Why does it suck so much to ride DART?
Anyone who’s tried to get from point A to point B in Dallas using public transit (with the possible exception of 9-to-5 commuters who live near a rail stop and work downtown, for whom the system works fairly well) has asked the question.
There are many ways to answer it. Dallas' sprawl and low-density development make building an efficient transit system inherently difficult. The hub-and-spoke system, with rail lines radiating from downtown and buses radiating from the rail stops, means getting anywhere other than downtown requires riders to plot out a Rube Goldberg-style transit route. Dallas, like other Sun Belt cities, has a deep cultural and infrastructural bias toward the car. Et cetera.
But there’s another reason. Members of its board, the 15 people who dictate the agency’s policy, have expertise in many areas. Some know finance. Others are trained in law. All know how to leverage political connections. Few, however, seem to have any clue about what it’s like to actually ride on DART.
This is a huge blind spot with important policy implications. If DART board members don’t have first-hand knowledge of how awful it is to try to get to the grocery store on a Saturday, or to get from a home in Plano to a job in Irving, they are less likely to design a system that addresses those issues. Indeed, the ignorance goes a long way toward explaining why DART is so frustratingly impractical for most purposes.
The solution is straightforward. DART’s member cities, when they are appointing representatives to the agency's board, should consider an applicant's on-the-ground familiarity with the transit system as part of their selection process. This doesn't necessarily need to be a litmus test, since it's conceivable that the pool of regular DART riders who also have the chops to craft transit policy would be too small to fill all 15 board seats. But it should at least be a question. So, potential DART board member, when was the last time you rode the bus?
As it stands, the topic doesn't really come up. Not in Dallas, anyway.
On Monday, the Dallas City Council’s transportation committee considered four applicants for two slots on the DART board (the city appoints eight in all). The committee members asked each candidate to weigh in on a handful of important issues. The applicants were asked how they felt about allowing non-member cities to join DART, a perennially contentious issue. On the one hand, you have member cities who have been paying into DART for decades and on the other you have huge swaths of North Texas without even rudimentary transit service. The applicants were asked how they felt about using public-private partnerships to build transit-oriented development. They were asked whether DART should continue to focus disproportionately on building rail or if it should give equal attention to its bus system.
The applicant pool was rather shallow, and their answers were sufficiently revelatory to separate the applicants into two tiers. Richard Carrizales, an attorney seeking a fourth term on the board, and Sue Bauman, who spent her career in various roles in DART headquarters, exhibited a baseline competence and a solid grasp of how the system works. John Ting, a young attorney and member of the city's civil service board, and Jim Rodriguez, who touted his Air Force career, which he retired from a quarter century ago, were comically ill-informed.
Asked how he felt about adding non-member cities, Rodriguez responded with Trumpian self-assurance. "First of all, I don't know what it means to be a 'member,'" he said, apparently oblivious to the astounding ignorance of the statement. "What do you mean by 'member'?" (Member cities collect a 1 percent sales tax to fund DART.)
Ting became confused when committee chair Lee Kleinman referenced transit-oriented development. "To be honest, I'm not familiar with 'T.O.D.,'" Ting admitted. His tone, unlike Rodriguez's, suggested that he was at least aware that he should have known. Kleinman prompted him by using the example of Mockingbird Station, which caused Ting to perk up. "I think it's an excellent idea," he opined. "Myself, I've been to Mockingbird Station plenty of times. I used it when I studied for the bar exam."
None of the council members asked about transit ridership, though Carrizales brought it up in his introduction. "As a kid, I rode the bus service until I got to college," Carrizales recalled. This, Carrizales reminded the council, was a long, long time ago, "before DART was even invented," but the experience still informs his decision-making. "A lot of times, we vote on an issue, and my brain is going back to when I was a kid in South Dallas."
Ting also volunteered his own transit experience when Councilwoman Sandy Greyson asked about balancing bus and train service.
"I lived in NYC during law school, and I've had to use both," he said. He has often discussed the difference between buses and trains with his friends and family. "My friends and I have talked about, 'How do we get to Dallas Love Field?'" Ting said before noting — correctly — that "it requires both." But that's not true of every trip. "My wife, for example, used the DART all the way to DFW airport, so she is very satisfied."
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Rodriguez did not say whether he had any experience riding public transit. He did, however, note that he "represent[s] a little Tex-Mex restaurant that was recently voted NUMBER ONE in America — Taco Bueno." (Rodriguez's LinkedIn profile says he is a sales manager for the chain.)
Like Rodriguez, Bauman didn't bring up her experience riding transit, but she also didn't say anything wacky or ill-informed.
The council members wound up voting to appoint Carrizales and Bauman, which was clearly the right choice. Even if Ting and Rodriguez rode DART every day, it wouldn't have been enough to compensate for their other shortcomings. But for the sake of DART riders everywhere, the issue needs to be raised at some point in the process. Better yet, council members can actively seek out smart, transit-using board applicants, which would have the beneficial side effect of expanding the applicant pool beyond the résumé padders who tend to populate it.
And here's another suggestion for both current and aspiring board members alike. Try riding the bus every once in a while. You might learn something.