Monday, June 6, 2016

No Car in Dallas? But How?

A little over a month ago I finally gave in and bought my very first car, a brand-new Toyota Corolla. I first learned how to drive on a 2003-era Corolla, so I couldn’t pass up this familiar yet reliable model when I showed up at the dealership for the dreaded car hunt. But in between moving back home to Texas in July of last year and getting a car this past March, I had to make do without one. Fortunately my parents did have a car that they used for buying groceries and the like, but as far as getting to work, shopping, or having fun, I was basically on my own.

Carless in Dallas
My new car
Now, America isn’t a country known for its public transportation to begin with, and the sprawling nature of Sunbelt metropolitan areas like Dallas makes walking utterly impractical when it takes 20 minutes just to walk from your house in a subdivision to the nearest convenience store. So you can imagine I was a little terrified trying to figure out how to make things work in my initial re-entry period moving back to the States after being accustomed to walkable, transit-loving Spain for so long.

Taking the bus to work for the first time in America

Carless in Dallas
Hoping the bus arrives before the rains do
My lifeline this past half year or so was Dallas Area Rapid Transit, a.k.a., DART: the public transportation agency for Dallas and most of the suburbs that border the city to the west and the north. My hometown of Plano—a suburb half an hour to the north of downtown Dallas—has been a member of the organization since it was founded in the ‘80s, but I recognize that I am privileged to live in a city with any public transit at all, as other suburbs like Arlington—pop. 380,000—have a grand total of ZERO buses to speak of. I’m very grateful that Plano has made a commitment to DART by re-routing a substantial 1% sales tax to the agency, a sum that neighboring suburbs like Allen or Frisco have used to lure businesses and developments.

It was frustrating when I realized that what is normally a 15-minute drive from my parents’ house out to the office in northwest Plano would balloon to almost an hour, between the 20-minute bus ride and a 30-minute hike just to get to the closest bus stop. I’ll be completely honest, the summer sucked majorly, especially when I had to endure 90% humidity in the morning some days and 100º F or higher temperatures in the afternoon, all the while weaving my way around the foot and car traffic of an elementary and middle school.

But with suburban sprawl as bad as it is in places like Texas, I realize that I was lucky to even have the option of a bus route that dropped me off a five-minute walk from my office, and even more lucky to not have to transfer to another bus/train.

The key to getting around by public transit

Carless in Dallas
I would have loved to drive this old clunker around
So how did I make public transit work for me? In a word, my cellphone. Having an iPhone with a steady connection to the Internet totally transformed riding the bus for me.

For starters, DART’s GoPass app lets you purchase and store tickets all from your phone, so I never had to worry about keeping cash or quarters on my person or even another card in my wallet. I just had to plug my credit card info into the app and then I could buy tickets right then and there. Since their 31-day unlimited transit pass comes with a steep 20% discount over buying tickets individually, it was a no-brainer to just shell out the $80 at the beginning of the month and then not have to worry about daily passes.

The GoPass app also shows realtime GPS locations and ETAs for all buses in the system, which can be a real anxiety-reliever when you’re stuck at a bus stop that amounts to nothing more than a post on the side of the road and it’s 100º outside and the bus is already seven minutes late…but the app is showing “Arrival Imminent” so there’s no need to freak out.

On a daily basis I only ever used a single bus route to get to and from work, so I was only ever familiar with the path that one route took and how often it would pass by. Because of this, I relied on the Google Maps app to help me navigate the city when I was running errands or when I was hopping around downtown Dallas and wanted to know the most efficient way to get from a train station to my destination. The advantage of Google Maps is that every bus route in the system is all plugged in to the app, so you can sit back and let the computer analyze things and spit out a recommended itinerary for you, often using bus routes you had no idea even existed!

