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.