The Public Purpose
Number 50 - 20 July 2002

Dallas Transit Down, Car-Pooling, Telecommuting Up:
Implications for Urban Transport Policy

Dallas: Transit Share and Ridership Drop Despite Opening $1 Billion in New Rail Lines


During the 1990s, Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) opened three new light rail lines and one new commuter rail line. DART has pursued a successful public relations strategy to portray the new lines as a success, to the point that the system is being cited internationally as a model. The local monopoly daily newspaper, The Dallas Morning News, has been uncritically complimentary of DART’s rail system in both its editorial and news pages. Local transit officials and editorial writers have commented on the role that DART’s rail system has played in attracting people out of their cars. By 2000, 30 miles of line were in operation.



The Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF), relying on the work of Thomas A. Rubin and Wendell Cox has raised questions about the effectiveness of the DART rail system. For example, TPPF Senior Fellow Wendell Cox has estimated that the DART light rail system removed so few automobiles from the road that the natural growth rate would have replaced the reduction within nine days.[1]


Transit Losses: It came as some surprise to local transit officials and the media[2] when 2000 Census journey to work data[3] showed that both transit’s journey to work market share and the number of commuters using transit had dropped in the areas served by the rail lines.[4]


  • All light rail stations open in 2000 were in the city of Dallas. Transit journey to work ridership dropped 4,000 in the city from 1990 to 2000. Transit’s market share (share of total employment) dropped 17.9 percent.


  • All commuter rail stations open in 2000 were in Dallas County, and the main terminus (Union Station) is in the city. Thus, all light rail and commuter rail stations were within Dallas County. Transit journey to work ridership dropped 3,199 in the county from 1990 to 2000. Transit’s market share (share of total employment) in the county dropped 16.2 percent.


  • In the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex outside Dallas County, transit journey to work use actually increased, from 6,500 to 8,800, though market share dropped 5.9 percent. However, transit use outside Dallas County is miniscule, at 0.6 percent of the 1,500,000 employees.


  • Overall, transit use dropped 700 in the Metroplex, and transit’s work trip market share dropped 23.0 percent.


Longer Term Transit Trends: The transit losses of the 1990s are a continuation of the 1980s trends. Transit's journey to work market share fell in Dallas County from 5.3 percent in 1980 to 3.6 percent in 2000, a drop of 33 percent. This is particularly significant because of the large investment that has been made by local taxpayers in transit. In 1983, voters in the DART district (generally Dallas County) approved sales tax funding to expand transit and build the rail system, the latter to be built without federal funding. In fact, federal funding is being used, and the rail system has been reduce considerably in length due to cost overruns. Bus service was expanded more than 100 percent, and a comprehensive express bus network provides service from most of the area to downtown. The local tax has generated more than $4.5 billion (not inflation adjusted), yet transit's competitive position is considerably less than before the DART tax. This leads to two conclusions. The first is that, despite a huge investment, little if any impact has been achieved and virtually no traffic congestion reduction (which was the principal promise in the 1983 referendum). The second is that, as noted below, transit principally serves only downtown and little transit competitive service is provided to elsewhere.


Car Pool Gains: The Dallas area was much more successful in attracting people out of their cars through car-pooling.


  • In the city of Dallas, 54 percent of new commuters used car pools, as use of that mode increased 19,600. This represents a 17.2 percent increase in market share. By comparison, driving alone represented only 47.9 percent of new commuting. This is a stunning accomplishment, and may represent the most successful diversion of new commuters away from driving alone during the last census period. For example, Portland’s anti-automobile, anti-urban sprawl (misleadingly labeled "smart growth") and transit rail policies were rewarded with more than two-thirds of new commuters choosing to drive alone. Seattle (King County), with what may be the nation’s most extensive HOV lane system also achieved substantial success, keeping the percentage new commuters driving alone to 48.7 percent, slightly more than that of Dallas.



  • Overall, car-pooling added 79,600 new users in the Metroplex, though the car pool market share gained only 1.0 percent. Driving alone accounted for 78.9 percent of new commuting, while only 14.4 percent were in car pools. 


Dallas’ success in attracting people into car pools may result from the addition of high-occupancy vehicle lanes (HOV) during the period on many of the area’s freeways. Approximately 35 miles of HOV lanes were opened, largely concentrated in the city of Dallas.


Working at Home Gains: Substantial gains were also made in telecommuting, or working at home in the Metroplex. Now more than 30,000 people work at home, a 31 percent market share increase from 1990.


Implications: The Dallas-Fort Worth data indicates that intense transportation investments do not necessarily encourage people to leave their cars at home.


  • The most expensive investments, urban rail lines, did nothing in Dallas to stem the historic transit market share losses. The addition of 30 miles of rail was associated with a loss of 3,100 commuters in Dallas County. This is not surprising, because virtually all-new US urban rail systems cost more to build and operate than it would to lease each a new car.[5] Besides the intensely high cost of rail systems, this inferior performance is driven by the fact that transit systems can only effectively serve downtown areas, while, on average, 90 percent of employment is no longer downtown.


  • More moderate investments, such as car pool lanes, appear to have paid off, so much so that more people started using car pools than driving alone in the city of Dallas, where the new HOV lanes were concentrated. The addition of approximately the same number of miles of HOV lanes was associated with a gain of 19,600 car pool riders in the city of Dallas. HOV lanes have two distinct advantages; they are less costly and by virtue of their movement of private automobiles, can provide an alternative to driving along throughout the downtown area, not just to downtown (which, even if cost were not a factor, would nonetheless render rail a strategy with little potential).


  • The least costly investment seems to have paid off the most. Working at home increased approximately 40 percent as much as car-pooling, and required virtually no government investment.


This suggests the following implications for public policy.


  • Less intense transport investments, such as HOV lanes are likely to be more successful, both because of their lower cost and their ability to serve the entire area, rather than just downtown. But HOV lanes are not enough. There is great potential for high-occupancy-toll networks (HOT Networks), as suggested by C. Kenneth Orski of the Urban Mobility Corporation and Robert Poole of the Reason Foundation. These lanes allow car-pools and transit buses (Bus Rapid Transit) to operate without charge, while charging people who drive alone a toll. Region wide HOT lanes would not only encourage more car-pooling, but they would make it possible for transit agencies to provide cost effective rapid transit service to virtually any location in the urban area (This would not reduce traffic congestion, but it would surely provide more transit service and more in mobility opportunity, see The Illusion of Transit Choice). Federally sponsored research has generally shown that bus rapid transit is one-fifth as costly as urban rail systems per passenger mile.[6]


  • There may be substantial potential for encouraging telecommuting. Gains in working at home were substantial around the nation. Market share increased more than 10 percent, and the number of people working at home increased 780,000, more than transit’s loss since 1970. Given the excessive cost of rail systems, it would make sense to establish a pilot program to provide financial incentives to companies and employees to work at home; using Federal Transit Administration funding that would otherwise be used to build the excessively costly and ineffective[7] new rail systems.

    [2] For the most part, the local media has failed to report on this story.

[4] For the purposes of this analysis, “working at home” is included in “commuting.”

[7] The “ineffectiveness” referred to here has to do with rail’s inability to reduce or moderate traffic congestion.

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