DART Is Confused About What Frequency Means to Its Riders

There is no worse feeling as a DART commuter than seeing your bus pull off seconds before you complete your jaywalk/sprint to the bus stop. The frustration of almost making it is bad enough, the fact that you'll have to wait a long time -- sometimes over an hour -- for the next bus to come is that much worse.

When DART asked its riders "What's important to you?" in a poll, "more frequent service" was far and away the top answer, which points out two of the primary issues in using DART for anything more than commuting to and from downtown. The first, the punishing feeling described above, is obvious. The second is more subtle, but is perhaps the greatest impediment to using DART as people in large cities typically use public transportation.

Because of the precision required to make those infrequent buses, it's nearly impossible to simply get out and use DART. You can't take DART to the grocery store because being in a checkout line slightly longer than you anticipated means you miss your return bus and your Ben and Jerry's melts at the bus stop. You can't tell a date you'll meet her at 7 because when you check the schedules you realize that you can either get to the restaurant at 6:42 or 7:22. You can't take DART to see the Cowboys because -- wait that's another issue.

DART deserves a little credit for at least nodding toward the issue. A new survey put out by the agency asks riders what frequency means to them. More bluntly, DART wants to know the bare minimum service level it can get away with. Only one of the choices -- the shortest time frame, 10-15 minutes -- even approaches something that could be described as "frequent." Anyone who would consider a bus that comes every 60 minutes as "frequent" is clearly a DART employee or from Midland.

DART is only usable of you plan each movement down to the minute. You can't just get out and use the system the way you can other cities' transit system. You can't just get out and explore because the chances of getting stuck for an extended period and the learning curve for DART buses and trains is so steep. Peter Simek at D Magazine correctly pointed out that the D-Link, one of DART's few buses that runs with any frequency -- every 15 minutes between 11 and 11 -- has a route that's nearly impossible to understand. If you looked at the linked map, getting it is hard enough. If you try to figure it out on the fly, you're just as likely to end up taking the full loop than getting to your destination with any sort of efficiency.

Simek suggests that rerouting DART's buses for efficiency and adding more trips would be a cheap way to improve service as the agency struggles to fund the second train line through downtown and other fanciful, far-off projects like the long-debated Cotton Belt rail line. In a vacuum, he's right. Dropping or heavily modifying DART's many meandering, low-ridership suburban routes to better serve Dallas' urban core -- you know, the people who actually want to use public transit -- would benefit the system. The thing is, that will never happen.

DART's original sin was getting in bed with its suburban partners. Taking sales tax money from the likes of Plano, Rowlett and Garland means that residents of the cities have as much of a right to be fairly served by DART as the city of Dallas itself. They are DART members because of those meandering, low-ridership suburban routes. Good luck explaining to them why they can't catch their express bus to their job in the CBD because more frequent trips between Oak Cliff and East Dallas benefit the system as a whole.

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Stephen Young has written about Dallas news for the Observer since 2014. He's a Dallas native and a graduate of the University of North Texas.
Contact: Stephen Young

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