Sunday, September 25, 2011

Dallas and the Two Things about Transit

I want to expand on the previous post about how to do transit, particularly that only two things need to be done to make it successful, using a case study. Previously, I said transit needs to get people from where they are to where they are going, and they need to do it efficiently.

The reason I want to go back to that point is to compare DART, which is a typical American transit agency. There is a lot that is at fault with DART's rail system, much of which is beyond their control. DART rail fails on the first part, getting folks places, primarily because it was built within old railroad right-of-way. The land-use downtown is much more conducive for rail transit, since the built environment is more convenient to rail than the outlying areas. Much of the old ROW is surrounded by factories, warehouses and other industrial uses. Industrial areas are far less likely to support transit use than just about any other land use. On top of that, what is already there has its back to the rail lines and stations.

When the rail line runs though old industrial areas, two things happen. First, the stations become park-n-ride lots for the stations in the center of the system. Second, the area has to redevelop to encourage all day usage. If that doesn't happen, the line is underutilized during non-peak hours and it is not cost-effective. It also is likely to have a reduced frequency. Large headways are not efficient for passengers, further reducing the lines patronage. This is the exact situation of the Blue Line north of Mockingbird Station. Everything but Downtown Garland (though even this one is a large commuter station) is only a commuter or transfer station, though plans are in place to make Lake Highlands Stations a mixed-use station, and it runs through one-story brick industrial areas north of LBJ and the southern part runs through woodlands and views of single-family house's backyards.

As DART has set it up, the rail system is heavily dependent upon transfers. Most are buses, but even park-n-ride lots count, since folks are transferring from their cars to the rail system. Transfers kill ridership. Unless the destination is downtown Dallas, there are likely at least two transfers. Passengers board a bus, transfer to a rail line, and then transfer to another bus. The idea should be to try to get transfers down to roughly one on average. As more transit-oriented developments come on-line, this will become more likely, but the vast, vast majority of the region will still not be convenient to the rail system.

The funny thing is that a lot of it is outside of DART's control. To keep the systems construction cost lower, and therefore available for federal funds, the freight ROW was the best choice. But from a ridership perspective, consider a subway line down McKinney Avenue to serve Uptown, rather than the subway currently under Central Expressway. Other than Cityplace Tower, and perhaps the shopping center with the Target, Cityplace Station isn't surrounded by conducive land uses. However, what could have been if there was a subway station between Pearl and Fairmount (remember that an urban subway station has entrances at both ends of the station)? This would cover most of the lower portion of Uptown. Another station between Hall and Lemon, covering the upper part of Uptown that Cityplace does so poorly. Another station somewhere between Fitzhugh and Knox would serve the emerging area of Knox-Henderson. To be fair, the Knox-Henderson neighborhood fought a station from being build on the current alignment. Ironically, that area is one of the vast minority of neighborhoods that would be effectively served from a freeway alignment.

In conjunction with the feds cost requirements, the suburban faction also keeps the status quo as we know it. They oppose urban subways, since they fear that increased cost will result in a delay or perhaps no rail line to their areas. That isn't necessarily a bad thing for DART, since studies have statistically shown that suburban locales have lower riders per capita and in real numbers than their urban counterparts. There are a variety of reasons, such as land use favoring autos, lower densities and car-oriented customs. But the funding of the system requires suburban participation.

Is it DART's fault that their rail system is underutilized? I would answer that as partially. The feds funding formula's favor funding construction over operating costs. The state offers very little funding as is, and what is made available is primarily for construction. The regional interests favor the more expansive commuter system, though commuter systems always have lower riders than truly urban ones.

While much fanfare has been made of the TOD's that will remake the area, some developers aren't helping either. DART wanted to run the first phase of the Green Line down Houston Street, rather than the current freight alignment by I-35E. Not only would that have served Victory better, but that part of Uptown would have been much better off. Add that in combination with the McKinney subway proposed above, Uptown, one of the most dense office and residential neighborhoods in Dallas would have been well served by rail, rather than virtually non-existent as it is now.
But even given the hand DART was dealt, only minor changes may have had much bigger ridership impact. There was a former Executive Director at DART, Ted Tedesco, who proposed moving portions of the Green Line near Parkland Hospital and the Red Line in Oak Cliff to street-median running alignments that would have run through the neighborhoods they served (similar to the south Blue Line), but the DART board voted against that proposal, due primarily to suburban and cost interests.

The Orange Line is likely to be a higher utilized suburban rail line, since it is being built in the median of Lake Carolyn Parkway in the Las Colinas Urban Center. However, since the built environment is more suited to a suburban office park, with things like setbacks, poor pedestrian design and high parking ratios, than an urban rail system, the line willl be similar to others in DART's system, promising yet underwhelming. It also requires yet another transfer to the Las Colinas APT, further supressing ridership.

Houston, despite their fumbles, is building excellent urban rail system. At build-out, they are going to have a similar amount of riders on one-third of the track mileage. They did that despite being a typical Sun Belt city like Dallas. Perhaps the main difference is that Houston is by far the majority of Metro, where as Dallas is about half the membership of DART, by population.

In essence, Houston did a much better job in the design phase of figuring out where people are, where they are going to go and how to get them there efficiently. DART did what was easy.

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