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To fight huge drop in bus riders, North Texas transit agency faces hard choices about who gets service

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A DART bus idles at a stop near Westmoreland Station in Dallas. Duy Vu for The Texas Tribune

DALLAS — Commuters in the historically low-income neighborhood of West Dallas have adapted their morning routines to new bus routes since August. That’s when Dallas Area Rapid Transit, North Texas’ largest public transit agency, redrew two lines that used to zigzag through the residential area to instead run mainly along major streets farther from many residents’ doorsteps.

The new routes led to faster commutes, but also a lot of complaints from the neighborhood that’s traditionally been inhabited by black and Hispanic residents.

“Immediately after we implemented the service, we got complaints from senior citizens, low-income people and advocacy groups,” said Todd Plesko, DART’s vice president of service planning and scheduling. But today more people are actually using the buses. DART officials say that’s because streamlined routes can help people reach more places in less time.

“We were able to increase the number of jobs accessible within 60 minutes by 100,000,” Plesko said.

A similar situation may soon play out across the 13 North Texas cities DART serves, where overall bus ridership has declined by a third, from 45 million passenger trips in 2008 to 30 million in 2018. The transit agency is planning to redesign its entire bus network. But that will come with hard choices: Focus on coverage, which aims to provide at least some service to all areas, or prioritize frequency, which provides more service to high-trafficked areas.

“Something that is characteristic of the Dallas area’s transit service is that its network is designed to provide a lot of coverage,” said Michelle Poyourow, a consultant with Jarrett Walker and Associates, the firm that DART hired to analyze the system and propose changes. “Almost half [of the network] is designed to provide coverage, not to get high ridership.”

What could make those tough choices even more difficult is the fact that many loyal DART riders — in the search for affordable housing — have moved to suburbs and away from the denser urban core, where more frequent routes make more sense.

“Our low-income riders, who are an important component of those people who choose to use transit, they’ve had to move in many cases,” Plesko said. “They’re moving to areas along the freeway loops and in neighborhoods where housing is more affordable, but it is also very difficult to serve with transit.”

Houston Metro, that region’s major transit agency, had a similar challenge five years ago, when it began prioritizing frequency in areas that could potentially have a lot of commuters.

“Here, we got rid of a lot of redundancy and overlapping routes. We got rid of buses that went out of their way to go to places, and this freed up service,” said Christof Spieler, an urban planner and former Metro board member.

Austin also redrew its bus map, in 2018, when Capital Metro consolidated routes and increased service in areas of high demand. According to that transit agency, the changes led to 16 consecutive months of increased ridership.

Back in North Texas, Hiireen Jones, who said he has ridden “practically every bus in the city,” would be relieved if DART follows suit. He said lackluster service on existing routes causes delays for riders.

“The customers complain about the buses being late,” said the 38-year-old from Irving. “Today I was late to work like 10 minutes.”

More buses per route means that Jones would have more alternatives if he missed a bus or if a vehicle had mechanical problems. Still, he worried about how DART could let people know about the potential route changes.

“Communicating with people is not something that the company does that much,” Jones said. “I feel they don’t publicize town hall meetings, and there’s not many focus groups or instances where people can come together and make decisions as a whole.”

Dallas resident Hiireen Jones talks on the phone on a DART bus on its way to Irving.

Dallas resident Hiireen Jones talks on the phone on a DART bus on its way to Irving. Duy Vu for The Texas Tribune

DART may face some limitations to increasing ridership, though. Jarrett Walker and Associates’ initial analysis shows that DART’s bus system is already simpler and more streamlined than what Houston Metro’s was in 2015.

“There is very little duplication of routes,” Poyourow said. “Everything has a good reason to be there, whether it is a ridership reason or a coverage reason.”

Houston Metro officials tried to redesign their bus network without spending more money. But after the public engagement process, the board increased the funds for bus operations by about $12 million. But DART officials want to redesign the system without incurring extra costs.

“At this point, unfortunately, a lot of our issues are money issues,” said Jon-Bertrell Killen, board member of DART. “We don’t have a ton of more money right now to deploy. We’ve already purchased all the buses that I think we can afford.”

Jarrett Walker and Associates is developing two proposals. One of them will aim to increase ridership, with straighter and simpler bus routes focused in areas with a lot of commuters. That proposed system will have more frequent buses throughout the week, including during rush hour. The other proposal will focus on covering as much of the sprawling service area as possible.

“These two concepts will illustrate a spectrum. People don’t have to pick one or the other, they can actually point some place in between, to indicate how DART should make this tradeoff,” Poyourow said.

Both the DART board and riders will be able to provide input on the proposals that will influence the version officials approve. Any modifications would be implemented in early 2022.

“One city may want faster buses that come more frequently, another city may be more interested in making sure that there’s Wi-Fi on the buses or that buses come down to residential streets,” Killen said. “But in order to get more of one or the other, it does mean to take away from another side.”

The tough choices underscore how public transit agencies already have a hard time luring new riders — and keeping current riders — in regions built primarily for personal vehicles.

While riding the 408 bus route, Jones fantasized about having a choice between taking the bus or his own vehicle.

“I would definitely have a car or a truck. It would help me haul around supplies, and I could do business with it,” he said. “But right now, I can’t afford it.”