riders: the extra distance will not be quite so simple for everybody.

Decisions on where to live often factor in how convenient it is to get to work, what kind of retail is accessible, and where you will go for a night out. For people without a car or those who cannot drive, a reliable public transit system is key if they are to truly partake in a big city. Many people already arrange their lives around transit, and DART’s hope is that by making these changes, more people eventually will center DART in how they move around. It’s a bet officials are making for the future of public transit in one of the nation’s largest cities.

To be clear, DART and its consultants have tried to be mindful of how eliminating bus stops and telling customers to walk a few more blocks will affect people who struggle to move around this city. Jarrett Walker, the international consultant brought in to essentially save DART’s inefficient bus system, has proposed taking down bus stops and moving around routes in many cities that needed to prioritize scarce resources. DART is hamstrung in some ways because the overhaul had to be budget neutral. The agency has included in its messaging a reminder that what you see now may not be what the system looks like in five or 10 years. 

“Please don’t make me walk three blocks to get a bus.”

DART rider Barbara Jordan

He said there are always people who are rightfully concerned about route changes, but he assures concerned Dallas residents that the new plan was built with them in mind.

“One of the common perceptions of people with disabilities is that they aren’t in a hurry, and I think that spills over from what we hear from a lot of retired people, who will say often that they are in less of a hurry then working people are, which is understandable, and they therefore get less of a benefit out of the kind of travel time improvements that we’re trying to deliver to everyone else,” Walker said last week. “But I don’t think that’s true of people with disabilities and even people using mobility devices. Lots of them are going to jobs, lots of them have busy lives, lots of them are in as much of a hurry as anyone else, which is to say, that a lot of them are going to benefit from these changes.”

There is good news for riders who may live with disabilities and who are eligible to use paratransit. Though some bus routes will shift and in some cases disappear, the service areas for paratransit will not change, says Rob Smith, the interim vice president for service planning and scheduling at DART. The agency’s planners and stakeholders made a conscious decision not to change paratransit. “There are no direct effects on the paratransit service,” he said. “That’s sort of a bedrock service that we provide.”

Some people live with disabilities but do not qualify to use the paratransit service. There is an application and review process as mandated by the Americans with Disabilities Act that must take place before one can use the service. In those cases, Smith says people should also consider using the GoLink service, which will be a crucial part of DART’s new service plan. DART widened the coverage areas for GoLink, the rapid-demand service people can pay to be picked up and dropped off within the specified zones. “You will actually in most cases be able to be picked up at your home, so you won’t necessarily have to walk to the bus stop,” Smith said. “We will take you anywhere within that designation zone or to the nearest transfer point.”

He said one of the most common questions people have right now is how to use GoLink. DART has decided to start operating the new GoLink zones in early December, so people will be more accustomed to using the on-demand service when the broader network changes take effect in January. (He also urged riders to continue sharing their concerns by emailing [email protected].)

Talking to bus riders, I heard from virtually nobody who disagrees that more buses running more frequently might attract and keep more riders. It makes sense to even people outside of urban design and transit circles that this new plan could lead to a better tomorrow. But such a huge part of a healthy transit system is the infrastructure that supports (or doesn’t support) how passengers find their way to and from a bus stop.

Part of creating that better future is acknowledging how problematic it can be to move around on foot here. Patrick Kennedy, who represents Dallas on DART’s board of directors, says this new plan should help member cities identify the infrastructure fixes that need to be funded. Broken or cracked sidewalks, dangerous intersections, and ADA non-compliant spaces should come more into focus as DART and its cities monitor travel behaviors under the new plan.

“Even in highly developed areas like Uptown, there’s sidewalks and curbs and corners that don’t have ADA access throughout, so we’ve got a lot of work to do,” Kennedy said. “But all we can do is call out the problem, and start addressing it, and create the pathway to slowly but surely, and incrementally, improve it. And I think we are on that right path.”

The 6600 block of Santa Fe Ave., where a dicey sidewalk disappears.

Kennedy hopes that the new bus system will create a pathway for the city to improve its infrastructure, particularly along transfer routes that get to the higher frequency buses.

Rick Grunbaum, 79, became legally blind about 20 years ago. He has been riding public transit his whole life, in places like New York City and Vienna, Austria. For the past 45 years, he has been in Dallas. Getting on and off a bus is no challenge for him — it’s how he gets to his destination after the bus stop that sets Dallas apart from the transit-friendly cities of his past.

He rides route 19 up and down Gaston Avenue, and urged DART to extend the line out to Garland Road instead of stopping in Lakewood, which would allow him to access his preferred shops. While he thinks the new plan is a step in the right direction, his use of DART, in terms of access, does not change. “It [still] doesn’t fill my needs,” he said.

In advance of the new network, Kristina Parsadanova has already moved her elderly mother to her brother’s home because it has become too burdensome to use DART buses to make it to doctor visits. She has relied on Uber a lot more lately, a far more expensive mode of getting around. She supports the effort to improve the DART bus network even as she is set to lose the 362, which currently runs in front of her apartment near the University of Texas at Dallas. The new network means either an additional 10 or 15 minute walk across an open field at the corner of Coit Road and McCallum Boulevard to reach a bus stop, or more connections, to get to her job in Addison.

“I’m gonna have to get a car, which is going to be hard,” she said.

DART has already booked Walker’s firm to conduct a five-year study of how the new bus network is playing out in the lives of its riders. Walker and DART officials say this is only the beginning of the process, and changes will be made along the way.

The agency encourages riders to share with DART and member cities everything they encounter under the new plan, from ineffective bus routes to inaccessible sidewalks.

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