Fading hopes


About two weeks ago, Rodger Jones, an editorial writer for the Dallas Morning News and one of three staff members who ride herd on that paper's wonderful on-line Transportation Blog, posted an essay entitled "DART ridership dwindling despite rising gas prices." In it, he wondered aloud why Dallas transit usage is waning, even during a period of stabilising unemployment and strained family budgets.

The numbers are telling. Within the past 12 months, while retail gasoline prices have increased by more than one-third, transit ridership has declined. Trains have fared better than buses; still, the trend should give us pause: a drop of 5.4% in daily bus trips, a 3.6% reduction in patronage on the Trinity Railway Express service between Dallas and Fort Worth, and an overall shrinkage in light rail usage (when compared, route-to-route, with last year's figures). Even DART's Red Line, historically the agency's strongest performer, is off by almost 1.7%. In fact, the only reason total L.R.T. numbers showed significant gain was due to the Green Line's opening last December (and that offers little solace, since many have deemed individual Green Line statistics to be "disappointing").

Mr. Jones mentioned several possibilities which help account for the troublesome trends. The idea that Dallas has a well established "car culture" (and that most of the city's growth occurred over the last half century) surely plays a significant role. Roadway traffic congestion is not quite the militating factor it used to be, in part due to economic realities, which makes motor vehicle travel more appealing to some. In addition, most jobs are no longer located in the "urban core" - a thorn in the side for a downtown-centric, hub-and-spoke system.

Moreover, it's apparently quite a bit more difficult to make folks panic over gas priced at $4.00 per gallon the second time 'round; after all, we've seen all that back in '08. Of course, it's only been thirty four months since DART's average daily ridership on the Red and Blue lines also hit its all-time record to date: 73,058.

Now, the figure is 53,067.

As Rodger Jones opined, that "leaves DART with some egg on its face."

70-sum-odd years ago, George Burns was worried about the health and long-term viability of his hit radio show. He and Gracie Allen, his wife and vaudeville partner, had successfully made the transition from stage to ether, but problems were brewing. In his 1988 book, "Gracie: A Love Story," Mr. Burns spoke candidly of his concern. "The show had been in the top ten since we'd started," he wrote, "but we were gradually losing our audience. When a rating suddenly drops three or four points, that means the competition is doing something special against you. But when the rating loss is progressive, a half point, a point, that means the audience is turning off the show."

In the early 1940s (pre-War), he finally addressed the matter with a slight but vital change in the programme's format. Until then, Burns and Allen had always portrayed a young, unmarried couple, with Gracie flirting with practically every man in the show. But, their audience (and everyone else who kept tabs on popular culture) knew they were happily married with two delightful children. So, with one classically short on-air announcement, George alerted listeners that, from then on, their characters were going to be married on the show, just as they were in real life. He concluded with this line: "Well, I think I see my wife coming now."

Perhaps we can't take that analogy too far. DART's problems may not respond to such a direct approach, even if a simple "here what's wrong; here's what we're going to do" statement was possible. However, traffic is dying by degrees - and the issues mentioned by Rodger Jones, as reasonable as they are, may not accurately address the foundational matter.

The late Dr. Dan Monaghan, DART board member and railroad aficionado extraordiaire, often spoke of what he termed "discretionary ridership" and its importance to the agency.

According to scientific polls, approximately half the Dallas region falls into what I call the "you'll-get-my-car-when-you-pry-my-cold-dead-fingers-off-the-steering-wheel" category. At the opposite end of the spectrum, we have our transit dependent: those who have no choice but ride a bus or a train...or stay at home.

The remainder - passengers who possess other options yet choose, for whatever reason(s), to ride instead of drive - retain an ability to vote with their feet (or seats). Give them convenient schedules and comfortable trains, with a reasonable expectation of a stress-free trip, and they'll gladly give mass transit a try. Give them inconvenient schedules and uncomfortable trains, with a stress-filled environment where their personal safety seems at risk, and they'll abandon the service quicker than you can say "S.U.V."

Mr. Jones began to discover this once his original post hit the News' web site. Within a matter of hours, over 100 comments had been made - a virtual landslide. The response took him by such surprise that he wrote another entry, "DART has PR problems with a pile of readers," in an effort to digest all the criticisms.

