Thursday, January 6, 2011

Reader Rant

Published with permission of the emailing author (emphasis in bold is mine). Warning potent levels of profundity herein:

Happy New Year!

Let me begin by saying I have been reading your blog for more than a year now, and found it very useful when preparing for my PhD qualifying exams. I've moved to Dallas a couple of years ago to begin my doctoral work in humanities. Of course, the lady who approved the student visa back in my home country could not help but smile when I told her I am focusing on aesthetic studies in Texas. Anyhow long story short after about 7 years of studying and working in the north-east including NY, Washington, Philly...I ended up here in Dallas. It's been about 2 years and a half since the day I landed.

I never had a car, I never owned a car. I've never had a license, not in the US, not back in Europe. I "survived" Dallas for two years commuting up and down from Plano to Downtown and Irving by bus, train, shuttle, etc. I "survived" the long transfer waiting periods between bus and train. Many times this waiting extended up to two hours in 110 degree heat, because one bus driver decided to talk a bit more on his cell. Other times the bus system seems to work according to what kind of cigarettes a driver smokes. 100s of course burn slower so pose the risk of the passenger not catching his/her connection, menthols however will take one to the transfer point in time. That new function on the DART website that tells you where your bus is makes me laugh in the light of all this. And of course I cannot help but bitterly smile and remember how annoyed I used to get back when I lived in Berlin...annoyed by their perfect public transportation knowing that if the clocks on a train platform would announce a 3.49 minute wait, then it would be 3.49 minute, no more nor less.

I have walked miles, hundreds I might honestly say all around DFW, the last long walk being last week from South Irving downtown. One of my weekly walks now is from White Rock Lake area to Mockingbird Station...plainly put, a distance greater than between Union and Times Square...a totally walkable distance in NY yet made more miserable by all the parking lots and non-spaces in between here in suburbia.
I learned a lot about this city just by walking. I feel I know it better than probably the born and raised here. I know the city because while others were driving by at 40 or 65 mph, I had the time to stop, and look around. I had the time to walk around a corner, a passage, etc. Hard to play the part of a flaneur in Dallas, when there are no people to watch.

I have tried biking around, but since I am not a pro I found it more dangerous than walking. On the other hand while walking for pleasure around White Rock I have encountered dozens of Lance Armstrongs who, with their $3000 bikes, disregard pedestrians completely. Walking around I have also pondered over the absurdity of some biking laws. Why do I have to ride my bike close to the curb, and not on the sidewalk in a residential area when most of the time those sidewalks are completely empty? Yet why around White Rock the mix use lane has turned into a race track, when there are more people walking around than on any street? (ed. note: this gets at my point that cyclists need adequate infrastructure within the street network)

So in the end it wasn't the walking through nowhere, heading nowhere, it wasn't the fact I was waiting in cold or dead heat for a bus that might never come, or the smells on these buses, it's not the fact DART is an expert when it comes to making transfers feel like time spent in limbo, In the end it was the people and their lack of public transportation education. The ones who have no clue how to make use of the whole train car, the ones who piss on the buses, the ones who will threaten to punch you in the face when you ask them to take a step or two forward in the middle of the car where there's plenty of space, etc. It was also the bikers who disregard the pedestrians, and cars alike. (ed. note: we're all animals in a zoo and we behave based on expectations and rules set forth for us, transportation included)

After ten years in the United States and two and a half in Dallas I called it quits. I received my license three weeks ago and am looking forward to close myself in a steel box on wheels to merrily speed up and down the highway. I am ready to feel the American freedom by becoming dependent on oil (ed. note: delicious use of irony). Every day heading to school I am going to repeat to myself that "spending $5000 on a clunker, spending another 2000 on insurance, and hundreds on gas..." (probably my entire scholarship) is part of the "merican dream, of the precious freedom that might be taken from me by officials who want to support public alternatives of transportation.
In other words I will begin playing the part of the mythological stubborn asshole American patriot for a few years until I can make it out of Dallas, until I can return to a city where pedestrians, cars, and bicyclists kinda work organically in peace. (ed. note: see why we're losing people? In car culture, you are not free. People, especially exceptional and talented people, like those getting PhD's want real freedom.)
Off the top of my head: New York since I've been living there. I will of course not begin comparing US cities to European ones.
Hopefully I will survive the car experience, as I will encounter other types of asshole bastards. But it is a new adventure. Yes I already hate driving, I hate not being able to read a book or work on my dissertation on the TRE, and I hate this feeling of emptiness that I was suddenly aware of going up I 75 (also my first time driving by myself on a freeway). I already miss the contact with people on the train, I miss being able to read their worries, or make up stories about them, but I don't miss the fear of potentially getting in an argument, or fight, along with different rotten smells. Here's a suggestion for the DART. Replace all the seats on the buses with plastic ones or thinly draped ones, just like in European buses or trams. Cushioned seats are sponges, they will contain the spit, piss, germs and crap of others. Replace the damn seats and people won't feel like traveling on an outhouse on wheels.

