Thursday, December 13, 2012

DART Expands Again

Sticking with the DART theme, an article ran in the Dallas Morning News the day after the transit agency debuted a new station on the Blue Line and two on the Orange Line last week. I would have liked to put this up earlier, but honestly, the motivation is low for me on this particular news item. I just feel like a broken record and would just like to have a positive review for once.

In some ways, this new service is more of the same. Another commuter terminus to bring workers from the outlying areas into the central core. All are going to be commuter station with huge amount of parking spaces (Belt Line - 597, Rowlett - 750, North Lake - 194). I have hope that Rowlett can leverage something around their downtown and the rail stop, but that parking amount will be a huge buffer to cohesive development. If they can, I and other practicing urbanites may use this station sparingly as there are many other destinations that are bigger, better and/or closer to the true urban spaces in the region. Otherwise, there are three more stations added to a commuter system that are true to the rest of the commuter-based system. Bring in workers from the suburbs to the central core, and change the way captive riders use the system.

This isn't a shocking position to loyal readers who have followed this blog for a while, which is partly why the motivation for publishing this piece is low. But there are some quotes I want to pull from the article that really illustrate what I have been alluding to previously, which is the DART system has been increasing making the system harder to use by focusing on reducing redundancy and increasing transfers.

From the article:

At the opposite end of the platform, Gary Dudek was testing out the new rail line on his day off.

The airport employee's previous DART commute to work took at least 2 1/2 hours each way, he said: a bus, then another bus to one of DFW's remote lots, then a shuttle, then another shuttle.

Even worse, he said, the buses often stopped running before the end of his night shift, forcing him to walk part of the way back.

"Hopefully I don't have to walk nine miles home anymore," he said.

Let's play a quiz game. Is Gary Dudek a choice rider, one who has the option to use another mode of transport, like a car, to get to work, or is he a captive rider, one who has little or no other options to get to work?

Five hour daily commute, a fairly good chance of missing the last bus and multiple transfers. Nothing explicitly says one way or the other, but my intuition tells me he isn't doing that for fun. He's doing that because he has little choice.

Seriously though, as I mentioned in the last post, this is exactly the type of system DART is building. By cutting bus service, routing everything through a rail station and increasing the time between runs, DART is creating a user-unfriendly system.

I do understand, however, that DFW is a sprawling airport and the previous rail link was a true commuter rail with even longer headways than I am complaining about now. I also get that DART is facing a funding shortage.That said, somehow they were able to run the new 500 bus through the airport, with the bus meeting every Orange Line train at Belt Line Station. If they could do it now, they could have done it before the new rail line. A semi-express that began at the North Irving Transfer Station and ran to the airport and on to Centreport Station would have connected it. Obviously, they were able to find the funding for it now, but I wonder if they did it by cutting the inner city bus service, the one that will be used at a greater rate.

This to me is DART's greatest shortcoming in planning. It is almost as if they view the bus as a second option, rather than using it for what it is best tailored for. In a true transit system, each component is chosen because it is best for its service. There is no one size fits all approach. The places that have tried a hybrid commuter-urban system have seem underwhelming results. DART is no different. The troubling thing is that they either haven't noticed or don't seem to care. I know there is some political pressure on the agency, particularly in connecting to the airport. But there has to be some balance between that and serving the riders and right now there isn't. I see only a system that is being designed to get commuters in and then out.

The last quote I bring forth:

"I don't want to complain," said Alex Flores, a waiter at Mattito's Tex Mex. "I'm only going to ride it another week. Then my car gets fixed and I don't have to ride a train anymore."

Alright, captive or choice rider?

Were I in his shoes, I think I would make the same choice. It just isn't convenient. This sentiment is exactly why DART will continue to be one of the least ridden rail systems on a per mile basis in the country. They are currently 21st out of 34 operating systems, which also contain services like Kenosha's 2-mile streetcar, Little Rocks 2.5-mile streetcar and Tampa's 2.3-mile streetcar. Discounting these tourist oriented streetcar systems, Dallas ranks 21st out of 31 light rail systems in passengers per mile.

DART brags about being the largest light rail system in North America. Overall, that's good enough for the seventh most ridden light rail system in the U.S., per the American Public Transportation Association. For example, Boston, with the most ridden light rail system, has three times the riders on 1/3 the tracks miles. Using a peer Sun Belt city, Houston has 1/2 the rail ridership on 1/10th the rail miles. I doubt the addition of the three new stations will add that much to the ridership numbers, but it will add to the miles, further dragging down the per mile boardings.

In fact, DART's highest per mile boardings occured when the starter system was finished and it primarily served the urban area, albeit not perfectly. But since then, the system has been built further and further out, and even when they expanded in the urban area, the Green Line did so sub-optimally. If the City of Dallas gets its way, the second downtown rail line will be more of the same.

Let me leave you with a thought. Read though this again, particularly Gary Dudek and Alex Flores contributions. As a society, do we really love our cars? Or do we, as I continue to contend, love what is convenient?