Wednesday, March 13, 2013

D2 in the DMN

Frequent commentator Ken Duble and I did a dual column for the Viewpoints Section in the Dallas Morning News.

Link here:

Ken Dublé and J Branden Helms live and work in downtown Dallas. Both have strong opinions about where a second downtown rail line should go. DART and city planners and experts have discussed this for years, and they have a few options (though no funding yet). The map above shows the options they are debating, but you can explore other alternatives on the interactive map at Some people, like Ken, want the rail system to help support major events, tying the airports, major hotels and the convention center together, creating a large multi-modal hub around Union Station. Others, like Branden, want the system to be affordable and convenient for the greatest number of daily commuters.

Branden: If we want DART to be a true transit system, the focus has to be on riders. Among other North American cities, the ones with the highest ridership are the ones that focus on residents.
There are two options that will give users of the DART system the most destination options: the subway under Commerce Street or the line on Young Street. Commerce Street has the most density and most pedestrian-friendly urban design of all the options to really boost ridership potential.
Ken: Concerning the alternatives you cite, Commerce has the highest ridership, but it would be second only to the convention center hotel route in cost. Young Street is the least costly, and it’s the only route DART believes it could build without outside funding.
Before deciding where to lay a track, you must first decide what you want it to do. Commerce would create a tight circle around one part of downtown, but that area is already developed. We ought to anticipate growth, not chase it. Let’s make the loop as large as possible and let streetcar lines serve the interior.
Branden: Ken, what you say has merit, but my major concern with using development potential as a factor is Dallas has a very poor track record of true transit-oriented development. Due to a lack of development controls, existing transit-oriented development like Victory Park or the Shops at Park Lane are more accurately “transit adjacent.” There is no connectivity. Neither development pumps any significant amount of everyday riders, mostly due to poor design.
Meanwhile, Commerce already has great design and land uses. If a subway were put down, the density of offices, residents and hotels along the route would add riders. The design and density are already done.
Ken: I share your frustration with Dallas’ history of poor land usage around suburban stations, but the issue before us is a route downtown. The entire system now shuts down when there is a problem along the Pacific-Bryan track. Also, providing a second track means DART could double its schedule.
We’ll lay the track someday. The question is where. This could be our last rail line. Given the size of downtown, do we really want to lay a second track three blocks away from the existing one?
Branden: I would say yes, if it moves the most riders. Why would we make folks who work at the large office concentrations like AT&T or nearly every resident downtown walk farther to use the new line or risk losing riders with yet another transfer? Every major city’s transit agency has major lines a block or three away, so this isn’t outside-the-box thinking.
Ken: While Commerce ridership projections look impressive, many now catch the existing line three blocks away, so they wouldn’t represent new ridership. DART currently operates two bus transfer centers along the corridor, including the poorly located East Transfer Center.
The Union Station-convention center option could replace both with a single multi-modal terminal at Union Station, which could someday serve high-speed rail service from Houston. The former Reunion Arena site has a mammoth but underused parking facility in place. To focus on the West End is to bet the 21st century will be much like the 20th. Is this a bet Dallas can afford to lose?
Branden: If the Orange and Green Lines will run on the new track, and the Red and Blue on the existing track, then it doesn’t matter their proximity — they run to different destinations.
Ken, nothing suppresses ridership like lengthy trips and transfers. A Union Station alternative does both. Additionally, there is very little around the station. So anyone who now uses the two routes that would run on the new track will face the choice of a longer trip or a transfer to a streetcar or bus. Many choice riders will choose their cars. I fear that overall ridership could actually dip if Union Station is the chosen alternative.
Ken: It is out of concern for lengthy transfers that I advocate a giant transfer terminal near Union. Many low-income people, who have no choice but to use DART, make two transfers both morning and evening. Some arrive and depart into one transfer center and rely on light rail for transport to catch a bus at the other. They would benefit from closing downtown’s West and East transfer centers in favor of a mega-transfer center at the site of the former Reunion Arena. It could serve high-speed rail, Amtrak, Megabus, Greyhound, bus lines to Mexico, taxis, the streetcar, the Trinity River Express and the light rail trains.
Branden: Union Station is too far removed from the rest of the urban fabric downtown to be a quality transfer point. Transit service works better when it is point-to-point, not a hub-and-spoke model. With little to walk to from Union, transfers will become a must, therefore adding time and reducing ridership potential. The walkable West End Station is by far the most used station in the DART system and should be the central point. Moving it all to Union would be a disaster.
Ken: That West End is the most used station right now is entirely due to the transfer activity you dismiss. The Akard and St. Paul stations are situated in similar points of density. What they lack is the West End-Rosa Parks transfer feed. Were this relocated to the Reunion site, then Union would be the busiest station.
According to a Brookings Institution report released last week, Amtrak boardings at Union grew 482.9 percent from 1997 to 2012. Even without high-speed rail, activity is increasing at Union. The Oak Cliff Streetcar will add even more. We mustn’t allow the present to limit our future vision.

I don't want to speak for Ken, though he did express the same thoughts during the process. The format was restricting: we each got 5 responses, one after the other, at roughly 100 words per response.

There are a few supplementary points I would like to add.

Ken says that the line would parallel the current line. That is true to a point, but the lines aren't the access point, the stations are. Since he advocates for Union being the transfer point of the new line, by proxy, I am advocating that the West End Station/Transfer Center/Rosa Parks be the transfer point for the urban system.

