One Metro, Three Vastly Different Approaches to Public Transit

What three cities in the Dallas-Fort Worth metro area can teach us about the outcomes of transit access and coverage.

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Courtesy: DART

The Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington metropolitan area is home to nearly 6.4 million residents, the fourth largest metro area in the country. But what makes the Metroplex especially interesting is the disparate ways its three principal cities handle transit.

Dallas, the nation’s ninth largest city, operates the Dallas Area Rapid Transit Authority (DART). DART levies a 1 percent sales tax in 13 member cities across four counties to operate five rail lines and around 140 bus lines. Those communities approved the tax via referendum - an example of metros practicing transportation self-help - and created the country’s largest light rail network.

Fort Worth, the country’s 16th largest city, supports the Fort Worth Transportation Authority (The T). The T also uses a regional model, albeit limited to a single county, financed through a referendum-based half-cent sales tax. The T operates one rail route and over 40 bus routes.

Arlington is the 50th largest city in America, home to the Texas Rangers and the Dallas Cowboys. It also has the honor of being the largest city in America to not support transit service. Outside of some commuter rail stops in the northern portion of the city, fixed route transit service is nonexistent.

What we have are three distinct approaches and attitudes towards public transportation. We've got big spending, regional service; locally-funded, county-based service; and absence. How do these approaches shape their city’s ability to connect residents and jobs?

Using Brookings’ transit performance database, we analyzed how many working-age people live within three-quarters mile of a transit stop (coverage). Of those people who can reach transit, we calculated the share that can reach their jobs within 90 minutes (access). In addition to the three cities, I added the Dallas suburbs for a bit of comparison, although the access rate reflects access to all Dallas metropolitan jobs, not just those in the suburbs. For more information about these statistical methods, go here.

Place Working Age Population Coverage Access*
Dallas 830,709 97.7 percent 73.6 percent
Fort Worth 413,538 78.9 percent 42.9 percent
Arlington 254,6711 4.3 percent 2.8 percent
Suburbs 2,609,715 29.2 percent 16.1 percent

* Access statistics for the cities reflect jobs reachable within the same city, while suburban access is jobs reachable throughout the entire metropolitan area. 

These divergent approaches to transit certainly lead to different results:

  • Almost all Dallas city residents can board a fixed transit route, and once they board a bus or train they can reach nearly three-quarters of jobs in the city. If the city of Dallas was its own metro area then both its coverage and access stats would rank first among all 100 metropolitan areas. Clearly, Dallas’ financial commitment to DART created a system that truly connects the city.
  • Fort Worth trails Dallas, but The T’s routes still cover nearly four in five working-age residents. And while the access rate is over 30 percentage points below Dallas, it’s still higher than 87 other metropolitan areas.
  • Arlington barely registers at all. This is an achievement in itself since it relies on the Dallas and Forth Worth-funded TRE commuter rail line.

These performances show that a coordinated investment in transit can pay dividends for a local labor market. Dallas' performance is especially notable since DART’s transit vote is less than three decades old and stands to improve as new investments come online in the coming years. Conversely, Arlington’s transportation choices may save money on the public ledger, but they also force most residents to access a car, and nearly 4,000 Arlington households that don’t have access to a vehicle.

So what do these three cities’ performances tell us about metro-wide connectivity? Even with excellent city statistics out of Dallas and Fort Worth, the Metroplex still performed near the bottom of our 100-metro rankings. Including all three cities and the 2.6 million working-age residents in the suburbs, the Metroplex ranked 77th in coverage and 88th in job access.

The chief culprits are Arlington and suburban inaction. Omitting transit service for well over half of the population and jobs creates too many holes in the metropolitan transit network.

And this situation isn’t unique to the Metroplex. When it comes to judging metro transit performance, we need to move beyond agency-specific thinking. It’s why great core transit systems in Chicago and Philadelphia or far-reaching commuter rail in Boston and San Francisco are not enough to achieve high performance for the entire metro area. In many cases, our metro areas have grown so far geographically that many communities simply don’t participate in transit programs, or if they do the regional connections are inadequate.

So, before complaining about transit agency performance, it might be more accurate to look at communities around the region that fail to pull their weight.

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