Carless in Dallas
The things you find on the side of the road
Another app I started using right before I bought my Corolla is called simply Transit App. Although its navigation services aren’t any better than Google Maps’, I like to use this app for “discovery,” as it uses your location to show you the nearest bus routes and train lines so you can choose on your own what route you could potentially take. It’s also hugely helpful for exploring bus routes and train lines as you can click through the colorful panes to see an interactive route drawn on the map with a realtime location of the bus or the train on it, as well as future arrival times for the rest of the day. For most of my day-to-day navigation needs I stick with Google Maps, but Transit App is really helpful when you’re trying to figure out where exactly the bus route in front of the museum goes…and when it stops running late at night.

I can’t even imagine how lower-income folks who don’t have smartphones and who are forced to rely on public transit as their only means of getting around manage to keep track of routes and schedules and still make transfers in a reasonable amount of time, with only foldable paper brochures for assistance. After seeing one bus rider flipping through a small library of bus route pamphlets bound by a rubber band, I did my best to offer the help of my iPhone to anybody who wasn’t familiar with the area or who didn’t know when the next bus was even supposed to show up.

Seeing my hometown with new eyes

Carless in Dallas
Breaking in my new Converse shoes
Relying on my own two feet and the bus to get around forced me to look at my hometown in a totally different light. Whereas I could have walked across the entire city of Santiago de Compostela in half an hour, in Plano I had to spend an equal amount of time just to walk from one major intersection to the next. For reference, Plano and Barcelona occupy approximately the same geographic area but my hometown has only a fifth the population of the Catalan capital!

Walking made me come to terms with the policies and practices that made suburban America the way it is today. Zoning segregates the places where people live—residential areas like apartments, condos, houses—from the places people want to visit—stores, cafés, bars, businesses, medical offices. Contrast this with the norm in Spain, where ground-level retail, restaurants, and offices give way to apartment homes on the floors above. Instead of hopping down the stairs to grab a loaf of bread from the corner bakery, you’ve got to hop in the car, drive 5-10 minutes to the nearest strip mall and stop off at Corner Bakery instead. Without a car, I found it much harder to be spontaneous and had to plan errand-running around work and commuting.

Carless in Dallas
Downtown Plano, where traditional, walkable development endures
The street grid also falls apart in suburban towns like Plano. Yes, the arterial roads do follow the original every-square-mile grid from when it was surveyed as a farming community, but within these sections, the residential streets collapse into a mess of meandering, branching, and bewildering roads that seem designed to disorient. And cul-de-sacs are literal dead-ends. The main problem with suburban-style layouts is that it makes it extremely difficult to walk to your destination because you have to take a winding route just to get out of the neighborhood, whereas with a traditional street grid you could just make a beeline south to the main street.

The perspective of a walker makes you conscious of the little things you don’t notice flying by at 55 miles an hour, things like the total absence of crosswalks at a major intersection, sidewalks that get washed out by mud in the rain due to a lawn’s poor erosion control, or vast seas of empty parking lots that you have to cross to get to the closest bus stop.

The pros and cons of not having a car in Dallas

Carless in Dallas
Waiting on the bus
When I first started riding the bus to work in the full blast of a Texas summer, I wanted nothing more than to have a car with air-conditioning to avoid ending up at home a sweaty, sunburned mess. But as temperatures cooled down in the fall, I came to appreciate the hundreds of dollars I was saving up every month by not owning a car…plus I was getting exercise and fresh air to boot. Relying on public transit has its pros and cons, but I’m still not sure how practical it is out in the sprawling suburbs.

Pros
* You save a huge amount of money per month from not having to pay for gas, insurance, maintenance, and a car payment. Right now as a car owner I’m shelling out $400 a month total, in comparison with the $80 I paid for my monthly system pass. That system pass is also a really great deal, because it offers you unlimited rides in a service area that stretches 30 miles north to south and 40 miles east to west. I would often hop down to Dallas “for free” on weeknights since I was already getting my money’s worth commuting to and from work.

* You get to sit back and relax while someone else drives you to your destination, leaving you free to read a book, catch up on emails, or just take in the scenery and people-watch.

