Dallas Demonstrates How Not to Build a Modern Streetcar

Dallas's plan for a modern streetcar line lacks some key ingredients of successful transit. Photo: The Transport Politic

For urbanists who believe in the potential to turn car-dependent cities into more walkable, transit-oriented places, there is no joy like seeing new rail infrastructure born. To mar such a happy occasion takes a lot of bungling, but as we’ll see, it is possible.

The city of Dallas is preparing to build a $23 million, 1.6-mile streetcar line in its downtown. It’s good to see modern streetcars — the first in Texas — come to America’s ninth largest city. But the good news ends there, says Yonah Freemark at the Transport Politic. In fact, the project has been designed in such a way that Freemark wonders whether it is worth the investment at all:

The project violates almost all the basics of transit project delivery. Worst is its proposed single-track construction — there will not even be any bypass tracks included as far as I can tell — which will limit service to 20-minute maximum frequencies. From day one, the service will be limited to what in a standard transit system would be considered poor operations quality. And this is basically an impossible-to-resolve structural problem, since once construction has been completed, there will be little appetite for more of it in the same locale.

To put it another way, 20-minute frequencies mean ten minute average waiting times; combined with the seven minutes it will take trains to journey the 1.6 miles from origin to destination, this means that on average, walking will be just as fast as taking the train. If this project serves such an important travel market as to deserve the significant investment that is required to put tracks in the street, why are such pitiful operations planned?

Similarly, the two terminal stops fall short of the likely destinations of many of their users. On the Oak Cliff end, trains will stop two blocks short of the Methodist Hospital, landing instead across from a large parking garage. That’s friendly competition. On the downtown Dallas side, trains will stop at Union Station, which is an acceptable terminus but not nearly as good as what was originally planned — line up Main Street, through the heart of the central business district (which would have increased the line’s price to $58 million). But the federal government’s willingness to contribute only a portion of funds and the city’s general ambivalence about spending any of its own money has interred that plan, at least for the moment.

Other streetcar initiatives around the country will do much more for mobility and development than the Dallas project. The Tucson Streetcar, for example, avoids the myriad pitfalls of its Texan counterpart. As a result of its superior design, which comes at a higher cost, it is likely to increase transit usage and reduce car dependency, Freemark says.

Elsewhere on the Network today: Google Maps Bike There honors the introduction of bike-sharing in Boston — Hubway opens tomorrow! Portland Transport gets down to details about the costs of car ownership. And Baltimore Spokes is forced to refute a gratuitous anti-cycling newspaper editorial.