Sunday, August 5, 2012

Orange Line Critique

On the week anniversary of its opening, I shall discuss the first phase of the Orange Line, and sadly, like a lot of what DART has done lately, I was hopeful, but ultimately underwhelmed.
Before I get into the meat of it, I first want to issue a caution to everyone that this is an incomplete line. 4.5 miles and three stations were added a week ago and another 2+ miles and two stations are set for December. The last phase will see the addition of DFW Airport, which may or may not be the centerpiece of the line or rail network.

Here's the split where the Green Line heads north and the Orange Line turns west.

DART's main hope for ridership growth will be congestion on the freeways where it runs next to and over, in this case I-35E. This is the bridge over the freeway and the trains are amazingly slow for running in their own grade-seperated space.

The University of Dallas Station, which technically isn't next to the University of Dallas. To get there, passengers, presumably students or faculty, have to take the walkway in the picture above.

Las Colinas Urban Station is the best of the three, but that doesn't necessarily mean much. Here, we are looking west to northwest.
I like the treatment given to the tracks of the Lake Carolyn Parkway segment. They used materials similar to the transit mall in downtown Dallas.However, unlike downtown, there is only the one station, so it is less functional than downtown and more about aesthetics.
I wish there were another station or two, but unlike the Las Colinas Boulevard section of the urban center, the Lake Carolyn section is not as developed, so the other parts of the Las Colinas transit mall just aren't cost effective for their own station. That will put more of the onus on the localized transit system, which I will mention briefly in a moment.
I'm not sure that a more developed southern Lake Carolyn Parkway would even make a difference. There are several deferred stations along the Orange Line which DART says will be built if certain conditions are met for ridership goals. One is for a South Las Colinas Station, but it would be outside the Lake Carolyn/Las Colinas circle. For me, bare minimum, a station should go on the Las Colinas transit mall north of Las Colinas Blvd/Colorado Dr.
Las Colinas is one of the few places in DFW outside of the two main cities urban core that has potential to be a good urban neighborhood. The area's transit should reflect that.

Before moving on, take a close look at the right edge of the picture. Note the divider between the station and street. I'll touch on that in a few pictures down.

At the southern edge of the station, a nice park entrance was added that easily takes passengers down to the edge of Lake Carolyn. From here, you can walk the "shoreline" of most of the man-made lake. This connection is a nice little touch.

The view of Las Colinas Station from the edge of the promenade.

Here's one of the more intriguing parts of this station, the connection to the Las Colinas People Mover.

Here's my big problem with this connection. The first pictures shows what should be the passenger entrance to the connection. It even has a gate that leads to a stairway and elevators to the elevated station. But you can't take that, apparently, as it says only authorized people are allowed and points the way passengers should go.

I credited the Parkway's look, with a more streetcar look, rather than the commuter rail look that much of the rail system has. However, as is typical of DART specifically and American systems in general, the tracks are supposed to be off limits to anything but the trains. Look closely at the picture above, aside from the sign that points passengers to cross the street, there is no indication that people should avoid the street-sidewalk-looking tracks. This looks like an extension of the platform. I suspect that many people will walk next to the tracks, after making sure no train is coming of course.

I'm sure there has to be a reason that gate is not for the general public, but I just don't know what it is.

Remember earlier I noted the divider between the station and the street? Here's why. In downtown Dallas, people can easily cross between either side of the station, regardless of whether it is a center-platform station, like Pearl (Arts District) Station or side-platform like St. Paul. It technically is against DART policy to cross the tracks anywhere but at a crosswalk, but it happens all the time, and collisions are low.

Here, they designed the unauthorized crossing of the tracks out and passengers can only get to the center-platform Las Colinas Urban Center Station at the ends of the platform. Problem is when the bus transfers don't work, as is the case with these riders, there is an added frustration. In this picture, the train is literally behind me, but I knew, and you can tell these guys did too by their lackadaisical walk, that they wouldn't be able to go all the way to the end and then u-turn around and get to the train on time. There were two people ahead who tried and ran. They didn't make it.

Had the design been better, they would have made it. But the divider at the station only stops passengers from crossing easily. Obviously it isn't a problem at Pearl, but I guess in Las Colinas, DART figures the passengers can't handle it.
Also, this raises the question about how DART planners handled the transfers. This was taken on day two of the new line. Shouldn't nearly every transfer meet a train where passengers don't have to wait? Every bus that stops here doesn't meet another transfer point as important as this one. With as many buses and a train line that meet here, this is the part where you coordinate transfer times, and work out from there. Only the TRE station near downtown Irving is near as important. But light rail has a greater frequency and capacity and therefore should get the nod as Irving's most important transit point.

If you squint in the distance, you'll see the name sake of the Irving Convention Center Station, the current terminus of the line.

Surrounding this station is...literally prairie. I guess that means there is a lot of development potential, but virtually no ridership right now.

Here's the sidewalk that leads from the station to...literally nowhere. I guess Irving ran out of bond money when they built their convention center to actually build a sidewalk along Lake Carolyn Parkway.

I take it back, apparently someone or something uses this sidewalk. My two-year old excitedly pointed out two different areas where feces was on the brand new sidewalk.

