Forget a Car-Free Week. A Better DART Is What Downtown Needs to Be Car-Free Forever.

Subway, the one way you really can ditch that car.
Subway, the one way you really can ditch that car.

This is "No Car Week" in Dallas, according to the American Institute of Architects' Dallas branch. They should call it John Tatum week.

Dallas developer John C. Tatum Jr. has been telling Dallas for more than 30 years that it is building its rail system entirely the wrong way, dooming the system to failure and squandering enormous opportunities that rail could have brought the city had the city ever understood rail in the first place.

If we did rail the right way, Tatum says, we would use it to create a truly car-free community in downtown. Instead what we have is a cross between a very big bus and an amusement park ride.

Tatum is sending around an essay that begins this way: "Since 1980 regional planners have confused building a new public transit system with relieving congestion on area freeways."

Wait. Isn't he wrong? Wasn't that the whole deal? We were going to build a light rail (modern trolley) system so that people would stop driving on the freeway so much. Right?

Wrong, Tatum says. The DART light rail system we have spent 30 years and billions of dollars building is the best proof we could ask for that building light rail out into the suburbs will never scratch, let alone put a dent in, freeway congestion. It just doesn't work that way.

The Dallas Morning News found last year that transit use has fallen in the last 12 years as the region's population grew. Meanwhile DART's per passenger subsidies remain stubbornly higher and its fare box recovery rate lower than similar systems elsewhere.

Tatum was on the very first interim DART board of directors in 1982 and the first permanent board seated a year later, so he was witness to the original sin that has plagued DART ever since. Urban members of the board back then caved to suburban pressure and agreed to build a slow-poke surface-running trolley system out to the boondocks instead of the only kind of rail system that could have been successful -- heavy rail underground downtown.

Had DART and the city of Dallas spent the last 30 years and all that money building a subway system downtown, the product would have been an entire community of high-rises where people really could live car-free, and not just for a week but forever. A fast-moving high capacity rail system that didn't have to stop traffic lights, financed by dense development above its hub, would have reached out long ago to the airport and any other must-go places, while entertainment, services, schools and all the other accouterments of the good life would have rushed in to take advantage of the downtown market.

Instead we built spider webs out into the 'burbs and forced all of it through a narrow funnel on Pacific Avenue downtown. "We suffer the consequences of that decision to this day," Tatum, says, "with shorter trains and platforms, slower speeds and schedules (and) 35 percent reduced capacity in rush hour..."

Especially egregious in Tatum's view is DART's plan to build a second spindly connector line zigzagging across downtown in order to pass close to the convention center, which will provide no meaningful ridership. Instead, he believes, Dallas should force DART to meet a promise it made back in the day that the second downtown line would be underground.

A subway under Elm Street, he says, would create a zone the length of downtown where passengers would never be more than an escalator ride away from any of the city's rail lines. With that single stroke, Tatum says, Dallas would create the biggest transit oriented development opportunity in the region.

He goes on to say the greatest injury wrought by the Trinity River toll road would be the opportunity cost it would inflict on the city at this moment. If we somehow do ever find the one to two billion dollars needed to build that road and then spend it that way, we squander the chance to devote those same resources instead to a subway system that could change downtown fundamentally and forever.

I have my own two-bit theory, you know, about why the Morning News and Ray Hunt want to suck everything into the southwest corner of downtown including the second downtown DART alignment. Whenever I say it, somebody always says, "So what if it's a move to promote real estate development on their land? What's wrong with real estate development?"

See also: The Trinity Toll Road is a Real Estate Play to Boost One Corner of Downtown. Period

But the question is what real estate development? Which development? A bigger convention center, hotels, a casino, a ball park: none of that does one thing to change the nature of downtown. Tatum's point is that we can use rail instead to create an entire dense community downtown capable of truly competing with the suburbs, offering a lifestyle the 'burbs can't match. He's been saying it for 30 years. The lesson of history in that time is that he's been right for 30 years.

Oh, and remember not to use your car this week. That'll work, right?

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