Last August Houston introduced a major overhaul to its public transportation system, the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County. The plan had been a few years in the making, but the city made the bold decision to essentially update its bus system overnight with no new operating costs. The change has been met with heaps of praise, both from local riders and observers across the nation. A short documentary on the new system was made by Streetfilms, and subsequently covered by CityLab, the Atlantic’s blog on urban and metropolitan issues.
Now Dallas Area Rapid Transit will follow Houston Metro’s lead on a massive overhaul for its bus system. Well, kind of. DART wants to do all of the good things Metro did—like increase the frequency of certain high-volume routes, expand weekend service, and decrease layover and commute times—but at a glacial pace. DART’s new bus is expected to be completed over the course of a decade, instituting small rollouts and changes until it reaches its final form. That’s a long-ball approach similar to both the city’s plan for fixing its massive pothole problem and running in mud in thirty-pound boots.
Granted, Houston and Dallas’s bus systems have a major difference, as Rob Smith, DART’s assistant vice president for planning and scheduling, told the Dallas Morning News. The News points out that four-fifths of Metro’s trips happen on buses compared to just over half with DART, and that Houston has 1,217 buses that service 8,970 stops, while Dallas uses 652 buses to service 11,973 stops. But Houston is exhibit A that improving the bus system doesn’t need to take longer than the entire run of Cheers.
The best approach is to treat the system like The Life of Pablo and make tweaks after a vigorous rollout. Metro, of course, has already done this, because the people who use public transportation need changes sooner rather than later. In order to achieve DART’s chief goal and increase ridership, a good structure must be in place and established.
In the first few months after Houston’s overhaul, ridership numbers on buses decreased. Transit consultant Jarrett Walker chalked this up to access to light rail systems (Dallas’s paltry light rail will logistically and financially take a quarter of a century to improve) and the sudden overhaul on his personal blog. Change tends to take some getting used to, but by November, the percent of riders increased 4 percent compared to the previous year.
Texas’s infrastructure as a whole was designed to accommodate automobiles, which makes sense in a state that is seemingly endless. Dallas and Houston’s metro areas, the fourth and fifth largest in the country, are dense examples of the Texas sprawl, with the city proper collapsing into thriving suburbs. It’s not exactly easy to accommodate all of these different places from the cities to the suburbs, but public transportation is a hallmark of urban life. And taking an entire decade to improve a bus system, no matter its scope, is a profile in timidness. But hey, we are talking about public transportation: it seems to always take longer to get from Point A to Point B.