Here is the northern edge of the station, effectively cordoned off by Northwest Highway. There's somewhat of a controversy. Right now, there is a big parking lot on the other side of the highway that DART used to use as the bus transfer center before moving the buses to the Urban Center Station. They built a tunnel under the highway similar to the U-Dallas Station. However, passengers are complaining it is too long and distant from the station. I didn't see the tunnel when I was there, though I wasn't looking for it. However, that may indicate just how inconvenient that is for passengers (I wasn't looking for the U-Dallas tunnel either, but saw it). Come December, commuters can use the North Lake and Belt Line Stations, which will further reduce this station as a viable one along the new route.

The last picture is just a promise of the line moving on to somewhere else. From here it will veer west and southwest to North Lake Station and eventually on to the airport.

Before I hit the negative, I want to point out what may be the biggest strength of the Orange Line, ironically it is something that could have been done without building a new rail line.

With the opening of the Irving segment, the line now goes all the way to LBJ/Central during all hours, effectively giving that section of the rail system half the headway. Since this is the most ridden part of the DART system, that should help both existing riders and encourage new ones.

Unlike one of my major critiques of the Green Line this one wasn't built in an old freight rail right-of-way. In the past, that meant that the land use really wasn't suitable in most places for an urban rail system. Las Colinas is a bit different. I expect that the Urban Center Station will be the most used when the entire line is complete, partly for this reason. That's also why I wish there were a station near Colorado Dr.

However, similar to the freight critiques, a lot of the line was shoehorned where space was available. The area from east of I-35 to almost Loop 12 is unusable for any type of station. For urban design, the ideal situation is a fewer distance between stations. The Orange Line violates that. However, I can overlook it because there really wasn't a better alternative in the current system to get to Las Colinas, which I believe is important.

My other big concern is that there are many sections on the line where the train just seems to crawl along. It was during one of these stretches where I wondered who added the rapid to DART's name, or which engineer forgot that part when the line was designed.

The last station before the Orange and the Green Line split is Bachman Station. According to this timetable, it takes eight minutes to go from Bachman to U-Dallas Station, another six minutes to get to the Urban Center Station and from there to the Convention Center Station is a manageable three minutes. The distance from Bachman to the end is 4.5 miles. Yet it takes 17 minutes to go the distance. And that's without transfers to get to the final destination. That's an average of a little more than 16 miles an hour. WHAT!!!

16 miles an hour!!!  For three stations in 4.5 miles!!!! Much of it grade-seperated!!!!! That has got to be better.

To go from West End Station in downtown Dallas to Irving Convention Center Station requires 36 minutes on the Orange Line. The 202 bus that was replaced by the Orange Line took 31 minutes to go from West End to the North Irving Transit Center. Yes, the Orange Line has to makie stops the express bus didn't, but the Orange Line also doesn't operate in traffic like the bus did.

Sometimes I wonder how much DART actually understands about transit and its system and how much is public relations. In the Metro Section of Tuesday's Dallas Morning News, a story ran about the Orange Line's opening. The authors discuss some riders who say the trip is longer on the train than it was on the bus.
Then comes this from the spokesman:

Morgan Lyons, DART's spokesman, said the train does add time to some commutes. But, he said, there's a logical reason with a potential benefit.

"It simply makes more stops along the way," he said of the many stations between Las Colinas and and downtown Dallas. "It provides new destinations, new access to people."

I don't disagree with the last part as it stands on its own, but it is not the reason it takes longer. It takes longer because the train takes eight minutes to go two miles. Then it takes another six minutes to go less than two miles. That is just unacceptable.

The bridge linking the U-Dallas Station to the rest of the system should be no different than the subway tunnel linking Mockingbird Station with downtown Dallas. Each is their own separate ROW. It is completely grade separated. It shouldn't take even five minutes to run that stretch. But sadly for Orange Line riders, their bridge won't see the 65 mph the trains do in that segment.

Much of the ROW between the U-Dallas Station and the Urban Center Station is within a freeway ROW, and therefore grade-separated. Another two minutes should be taken off from there. I don't mind the slower pace along the Lake Carolyn Parkway section when taken on its own. But added with the creep of the rest of the line, it just feels like a knife twist.

I think the thing that grinds my gears the most is that this wasn't a cheap rail line. With the money spent, we should do better than 16 mph average.

In fact, I could extrapolate that out to say with the amount spent, we should do better than what the Orange Line brings right now.


Ken Duble said...

It's ludicrous that the Convention Center is located so far from the station bearing it's name! These were both new construction and developed simultaneously. How can this be?

Branden said...

It's all politics. Shakespeare would have something to say about names, but I think a more accurate name would be North Irving like the transit center it is connected to was called or North Las Colinas Urban Center.

GeorgeF said...

I noticed the slow speeds as well. Speed limit signs of 65 but the trains not coming close to that in most places. 16mph average is something I can maintain on my bike! If I had to venture a guess, it'd be that it's related to headway timing because of downtown capacity issues. Or, it could be the new signaling system that's in use on the green line and the new segments of the orange line. It's caused "operational challenges" (DART's words) and they might be hesitant to run the line at full speed until all the operators are familiar with it.

The "slow section" approaching las colinas urban center includes a deferred station--I remember thinking that they might as well put one in if they are going to go that slow and indeed they've planned for one. Just like the long section approaching cityplace includes the deferred knox-henderson station. (I, like many, would love to see that finished out.)

The "Irving convention center station" is the one I'm using the Orange line for the most, to my complete surprise. It's got easy access to the campion and LB houston bike trails.