Dallas Light Rail a “Knife in Our Back”

A new report on transportation equity demonstrates that Dallas Area Rapid Transit’s zeal to build the largest light-rail system in America has harmed the city’s low-income population. While the report (really a PowerPoint show) itself is fairly mild in tone, the interpretation by Dallas Observer columnist Jim Schutze is anything but moderate.

DART light-rail lines, “built at costs in the billions, reach up into Carrollton, Plano and Rowlett — suburban areas that need light rail like they a ski lift,” says Schutze. Meanwhile, “DART does an appalling job of providing mass transit to inner-city, low-wage workers who need it.”

Schutze makes this out to be a debate between cities vs. suburbs, compact development vs. sprawl. But really, it is a question of what is the appropriate mission for transit agencies. Outside of those few urban areas with large downtowns–New York, Chicago, and a few others–most people don’t ride or need transit, so transit agencies have to come up with some rationale for continued subsidies. At one time, that rationale was that poor people needed mobility too. But now, most poor people have cars, so today the rationale is the need to get middle-class people out of their evil automobiles.

This apparently makes it okay to finance rail transit lines into middle-class suburbs by cutting bus service to low-income neighborhoods. I call this policy “transit apartheid,” but it happens everywhere. Los Angeles did it. So did Atlanta. So did Minneapolis-St. Paul and many other regions. Now Dallas is recognizing that DART did it as well.

Normally, to have an effective multi-modal transit system, the addition of a light-rail line demands an increase in bus service to feed into that line. But while DART has increased light-rail vehicle miles by 90 percent since 2005, it cut bus service by about 10 percent. The light-rail increased boosted rail riders by 70 percent, while the bus decrease contributed to a 37 percent decline in bus riders. The net result was a 9 percent decline in bus-plus-rail ridership.

I suspect Schutze believes that Dallas in general and its low-income residents in particular would have been better off with a light-rail system that served more city neighborhoods and skipped the suburbs. But the reality is that light rail doesn’t make sense anywhere. The city would have been best off by providing more frequent bus service on every route in every neighborhood. This would have cost a lot less than building rail and served a lot more people.


6 thoughts on “Dallas Light Rail a “Knife in Our Back”

  1. prk166

    The net result was a 9 percent decline in bus-plus-rail ridership.
    ” ~anti-planner

    How is it possible that DART which serves one of the fastest growing, most economically robust cities in the US sees not just a decline but double digit decline in ridership over a the last decade????

  2. JOHN1000

    The crisis in reduced buses for the poor will not go to waste.

    The same politicians who thrive off building useless trains that do nothing for the lower classes (but which enrich their donors and unions) will blame racism and Republicans for the woes of the poor. (if they would only give us adequate funding……you know the rest.)

    And then the poor will be misled into voting for the same politicians who will knife them in the back again — and then blame others. Why stop now – this has worked for so long. And is so profitable.


  3. TCS

    The very first chair of the DART board of directors explained to the voters, ‘DART isn’t about transportation. DART is about development.’ Decades later, and much like Captain Renault, Dallas is now shocked – shocked! – that the nation’s largest light rail system plays a negligible role in the region’s transportation.

  4. prk166

    Stubbornness of auto culture? They’re talking with people who made a point to live next to a light rail station. These people _want_ to use transit still barely do. Maybe the proper conclusion isn’t the stubbornness of auto culture but the stubbornness of light rail advocates to face the reality that rail is an outdated 19th century mode of travel that doesn’t work in 21st century city.


    A 2011 paper from researchers at the University of North Texas, the University of Texas at Arlington and elsewhere captures some of the stubbornness of automobile culture in an examination of the impact of transit-oriented development in Dallas. The authors surveyed and interviewed residents of three such developments — Mockingbird Station, downtown Plano and Southside on Lamar – on their travel behavior. Though the residents were more likely than other Dallasites to use transit, the likelihood was still low even though they lived in places supposedly built for transit use. “Cars are much faster than trains,” said one member of a focus group. Another: “I don’t want to take the time to learn how to use the system; too complicated.” A third: “At places you may get jumped or scared if you go to the wrong area.”

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