Gas prices, technology and job growth helped bump U.S. public transportation ridership up 2.3 percent in 2011. The increase was not limited to commuter-heavy areas like the Northeast. For instance, thanks to recent expansion, Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) saw a 32 percent surge in ridership for its light rail lines.
With 72 miles and three lines now open, DART boasts the longest light rail system in the country. It also has 19 more miles under construction and two sections opening this year. “We can’t build more fast enough,” says Gary Thomas, DART president and executive director. He attributes the need forin the Dallas area — now the fourth-largest Metropolitan Statistical Area — to a rapidly increasing population, sprawl and congested .
DART serves 13 cities and is funded by a 1 percent sales tax in those communities. In addition to light rail, DART also offers van pool, commuter rail and bus service — the busiest of the modes, which recorded nearly 37.5 million trips in 2011, a slight decrease from almost 38 million the year before.
The boost in rail ridership comes after two years of declines, from a high of 19.4 million in 2008 to 17.8 million in 2010. (National public transportation ridership similarly peaked in 2008 and declined in 2009 and 2010.) In December 2010, DART completed its $1.8 billion Green Line, which consists of 28 miles and 20 stations, and was funded by the sales tax, a $700 million grant from the Federal Transit Administration and $78.4 million in American Reinvestment and Recovery Act funds. The first section of the new Orange Line is scheduled to open in July and the second in December, along with a Blue Line expansion. DART is slated to have 90 miles of light rail and 63 stations by the end of 2013.
Aside from expanding service, DART’s aggressive marketing efforts have helped attract riders, says Rosemary Sheridan, a vice president with the American Public Transportation Association. DART rebuilt its website six months ago and offers a “travel agent” page that helps visitors and other riders coordinate trips. A mobile site allows riders to enter information for any bus and find the last reported location, next stop and any alerts. “Most people are intimidated by public transit,” Thomas says. “Our campaign is to let people know what they are doing.”
The site also has apps with the next scheduled train for each station, a stop locator and trip planner. If an incident occurs that is going to disrupt a trip, riders are notified by e-mail, Twitter and Facebook. “It’s amazing that in North Texas and Dallas, where people have said that we won’t get out of our trucks and cars, people are demanding those kinds of options,” Thomas says. “What’s obvious is that if you don’t give them a choice, they aren’t going to get out of their vehicles.”
Jennifer Grzeskowiak is a Laguna Beach, Calif.-based freelance writer.