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Why Public Transit Needs to Be Part of the Teardown Conversation

Forgive me if I dive into the recent past for a quick diatribe. I’ve been out of town for a week, and after arriving back in Dallas from the gut-punching landscape of central Wyoming — via a soul-sucking drive down 114 from the northern Fort Worth suburbs through such bucolic havens of American life as Southlake, Grapevine, Las Colinas, and Irving — something jumped out in a Jim Schutze column from last week:

“Of course people should be free to live where they want to live in the way they want to live,” Schutze wrote in reaction to this Dallas Morning News report about the failure of DART to increase ridership despite 35 years of heavy investment. “But they should have to pay the true price for their lifestyle. At the very least those of us who live in cities should not go on paying subsidies to prop up raw land sprawl, which is pretty much what DART and free highways have become.”

And there, in the typical brevity and clarity that is Schutze when he is at his best, is the nut graph to the entire conflict of opinions that has unfolded over the past few months as we debate all sorts of road issues, from teardowns to construction stoppages to off ramps to South Dallas to Arlington. Too often this debate has reached an impasse when the values of two not necessarily conflicting, but often cannibalistic development models are defended. Regional-minded development has created the North Texas of today, a vibrant, growing, successful, and increasingly unsustainable economic zone. Downtown has become little more than just another commercial development located at an interstate exchange growing out of the skeleton of what once was an urban center. The central city is a version of suburbia, its residents reliant on a patchwork of commutes that zig-zag hither tither to wherever a company happened to locate.

There is no need to undo the successes of sprawl, but as Schutze points out, those successes have been propped up by the disinvestment in Dallas itself. For sixty years, the region has ruled. The results are clear: population loss in Dallas (excluding Uptown), migrating jobs, a stagnated Southern sector. The Dallas Morning News outlines the cost in their Future Dallas project: rising poverty, income inequality, floundering city services.

You might say who cares? After all, why do Dallas dwellers continually harp on the suburbs when the ‘burbs have driven the region’s growth. Most of us have jobs here precisely because of the model that is driven by that ‘raw land sprawl,’ and it continues to attract companies. So what if Dallas is little more than a potholed, slightly denser southern suburb to the city of “I-635-Dallas North Tollway Interchange-ia?”

The problem is this dismissive attitude is underwritten by a provincialism that doesn’t place high enough esteem in the value – economic, social, political – of urbanity. The idea of the city these days is too often associated with a kind of designer lifestyle, which is as much a byproduct of how new urban development is branded – what Mark Lamster coined as “bro-chitecture” – as it is of the reality that real urban life hasn’t really existed in Dallas since the late-1950s. In Dallas, we only see the gains of sprawl, while its costs remain invisible.

When we get lost in the details of the debate – tear down this road, don’t built this road – we can lose sight of the fundamental problem facing Dallas. North Texas may be successful, but it is unsustainable. Suburban development can drive growth, but it does so in a tremendously inefficient way when compared to urban development. And the politics of the region are skewed toward perpetuating the status quo. Dallas has made too many mistakes in its own efforts to redevelop, too often opting for suburb-like solutions in the city rather than holding ground and investing intelligently in things like creating a real public transit system.

In the context of this debate, public transit needs a stronger voice. DART plays its role as a commuter rail network, but it is built out to capacity. If we are really trying to develop a future Dallas that can anchor the region, then Dallas needs a better transit system. And there is no reason why those who support tearing down inner city highways and those who are fighting for the southern sector should not be aligned on this.