» New Green Line runs 28 miles from Carrollton to Southeast Dallas via downtown, but only every 15 minutes even during rush hours. To ensure its success, the DFW Metroplex must start taking the land use side of the transit equation more seriously.
Want proof that a massive light rail system doesn’t necessarily produce massive ridership? Look no further than Dallas, where 44 miles of DART light rail extending throughout the region and a rapidly growing population weren’t enough to prevent a decline in public transportation boardings between 2000 and 2010. The network carries about 60,000 riders a day — a pittance in the context of the city’s 1.3 million inhabitants. The most recent U.S. Census data show that the city’s transit mode share stands at less than 4%; the metropolitan region’s share is just 1.5%. Both are down from 2000.
Yet the city and the other member municipalities of DART have thus far been relatively steadfast in their commitment to the expansion of the local rail system. Today, with the commencement of service on the full extent of the $1.8 billion Green Line, the region features the largest light rail system of any in the United States, with 72 miles of train operations. The 15 stations opening today extend the short segment that opened last fall northwest into Carrollton and southeast into South Dallas; they are expected to add roughly 30,000 daily rides to the system. The project was completed on time and on budget.
Still more is coming soon. Though a decline in sales tax revenue has limited opportunities for future construction, the 14-mile Orange Line is planned to open in phases over the next four years, eventually reaching Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. A commuter rail shuttle connecting the northwestern extend of the Green Line into Denton County will open for passengers next summer. A streetcar and two Blue Line extensions are still on the books.
But that’s not good enough. Cities shouldn’t spend billions of dollars on a fixed-guideway transit system, only to be rewarded with minimal if any increases in ridership — especially in areas that are growing extremely quickly. What is Dallas doing wrong? Now that it has built itself a massive network, what can it change about its development patterns to ensure better use of its investments?
The clearest answer is that density matters a whole lot more than overall length of rail lines. As demonstrated by Strasbourg’s tramway network, which serves 300,000 daily users on 34.7 miles of track, in terms of attracting ridership it is more important to have a densely packed system in the inner city than it is to have an extensive series of suburban extensions. This, however, requires the existence of a dense urban core.
Dallas’ downtown is filled with jobs — 138,224, more than most cities’ — so it would seem in theory to be a popular place for transit users. But consider parking policies: The city’s downtown district actively encourages visitors to drive there and then park for just a dollar an hour. There’s no need to drive around looking for a space, because virtually every block is consumed at least partially by parking. When it’s this easy to get around by car, the fact is that transit options are unlikely to succeed.
Meanwhile, what Dallas really lacks is residential compactness: The downtown itself has grown from 1,654 residents in 2000 to 10,446 today (that’s pretty impressive!), but neighborhoods immediately adjacent to this area are primarily made up of single-family homes. Moreover, the alignment of the rail corridors, generally following existing highway or rail rights-of-way, often do not reach the densest areas or the biggest destinations. The well-populated (and popular) neighborhoods north of downtown, including Uptown and Oak Lawn, are mostly inaccessible to light rail. An underground station on the Red Line originally planned for Knox Street, which likely would have attracted plenty of riders, was not built because of local opposition. Even Love Field, the city’s second airport, is not directly on the route of the Green Line because a connection would have been too expensive to construct.
Because of the adherence to corridors that are intentionally designed to do as little as possible to challenge the movement of automobiles, trains run in industrial zones north of Love Field and along a forested edge zone along much of the southeast segments of the route. These were wasted opportunities: Those routes could have been designed to run in the boulevard medians in the center of neighborhoods, attracting more users, but instead they’re generally at the periphery of built-up zones.
Each and every decision about station location matters: The best-used light rail networks are those in which people have the ability to walk from their homes to the train and the truth is that that’s mostly impossible to do in Dallas’ system.
Despite all the above, this is not — and I am adamant in writing this — what an anti-transit crusader would argue is an example of Americans simply “not wanting” to living in urban conditions and thus not taking transit. The Dallas metropolitan areas has a total of 570,000 apartment units in multi-family buildings, and over the past four years, an average of about 8,000 of them were added every year, according to a recent real estate market report by the Texas A&M University. This housing is being built by private developers and it is being absorbed by the market. These are, inherently, dense developments.
And yet the Dallas Morning News reports that few major residential or commercial projects are being built in conjunction with the opening of the Green Line. Though several proposals are being considered, they certainly will not represent much of a major percentage of the total investments in new apartments in the area. There are obstacles to new construction in these neighborhoods.
Dallas and all of the cities being served by light rail must make a more serious effort to attract new growth into the transit zones around stations. If people are going to be living in apartments anyway, have them do so in mixed-use, walkable neighborhoods within easy distance of light rail stops. If this means using eminent domain to spur private redevelopment, then so be it: Something significant must be done to encourage increased use of the transit network.
In the meantime, Dallas has responded to the fact that it cannot afford to construct a second light rail route downtown by reducing frequencies on its existing routes to accommodate the arrival of the Green Line trains. Headways have declined from every 10 minutes at rush hour to every 15; at other times, trains will operate only every 20 minutes. This decision, made in good faith and reflecting a fundamental lack of resources, nevertheless will ultimately limit the number of people willing to switch to transit. Why do so when the trains run so infrequently? Yet the declining ridership that that thinking will likely produce will only encourage more service cutbacks in the future: It’s the transit death-spiral, and Dallas has to make sure it can avoid it.
Many of these problems are likely to be resolved over time — we cannot expect rail capacity to be absorbed immediately. As the example of the Washington, D.C. Metro shows, new dense and transit-oriented districts are likely to appear as people become used to the idea of living near the rail system. That, in turn, will result in increasing ridership. Yet the prototypical examples of Dallas rail development — at Mockingbird and Victory stations — are packed with parking and located just next to freeways. In other words, they are ideal environments for drivers. Those patterns must be altered if this region ever expects to profit fully from all that it has spent on its light rail network.