When reviewing the readers' explanations for their feelings, Jones indicated he was somewhat dismayed at "the tone of many commenters." While no public operation the size of DART "is going to please everyone," he "was struck by the virulence and bitterness of many people who said they were or had been transit users."

The respondents' criticisms revolved around four major themes:

1. DART's service is inconvenient, since it is unable to get passengers "where they need to go when they need to go there;"

2. On the average, using DART's trains and buses takes a great deal more time, portal to portal, than a comparable trip by automobile;

3. Trains are "too crowded" (with complaints due more to inadequate consists than high traffic levels - in other words, presumably within DART's control); and

4. Taking DART "means dealing with dangerous, unsavory people."

Inconvenient, slow, uncomfortable and scary. Not a real good way to gain and maintain the discretionary rider.

When I still worked for the agency, I pushed for a greater police presence on trains and at stations, especially in problem areas (such as the south end of the Blue Line and downtown's West End Station). I wanted to see our Code of Conduct (no eating, no drinking, no music without earphones, etc.) taken seriously and enforced. I longed for a no-nonsense, zero-tolerance policy for misbehaviour of all kinds (including the use of profanity, fighting, vandalism and so forth).

Unfortunately, that would have required DART to accept reality: that the support - both physically and politically - of the discretionary rider was imperative to its future health and welfare.

Now, the boors and miscreants rule while ridership slowly ebbs away. In the meantime, commuters clog freeways, even when parallel rail-based transit lines offer a reasonable alternative. Families fail to include DART in their weekend plans. Tourists go back home with ample stories to tell...just not any a chamber of commerce might wish to publish.

I still have hope for tomorrow's world. I still believe passenger trains, of all types, will play a vital role.

I must admit, though; whenever I see late trains and soiled seats and piled trash and mothers hovering over their children as a hen protecting her brood under a gentle wing, my hopes fade just a little bit more.

Would it be too much to ask those now planning and developing new services to take some of these things into consideration?


  • Garl, sounds like they need David Gunn to come down and give them a lesson in "zero tolerance!" It works.

  • Garl:  A most interesting essay you've posted here.  As I have not been to Dallas-Ft. Worth for a number of years, I claim no expertiser on DART.  But, taking a less Dallas-centric position, I would observe that transit ridership appears to be increasing in those metro areas where new LRT and commuter operations are offered.  In Denver, trains are running regularly with standees - and on occasion are almost empty, to be honest.  With stations near the three major sports venues (Invesco Field at Mile High, Pepsi Center, and Coors Field), you can see the effect of good transit service in the half-empty parking lots that used to be full.  Without disagreeing with a word you wrote, I suspect that DART has some problems that are unique to its system and management.  Otherwise, we are looking at the old saw about the marching band in the parade and the mother of one bandsman who comments: "Look, the whole band is out of step except for my son."  

  • There are several problems with the DART system. The first of which is one of the reasons it was funded to build. 30 plus years ago, smart people realised Dallas would need a transit system. So the planning took place to build a system with downtown Dallas as the destination. Not just the hub but destination. Second, they have no express trains and have rules against express trains. That has to change. Third, they need to repeal the illegal laws of Arlington and whatever Prairie and get that line out to the ball park and Cowboys club house. Fourth, they must run a line parallel to the tollway (Bush) and over to the blue, red, orange and green lines, tying all lines together and the outside ring can take all to the airport. Five, If you went downtown to Dallas on a busy weekday, you would find that it is only half occupied. DART's riders have lost their jobs. Parking lots downtown are half full. What are you looking at? Ridership figures are down due to something changing, not just due to DART. What kind of flawed logic are you using? Six, you must have a cop on every train and toss those panhandlers off the train! I am there, I have been and will be there, but I am a large dude. I believe if someone pays for a train ride, they have an inherent right to a safe, worry free train ride. If you sell them a ticket, they have a contract with you for safety. Live up to your contract DART. As for Dallas, downtown is dying. The City had better do something quick. There are empty buildings all around downtown! Go out and take a look Mayor!

  • Surprising? Not. No Jobs. Unemployment levels, especially in these cities, is impacting mass transit all across the US.

  • You seem to have joined this blog just to provide us with that bit of insight, carlaville.  Couldn't you do a bit better?  Not every mass transit system is experiencing declining ridership.  To the contrary, some are enjoying significant ridership gains.  And DART, as Garl and others have commented, seems to have "issues" (problems in the English language) that are distintively its own.