You need more than more miles to get more riders

The new 28-mile Green Line in Dallas has begun full service, and it is expected to add about 30,000 daily boardings, bringing DART’s total rail ridership to about 90,000 per day. That’s for 72 miles of rail lines, which is nearly ten times as long as Houston’s Main Street line, but less than triple the Main Street line’s 34,000 daily boardings. Why does DART get so little for its mileage? Yonah Freemark explains.

The clearest answer is that density matters a whole lot more than overall length of rail lines. As demonstrated by Strasbourg’s tramway network, which serves 300,000 daily users on 34.7 miles of track, in terms of attracting ridership it is more important to have a densely packed system in the inner city than it is to have an extensive series of suburban extensions. This, however, requires the existence of a dense urban core.

Dallas’ downtown is filled with jobs — 138,224, more than most cities’ — so it would seem in theory to be a popular place for transit users. But consider parking policies: The city’s downtown district actively encourages visitors to drive there and then park for just a dollar an hour. There’s no need to drive around looking for a space, because virtually every block is consumed at least partially by parking. When it’s this easy to get around by car, the fact is that transit options are unlikely to succeed.

Meanwhile, what Dallas really lacks is residential compactness: The downtown itself has grown from 1,654 residents in 2000 to 10,446 today (that’s pretty impressive!), but neighborhoods immediately adjacent to this area are primarily made up of single-family homes. Moreover, the alignment of the rail corridors, generally following existing highway or rail rights-of-way, often do not reach the densest areas or the biggest destinations. The well-populated (and popular) neighborhoods north of downtown, including Uptown and Oak Lawn, are mostly inaccessible to light rail. An underground station on the Red Line originally planned for Knox Street, which likely would have attracted plenty of riders, was not built because of local opposition. Even Love Field, the city’s second airport, is not directly on the route of the Green Line because a connection would have been too expensive to construct.

Because of the adherence to corridors that are intentionally designed to do as little as possible to challenge the movement of automobiles, trains run in industrial zones north of Love Field and along a forested edge zone along much of the southeast segments of the route. These were wasted opportunities: Those routes could have been designed to run in the boulevard medians in the center of neighborhoods, attracting more users, but instead they’re generally at the periphery of built-up zones.

Each and every decision about station location matters: The best-used light rail networks are those in which people have the ability to walk from their homes to the train and the truth is that that’s mostly impossible to do in Dallas’ system.

The Metro 2012 Solutions plan, by virtue of being an inner city system that hits a number of dense areas as well as several universities, does a lot better on this score, though there is plenty of room to improve even more. If we put as much planning effort and resources into maximizing the potential of our rail transit as we do for roads in currently uninhabited outlying areas, we could really have something. Thanks to Houston Tomorrow for the links.

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