* DART trains often run parallel to major highways and have their own segregated right-of-way, so you can zip on to your destination and completely bypass the gridlock and accidents.

* If you’re heading downtown, you never have to worry about finding and paying for available parking. I understand there’s actually too much parking in downtown Dallas, but it’s always stressed me out so I prefer to be dropped off by the train in a central location and go from there.

* Getting to the DFW airport, which itself is halfway to Fort Worth, is a breeze with the Orange line that drops you off right outside security at Terminal A. No need to fight traffic around the clusterf*** of highways around the airport, pay exorbitant tolls just to drive through the airport, shell out half your ticket price to pay for parking, and then ride multiple shuttle buses to get to the terminal!

* You’re making other drivers’ lives easier by taking a car off the road. Remember, “you are not stuck in traffic; you are traffic.”

* You’re ~saving the environment~.

* You’re getting exercise and fresh air by walking to and from the bus stop.

Carless in Dallas
Watch out for the mistletoe!
Cons
* You’re confined to doing life within the DART service area, so if you want to visit a friend who lives in a suburb that doesn’t have any transit to speak of or need to run to see a doctor who operates in Frisco, for example, you’re straight out of luck. Thankfully DART has been partnering with Uber and Lyft to make it easy to transfer from the train to a rideshare, and you can also buy tickets to continue on to Denton or Fort Worth’s bus systems, but challenges remain.

* Even within the DART service area, you’ll still come across “transit deserts” that have no bus or train access to speak of for miles around, like north central Dallas or far northern Plano. This can be extremely annoying because there’s literally no way you can get around in these areas outside of walking or biking.

* Bus services drops off to a trickle midday and on weekends. I remember just barely missing a Saturday morning bus in my neighborhood that heads out to the nearest train station, but since it comes around only once an hour on the weekends, I ended up just walking directly to the light rail stop since it was faster to do that than wait for the next bus. And if you’re trying to run errands at, say, 11 in the morning on a Tuesday, forget about it because you’ll be sitting around for up to an hour for the next bus to swing by.

* You’re continually stressed out about not missing your once-every-half-hour bus or whether your tight transfer window will get screwed up due to the late bus or if the the bus that’s normally five minutes late shows up to the bus stop five minutes early and screws you over.

Carless in Dallas
Not too shabby for an evening commute, eh?
* The vast majority of the buses I rode on arrived within five minutes of their scheduled time, but on rare occasions this skyrocketed to 15 minutes past schedule. One time I even got on a bus that I thought was right on time but was actually the earlier bus running half an hour late. I recognize that most of this is due to factors outside the bus driver’s control like traffic, riders with never-ending drama, folks in wheelchairs that have to wait for the ramp to flip out, etc., but it would help to increase frequency to account for this.

* There was this one time I went to get my teeth cleaned in Richardson and wanted to grab coffee (shh…don’t tell my dentist) at a café a 10-minute drive away, but Google Maps was telling me the whole trip was gonna be an hour and a half ordeal with two transfers…so I just said “screw it” and took a Lyft. I know DART can’t be everywhere, but at least having routes on all major arterial streets would be a step forward.

* Just try to imagine buying groceries for a family of four and dragging all those bags from Walmart with you onto the bus and then walking home with that. Yikes.

In sum, I think it’s really a “choose your poison” type of situation that we’ve got here. Since most of our communities in America are utterly unwalkable, you’ve got to choose between paying out the wazoo for the convenience that a car offers versus saving loads of money but having to rely on bus routes that are few and far between.

Conclusion

Carless in Dallas
These shade trees saved my life this summer
My experience living without a car in suburban Dallas showed me that it is, indeed, possible to use public transit in this city to get around, although often it’s not really practical. Still, I think embracing a minimalist, car-free lifestyle would be do-able if I lived closer to downtown where there are many more bus routes (and where the buses come by more frequently).

Do you drive, ride the bus, bike, or walk to get around where you live? What’s the public transit situation in your hometown? Share your experiences below in the comments section!
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...