Tuesday, November 20, 2012

DART's December Service Change

Sorry to disappoint those who were looking forward to the topics I previewed in the last post, but I overlooked one, and this has me steaming.

In this post at the beginning of the year, I mentioned the bus changes DART wanted to implement. I was struck by the fact that they are making the bus service a highly ineffective and inefficient system, especially when the rail system is a commuter-designed system rather than the urban one that serves and carries more riders.

Well, I flipped through the latest service change pamphlet they produce before every change and it appears that every one of the planners recommendations made it to the finish line. Bottomline: Bus cuts are funding the rail system. DART is cutting service from the workhorse that carries the bulk of their riders in favor of a less ridden alternative.

I'm trying to contain myself, but I am just disgusted. DART has a local reputation among the population for user unfriendliness and these cuts do nothing to dispel that notion. Two close-in, urban neighborhoods are no longer connected by one route. To get to a point on Oak Lawn from downtown Dallas will require a transfer to another route or a long walk. Sadly, most of the urban core is now functioning this way.

DART has designed an urban transit system that requires multiple transfers. Transfers kill ridership. They have increased headways. Longer wait times kill ridership. Adding to the appalling news, more and more urban routes require a transfer to the commuter-designed rail system, which then almost always requires another transfer. It is not inconceivable that an urban resident will need to ride 3-5 routes to get where they are going within five miles of their start. DART generally does a good job of minimizing transfer times, but it is near impossible for every route to connect seamlessly with every other route. And even when they do work, and the time is less than five minutes, after a few transfers, the wait time still adds up. If it takes 30-60 minutes by streetcar/rail/bus/bus, or 10 by car, which will be the preferred choice? Add the fact that most trips have a return and the time wasted is amplified.

Results aside, I think the thing that gets me the most is the feeling that the public meetings were a sham. Planners came in with one goal and only one goal, likely dictated from above, and that was to save money. There was nothing else that mattered. At several meetings, groups and groups of riders protested a select few service changes. In the end, every one of them were cut. They did the public meetings in correspondence with federal law, but when your goal is to cut expenses, what happens at these meetings are inconsequential. They are only supposed to take the comments into account, not act upon them.

I get frustrated because to many of the general public, planners are insulated from them. And this is why. In the end, it feels all the time given up for these meetings to make their voice heard was pointless. It feels like a dog and pony show, only to comply with the law, not be heard.

I have always believed that planning is best done from the bottom up. Part of my frustration with this is that this was the exact opposite. And THAT'S why the taste in my mouth is bitter. I firmly believe there was a solution that was reachable where both sides would have agreed, even if they didn't endorse, to a solution. This reeks of my way and only my way.I despise insulated decisions.

Lastly, this is where right-wingers and libertarians share frustrations with the public sector (though no one on the DART Board is elected). Because less than a quarter of DART's revenue is generated by fares, even if they see a huge ridership loss, the budget won't be affected by anything more than a blip.

Here, however, I won't fault DART. Because we choose to fund their operations with a sales tax, which is the most economically cyclical way of all funding, when times get tough, regardless of demand, service has to be cut. Due to the circumstances, these cuts are anti-urban and anti-urban-development. However, given that constraint, there was a better way to cut costs than to ax routes and lower ridership.

For me, Houston would be a better model. Because their rail line and expansions are more cohesive with the urban environment, they would feel less shock from route cuts and transfers into the rail system. The rail system is actually an urban one, and therefore many of the transfers work because the rail line will get them to the rider's final destination or will be the starting point.

Within the next year, a story will appear in the paper that will discuss the further eroding of DART's ridership. In it, DART officials will point to the down economy (fewer jobs mean fewer riders), lower sales tax collections and suburban job growth as reasons. Now on will mention they keep cutting routes and those that remain have fewer buses running on those routes.  

Unless more of an effort is put forth, I fear Dallas will always be known as a car city, and it will have little to do with the resident's true transportation preferences.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Leave of Absence

Loyal readers may have noticed a lack of activity the last month plus. Two big things that I won't go into too much detail over have limited my desire to post.

The first part is professional frustration. I don't want to go into it too much, as I don't know who reads, but have experienced several close calls that weren't meant to be. As such, I experienced a bit of burn a burn out. I needed to be away from planning and planning principles for a bit.

The second was the birth of my second son in the middle of October. Thomas Wayne is a happy and healthy almost three-week old. While it hasn't been as hard as it was with the first, it is still a trying time.

Anyway, I have lots of good topics planned for the coming posts. I have let the dust settle on Belo Gardens and am ready to offer my critique on the City Center park. Dallas has unveiled a few bike-centered infrastructural improvements and is debating an ordinance for drivers concerning bikes. Klyde Warren Park opened about a week ago. While I waited for Belo to mature a bit, I will offer a different perspective. Plaza of the Americas has decided to remove their ice rink downtown in favor of indoor green space. I have some thoughts on that.

I am not certain I will post about it, but the national election could have been implications for planning in general and Dallas specifically. I am tossing around the idea and haven't decided. But I am susceptible to peer pressure.

Also any relatively breaking news will be discussed.

So for those who have checked here periodically and were disappointed, I am back.