Anyhow I don't know where I am heading with this, oh yes driving. I am looking forward to drive to places I couldn't walk, to drive beyond the red, green, and blue lines. I will lock myself in a gas guzzler, a metal box and experience mindless driving until people here will learn what "public transportation" should be. I once again bitterly smile watching that new Green Line DART commercial on TV, a slice of wishful thinking, of diversity, mix use, happy faces, etc...utopia at its best. Beyond the station names shown, and the extremely fit people getting on the train, there is an emptiness, parking lots, kiss and ride stations, pedestrian ways going nowhere, spaces sometimes too large to be covered by foot and quite limited in attractions.

I'll miss you DART, I'll miss you nonexistent sidewalk, I'll miss you all, characters on the buses. Now I will be the one oddly watching pedestrians crossing the street. Now I will get even fatter. Now I will experience the 'merican dream with doors locked and A/C on. See you all on the freeway heading I guess to a deserted landscape reaching beyond the horizon.

I'm going to focus my comments on the early bolded criticisms of DART from a truly seasoned transit rider.

Mass transit, perhaps like education, can be as good as we want it to be. The question is, do we?

Mass transit aids in creating and augments a functional city. We have a dysfunctional citywhere mass transit is ill-suited and therefore can look like a painful wasted investment... until the city adapts to its new bones, its infrastructure. Of course, those efforts are indeed wasted and undermined by continual propulsion of the insustainable, car culture. I don't mean that to say cars inherently are bad and nor do I declare war on them. I do however declare war on the misguided policies and subsidies that skew both argument and city.

Even with a city not built for mass transit, we could still better integrate bus lines and schedules with trains. Whether this is true or not, it seems there has been little thought put towards buses acting as a feeder/circulator system for DART in an orderly, hierarchical fashion. The argument is surely, "people don't like to transfer." Sometimes the answer is tough sh!t. People also don't like 1)buses and 2)bus systems that are incomprehensible and untimely.

A bus system that does not work in subordination to the train system works against the fixed-alignment rail system. Instead it does two things:
1) It exists and operates catering to a sparse, car-oriented environment. By doing so, just driving seems like a preferable alternative, and

2) because of this, only those that have no other choice but to ride the bus, do so, which carries a certain stigma, further limiting ridership.
I'm not saying make all bus routes circulators, but many should be. There ought to be a hierarchy of routes. The highest order should be BRT or BRT similar, along primary corridors in dedicated lanes that potentially could become placeholders for modern streetcar (or not if the BRT is successful. Caveat: buses must be replaced every 3-5 years. Trains can last decades and decades, defeating the cost effectiveness of buses, especially if the natural gas to power the buses is garnered by firing garbage into the groundwater.). The rest should serve as spokes feeding the train lines which from an urban perspective, can carry more passengers and exist as more important centers (of gravity) - meaning more value.

Making bus routes to function as circulators thereby increasing "convergence" at station areas, thereby making land around stations more valuable, thereby increasing density within walking distance of station areas, thereby increasing ridership. Or is that 1) too logical and 2) too long-term?

Back to my original statement, how useful (successful) do we want the mass transit system that we voted for and spent money on to be? I'm reminded of Seattle mistakenly lumping bond initiatives for transit along with highway expansion in one vote. It failed. I'm reminded of China, pretending to be green, making bicycles illegal and building 40-, 50-, 60- lane roads.

This morning I was reminded of a study where people preferred a 20-minute commute. No more, no less. Long enough to decompress and transition in mindsets between home/work. Short enough as to not be oppressive. I remembered something I said at the Arts District round table event, "we have too much cooperation between cities. We could use a little more competition." Meaning, competition to be more walkable, more enjoyable, more economically functional in the way that cities were invented to facilitate.

Major cities tie the noose around their own neck allowing freeways within their boundaries. Vancouver, once ridiculed as backwards, now revered, never did. Allowing highways within the city is like jamming a straw into your heart to make it easier for the leaches. Those lucky enough to live in some of the excellent North and NE Dallas neighborhoods can have a 20-minute car commute, or they could not. It is entirely dependent upon the state of the highways, choked with suburbanites commuting in. The street network is dendritic, meaning everything funnels to the highways and there is very little choice, option, or adaptability in the system. Every accident or traffic backup, is a stroke to the city's economy.

We want to have our cake and eat it too. We want to tickle our bellies and pretend that cars somehow still = freedom and we're willing to drive off economic (and environmental AND social) cliffs to do so. But this cake is injected with oil. It tastes awful, is probably toxic, costs a boatload, and is the only thing on the menu. Customers keep walking out of the restaurant.

They're heading to others where they have some choice and can eat healthy if they so choose or not. That's the beauty of it, there is choice. New York, Portland, Seattle, Chicago, Boston, D.C., all cities 1) still in U.S., thereby gas prices are still held artificially low, 2) destinations for many many talented individuals, and 3) where you can have a car... or not. It is your choice. And doesn't choice = freedom?