DART Service Lacking, But Changes Are Coming

A new study suggests DART has room for improvement.
A new study suggests DART has room for improvement. Patrick Michels
A recent study confirmed what you probably already know: Public transportation in Dallas leaves much to be desired.

Real estate listing service Clever used estimated income, transit pass prices and commute times to rank 30 major U.S. cities and concluded that Dallas clocks in near the bottom, in 26th place. But while the study does get right what most DART riders know — that DART service doesn’t hold up against public transit in other major metropolitan areas — it’s not representative of the DART ridership experience in all service areas.

“DART shouldn’t get blamed for all of North Texas’ transit woes. Our jurisdiction covers a 700-square-mile area (13 cities), not the several thousand miles mentioned in the article,” said DART spokesman Mark Ball in a written statement.

Because DART covers such a large service area, it’s not feasible to provide good transit in all parts of those 700 square miles, said Todd Plesko, vice president of service planning and scheduling for DART. DFW has a much lower population density than many metropolitan areas with extensive public transit systems, and because of the sheer distance, it takes time to get from one part of Dallas to another.

“In our service area, we provide good service,” Plesko said.

The Clever estimate examines the 9,000 square miles that the DFW metro area encompasses. In that area, 81% of commuters drive to work alone and those who do choose public transit spend 200 more hours annually commuting than those who drive. On average, a car commute in Dallas is 27.8 minutes and on public transit takes 51.2 minutes, according to Clever.

The idea behind the survey was to better assess factors that influence home buying, said Francesca Ortegren, the Clever researcher who produced the study.

“We’re interested in what can impact people’s ability to buy a home and where they buy a home,” Ortegren said.

In Dallas, public transit is simply too time-consuming to use and hard to get to, she said, so often it’s not possible for homebuyers or renters to select a cheaper home far away from work and count on being able to take public transit to work. People who use public transit in Dallas tend to make much less money than those who choose to commute exclusively by car.

"It highlighted that there’s just not enough infrastructure for public transit,” Ortegren said.

“DART shouldn’t get blamed for all of North Texas’ transit woes." — DART spokesman Mark Ball

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But with these limitations, DART passes, which cost $2.50 for a single ride and $96 for a month pass, are similarly priced to more extensive metro area transit systems like New York and Chicago. In similarly sprawling Los Angeles, a monthly pass costs $100, but a single ride costs only $1.75. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than a quarter of Dallas-area residents make an average of $11.54 to $18.86 an hour or roughly $24,000 to $39,000 a year.

Although rent and property prices are relatively low, because of the Dallas sprawl and intermittent public transit options, DFW residents end up spending a disproportionate amount of their income on transportation, primarily on car costs, the Observer reported earlier this year.

In 2016, the average household in DFW spent $1,365 on housing and $1,165 on transportation, totaling $2,530 a month, according to a recent report by the New York-based Citizens Budget Commission. By comparison, an average household in New York, long regarded as one of the most expensive cities in America, spent a total of $2,610 a month: $1,778 on housing and $832 on transit, the report says.

But DART is difficult to compare directly to many other metropolitan transit systems because some, like Seattle and Boston, which are at the top of the Clever study’s list, operate in much more compact coverage areas, Plesko said.

While DART bus rider numbers steadily declined from 45 million annually to 30 million annually between 2008 and 2018, DART reported 8 million more riders overall in 2019 than in 2018. Light rail has not seen the same kind of drop and remained relatively steady between 2012 and 2019.

Last year, in part because of the major discrepancies in coverage and service, DART launched a redesign project that will look at all transit lines and explore ways to change and improve service within available funding restraints. That could look like spending more money on reaching everybody in the service area occasionally or focusing more resources on a few lines that have good ridership potential, Plesko said.

The systemwide project includes several opportunities for public input, starting with transit forums in April and concluding with a second round of public engagement next year, after the DART board has made recommendations, Plesko said.
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