Saturday, December 11, 2010

Green Line Critique

It's been a week since I rode the Green Line, as well as read a weeks worth of news, saw the system wok firsthand, and seen the effects. While I would say the overall effect is positive, there re several things that could use improvement, both in the control of DART and outside.

I am going to post several links that will build the basis for this entry. The Dallas Morning News did several stories, one the day before opening, which in its own right was a large negative critique, one from a columnist, which is largely a fluff piece, and one the day after chronicling the events. Perhaps the most referenced piece will be this one from the transport politic, which shares many of the same critiques I have, as can be seen from the Skyscraper Page message board, of which you can find my points as FoUTASportscaster.

I don't fully blame DART for this, but my number one gripe about the DART rail system is that it is built in old freight right-of-way and/or near freeways. The one exception is the Blue Line in South Dallas on Lancaster, as it is in the median of a major street, right next to destinations. The Blue Line north is on old freight railroad, as is the Red Line south and the two Green Line segments. The Red Line north is under a freeway for the first three miles and on old ROW after that.

The other major point is the historical formation of the city has affected the modern transit system. Back in the day the railroad made or broke cities. Dallas didn't take off until the Houston & Texas Central and Texas & Pacific Railroads came into town. Then roads followed the railroads. Highways followed the roads. Interstates and freeways followed the highways. As an example, using the T&P alignment, old Bankhead Highway followed roughly the T&P route. Highway 80 followed the road. Finally, Highway 80 turned into Interstate 20 in between cities and around, with highway 80 turning into Business Loop 20. Sometimes, one became the other, as Central Expressway in North Dallas was built on the old H&TC railroad.

Now, what that means is that when the old rail lines are converted to light rail lines, they largely are near freeways. That limits a lot of ridership potential. Rail works best when it goes in the middle of places. The most active stretch of the current DART Line is downtown, which it runs in the middle. The second densest section is the Blue Line south, which it runs in street median, with usable land on either side.

This following of existing ROW ignores already built up and dense neighborhoods. Uptown is probably the best candidate for rail service, yet it has a streetcar and a decent but not great connection to an existing station. If there were two stations in or under McKinney Avenue, they would rank in the top ten in boardings.

For many reasons, such as cost, FTA requirements, disruptions, local politics and regional politics, DART did what they had to do. Building in old railroad ROW is cheaper than a new alignment, a la the upcoming Orange Line in Las Colinas. The FTA's funding formula favored lines that offered commute time savings, hence a commuter type system. Building in the median of streets disrupts various properties. Local political example abound, but the best is the Blue Line's northern alignment. DART planners favored an option to run through East Dallas that would have 600% more riders than the second alignment, which was built. Since DART cannot construct a line without the local jurisdictions approval, the City Council effectively put the kibosh on that route since some residential neighborhoods didn't want it. Now we are stuck with what we have, a line that carries less than 10,000 riders a day. Finally, I don't think it is a stretch to say that the reader can easily imagine the regional politics of city vs. city and "where's my rail line when they already have one."

Dallas has not done much to encourage rail ridership. While many of the suburbs have approved transit supportive zoning, Dallas has not. The only real regulation that has much effect on the built environment is that within a quarter mile radius of a DART Station, developers and property owners have to provide ten percent less parking than required otherwise. While that is nice, it isn't urban at all. In a story reference in the Dallas Observer's Unfair Park, a club in Deep Ellum would have to provide 34 spaces to open, rather than the normal 38. That makes little differences to the smaller scale projects, which is precisely what builds urban environments, which in turn is what precisely builds your transit ridership.

These urban systems generate tremendously more ridership in any measurement than its commuter or suburban counterparts. Yet, DART has designed a commuter system, using the most expensive urban rail technology. This system is designed primarily for one function, get people to and from downtown. Since downtown is composed of mostly office workers, it becomes a commuter system.

When you build a rail system in the manner that Dallas has, you have to rely on transfers, whether that comes from buses, walking, cycling and even cars in a park-n-ride. The problem with that approach is that transfers lower ridership. This is the result of increased time and uncertainty. In many cases, unless you live or work directly on a rail line, which is generally the case, there are two transfers that are needed. For the time-strapped or transit-uncertain commuter, this is a killer.

Now one of the ways to help minimize the above deficiencies is through new supportive developments. There are two problems for Dallas. The first, as noted, is the lack of development controls. Since there aren't even basic TOD type zoning around rail stations, depending on supportive development seems a bit too enthusiastic. Mockingbird Station is an accident. It still has suburban parking requirements. There were little suburban building codes before, which is part of the reason the developer chose that site. Most of the sites around the existing stations will require a zoning change for any type of urban development.

The second problem is that developers may not get it right. Park Lane is another great example. It is closer to being a transit adjacent development. The only part riders can see from the rail line is the parking garage. If they do know it is there, they have to cross busy Park Lane and hike up a grassy hill to get into the development. There is very little, if any, increase in ridership because of it.

It is no surprise that in the DART system, the Green Line's projections show it will be the most ridden line. Currently, the highest ridden segment of the current lines is the Red Line north, followed by the Blue Line south, Red Line south and Blue Line north. The northern section of the Green Line will likely be number two, since, like the Red Line, it follows a highly congested freeway. At a close third, if not tied for second is the Pleasant Grove section of the Green Line. The highly-ridden buses in that area were converted into rail feeders to go into the new line. The 165, which was a semi-express bus that was discontinued since it was a duplicate service carried 4,000 riders a day. They are now rail riders. The big question is, will the new Green Line, operating as a system with the rest of the lines, attract choice riders, those who have access to other modes? For the reasons listed in this entry, I don't think there will be too many.

For the record, I do like the Green Line. It improves the reach of the region for me. But, since I live downtown, I don't suffer the same fate as everyone else. I can easily reach the station, have one less transfer, if any at all, and a lot more immediate destinations since it is the hub. With a few design changes, that could have been the case for more people outside of downtown. That in a nutshell is why Dallas, as the largest Light Rail operator in the country, has the lowest ridership per mile of any other mid-major operator in the country, and that is a shame.

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