Therefore, you can't say the the West End Station is parallel, since that's the transfer point. Akard Station @ Pacific and Akard Station @ Commerce are three blocks apart. However, since Main and Akard is the center of urban life in Dallas, that is actually a plus. This would become the second busiest station on the Green Line if the Commerce alignment were chosen, after West End.

After that, the stations drift further and further apart. St. Paul Station would be five blocks from a potential Harwood Station. Pearl Station would be over eight blocks away from a potential station on the Young alignment. It would be possible, but I don't think DART is planning a station for the Commerce option.

Second, Commerce isn't all built out. There is lots of potential for development near the West End Station on the north, south and west side. 

Akard doesn't have anything immediately available, but there is potential on small parcels to the east and south. That is also why it would be such a highly-used station, because it is built out with pedestrian-focused buildings. Finally, the Harwood Station would have almost the entire southeast to redevelop. 

The Young Street option would also have greater. In fact, it would have more than either Union Station alternative, since it runs close to the middle of downtown, unlike the Union options, which are on the very edge until at least Young Street.

However, I really dislike using development-potential as a selling point. Most Transit-Oriented-Development's in this country do not increase ridership in any large way. Modern development, spurred on by development codes and institutional controls, will always accommodate the car first. A look across the country sees this effect. From transit-pioneering Portland, to transit-heavy New York, new development, billed as TOD, is actual not pumping many riders into the system. What is doing that, is larger redevelopment of buildings and neighborhoods built before WWII. This also doesn't account for a lack of TOD guidelines from Dallas, which is why we see so many "TOD's" in Dallas do little for DART's ridership numbers.

So, development could occur all along a Union Station alternative, and very little to moderate, at best, ridership increases would be seen.

Commerce, on the other hand, already has a large collection of pre-WWII buildings, all ready to have a complimentary-transit component built.

Finally, as far as transfers go, I do not dismiss them. Even the 800 lbs. gorillas of transit systems require transfers. The key for them, and what we MUST do, is minimize them as well as their impacts. A West End Station transfer point is much more conducive for urban travel than Union.

I have said why, but I will try to do a better job of explaining. Within three blocks around West End Station is over 3 million square feet of office, 379 residences, two hotels, El Centro College and its 10,000 students, county offices and the retail/restaurant areas of the West End.

If you live, work, visit, eat or shop, you have a reason to be there. Yes, there is a lot of transfer activity, but it isn't the majority of trips. It may seem like it, since people transferring linger longer, but that station attracts a lot of activity.

Compare that to the East Transfer Center, where there is the Sheraton Hotel and a whole lotta nothing. Even the nearest rail station is a block, and a pedestrian-unfriendly one at that.

In many ways, that's what Union Station will be like if it were a transfer point. Yes, one day there could be high-speed rail, but does that mean we inconvenience everyday riders with a longer trip and more transfers.

With the West End, it is a possibility that the area is a final destination for riders. For the super, vast majority, Union won't be. For those where neither station is the destination, the West End provides the quickest route, as it runs through downtown, instead of around. 

Simply put, the West End is the quickest, most central point, and if transfers are the focus, then the West End makes sense, if the point is to minimize their adverse impacts.

And yes, Amtrak bookings may have gone up, but the average is still less than 200 a day. 

Add that with the murky future of high speed rail in Texas, with funding completely unknown and TxDoT favoring a station at DFW. Did we make DFW a central transfer point in the DART system? No, because it doesn't make sense to do so. It is too far removed and Union is the same way on a micro scale. In essence, Union is to downtown Dallas what DFW is for the region. Yes, there are plans to make a transfer point at DFW on the Cotton Belt route, but it isn't the central point of the entire system.

For me, it always comes down to this: those who use the system multiple times a week should be the focus. As it stands now, Union isn't even the central transfer point of the DART system, by a long shot, not even in the top 5.  So why would it be forced to with the new line?

The last bit I have to offer is a case study from other cities. Foreign systems fit, but I will keep it in this country for simplicity's sake.

New York has two major transfer areas. Midtown/Times Square and Lower Manhattan, though they are a misnomer, because just about every station is a transfer to another line. Both of those spots are in the middle of urban bustle, not the edge like Union would be.

Washington D.C. has three major ones, all in the middle of the urban area. Their Union Station, the destination for every commuter and Amtrak rail line (including the only high speed rail line in this country), serves only one out of their five lines. The sixth, the under-construction Silver Line, won't serve Union either.

And in a system very similar to Dallas', with similar veins of thought and time in the planning process, San Francisco's BART system operates a lot like the current DART transit mall now. All of the transfer activity is under Market Street, the heart of the financial/downtown area. It is also where MUNI and the cable cars run. Instead of a transfer point, it creates a transfer corridor.

I have criticized DART for being a commuter system. The Commerce Street option would be a great step in swinging that pendulum a bit toward urban. The Young Street option would, though not as much. None of the other options would. In fact, it might even swing that pendulum more toward commuter.

Now, try putting that into 5 different 100 words bits.

Thursday, March 7, 2013


My blog has been inundated with spammers of late. At first, the filter caught most of them. I was okay with deleting the spam from my section if you weren't bothered by it. By today there were dozens of them on the page. I didn't want to, but the spammers have made me go to the lowest common denominator. From here on out, comments must pass a capcha test first. Sorry to have to do it.