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Not There Yet: Public Transit in Dallas

by Lin Wang

August, 2011--Until I moved to DFW area, I had always been using public transportation.

There were not many people who could afford owning a car when I grew up in China. True, in the 90's almost everyone rode a bicycle for commuting. Almost, as I said here, because my mom is one of few in China who doesn't know how to ride a bike. But she has been fortunate always to live within walking distance of work. I remember the excitement of waiting for the bus with my mom to go shopping on those Sunday mornings. Occasionally the bus was so crowded that nobody could walk around without pushing others. You handed out a dime to someone next to you and he relayed to the next and so on and on until the money reached the bus assistant, and then the fare ticket came back in the same manner. When buses are the only means to transport people from point to point, you don't complain about the service--you deal with it and it is part of your life.

For a short time, I lived in a small town in Japan and worked in a neighboring city. The on-time performance of my daily commuter bus was so stunning that the difference between the actual arrival time and the schedule could be counted in seconds. Every regular commuter had their own seat; we greeted each other with a nod and rode the next 30 minutes or so together in silence.

In the next stop of my life journey, Pittsburgh, provided a public transportation service that paled in comparison. The wait for the next bus could feel excruciating on dark winter nights. And rivers, bridges and meandering roads made a seemingly close destination much further away. It was on those buses that I finished reading many New Yorker Articles, including "The Climate of Man," a three-part article that made me aware for the first time that riding a bus helps reduce a carbon footprint.

But it went deeper than my newly converted greenness. Using public transportation gives me the freedom either to retreat into my own world or diligently observe the sights and sound of the city, as well as glimpsing other anonymous passengers. The sub-consciousness pulls me in and out between solitude and interaction within a small public space that moves through different neighborhoods, and it has had a great positive boost to my productivity. By the time that I got off the bus in Pittsburgh, I always felt I had rested enough and was eager for the next task.

New York is the only city I've lived in where schedule brochures for subways systems seem unnecessary. Riding a train was never as quiet as a bus ride in Japan or as mind-soothing as in Pittsburgh. It is a platform where arrays of commuters, and occasionally real entertainers, absorb other fellows into a kaleidoscopic assembly of colors, smells, sounds, languages and motions. I have learned the tricks of which train car to get on in order to get out quickly.

After moving from New York City, it was natural for me to hop on a commuter train the first day in a new place in Dallas that enabled me to use public transportation for work. Trinity Railway Express, a commuter rail line which connects Dallas with Fort Worth through many of the Mid-Cities, has something even New Yorker may envy: A bi-level cab car with free internet.

On my first morning ride, the train was empty, partially because that particular one only went to DFW airport, which is still 30 minutes away from Fort Worth. A guy in security uniform fell asleep. And a woman was playing with her smartphone all the time. After all, the route is not scenic. Named after the Trinity River, which also links Dallas with Fort Worth, most of the sections between Dallas and DFW airport are in the southern part of Irving, which alternates between isolated shopping plazas, desolate houses and industrial warehouses.

There is a streamlined shuttle connecting TRE Centerport station (DFW airport) with nearby corporate headquarters during rush hour. It felt like having a chauffer service even though the ride was merely one mile long.

Yet it was a totally different story on the way back. After getting off at Medical/Market Center station, I was instructed by Google Map to either walk or wait for a free shuttle bus in order get to another bus for transfer near Parkland Hospital. The walk was not long, in fact merely 0.7 mile; yet it was more than 100 degrees at 5:20 p.m..

I decided to walk. Luckily I was wearing a polo shirt. However, right after I turned around at the Children's Hospital, I realized that I made a mistake. The walk involved crossing Harry Hines Boulevard, a major six-lane alternative to Highway I35 during rush hour. According to Wikipedia, the boulevard is regarded as the very first "highway" in Texas. Normally it takes some courage to cross such a monstrous road, yet I was lucky that road construction slowed traffic dramatically at the intersection.

Fifteen minutes later, I was outside the Parkland Memorial Hospital's new site (under construction) where 11 different bus lines plus two different DART lightrail lines merge (sort of).

The bus stops are scattered around a wasteland with overgrown grass big enough to fit in a basketball stadium. It was very hard to tell what bus stops are where from a distance, and there is no map for guidance. Worst of all, there was no shade at all. Just as I was wondering where was the bus stop for my bus to Oak Lawn, a 409 bus circled around and stopped on the other side of the grass dune. I decided not to run to save my dress shoes and myself from a heat stroke. So it left without waiting for me. The next 20 minutes was long. I didn't melt, but I expected to. The only relief that I got was from the shade of the small bus sign. The bus ride was merely 12 minutes yet the waiting (plus walking) part cost me 35 minutes, all directly under the sun.

By the time that I got home, it was one hour twenty minutes from when I had stepped out of the office.

Neither the TRE ride nor bus ride was bad at all, yet Dallas public transportation system fails to connect people point to point. It is, instead, designed for interconnecting regions; yet without point to point coverage, public transportation cannot be a feasible solution for most residents.

For example, TRE Medical/Market Center station is NOT anywhere nearby DART Southwest Medical District/Parkland station. If one prefers light rail and trains for connection, they have to take TRE to the next stop (Victory Station) and then ride a DART train back to one kilometer.

It is probably too late to change the route of either rail system to make them connect. An alternative solution is to have most of the buses which stop at Southwest Medical District/Parkland station take a three minutes detour to the TRE station so that anyone who needs a transfer does not have to relay on a particular free shuttle.

Lastly, it is understandable that buses may have some delay and a maximum twenty-minute wait can occasionally occur, yet it is important to make such a wait at least tolerable. A shelter with a full or partial roof helps. For a big transport hub with many bus stops clustered, a center passenger waiting room with detailed bus route/connection and schedule information is more attractive.

Recently, the Dallas Morning News published an article about the DART ridership. It puzzles many that fewer people are using DART now even though gas prices are at a historical high. Yet without being able to connect people to where they want to go and without consideration of the daily commuter's basic needs, such as route, time, frequency and a simple shelter, it won't win our hearts.

Lin Wang