Public transit: the problem is you

Breathless talk on local news stations about the latest proposal to address Dallas transit woes: a downtown streetcar.

My first inclination is to get breathless along with those news anchors, seeing as I’m an easily pleased public transit geek. Who doesn’t love a streetcar? They induce nostalgia, cut down on greenhouse gas emissions and cost less to build than either subways or overground trains. The M-Line streetcar, connecting Dallas’ Uptown with the city’s arts district, is a charming ride. Too bad that when I rode it, I was one of just two people on board.

And as you might expect, reaction to an M-Line extension has been generally positive. “I think it’s the most exciting thing that’s happened in the 15 years that I’ve lived in Dallas,” Martha-Allison Blewer, a Dallas Museum of Art docent, told the local NBC affiliate.

But to know whether the streetcar will solve Dallas’ transit woes, first we need to agree on what those woes are. We can do that, right? Let’s ask Marlo Snerling, a nurse attending a conference at the Meyerson Symphony Center.

Marlo, what’s the problem with downtown Dallas? “It’s very congested, and it’s hard to find parking, and when you do find parking, it’s expensive,” Snerling told NBC.

Expensive. In that word I hear hopes for downtown regeneration fading into the distance, like the clanging of a trolley bell. Why? Because – recession or no – Dallas parking is not expensive by any reasonable measure. Last time I met a friend for lunch downtown, I paid for her parking. It was $3. The cheeky lady could have left her car in the lot all day, and you know what? It still would have been $3.

The idea that parking is hard to find is just as laughable. Lots are abundant (which is no doubt why the price floor has been pushed down to $3). Every few minutes as you walk the downtown grid, an achingly empty square of tar opens before you like the missing tooth in a gappy smile. I have never seen anything like it: not in New York, Boston, Washington, D.C.,  San Francisco, Chicago, London, Paris or in any other major city that I’ve visited or lived in.

This is not city living, folks. If you want more parking spaces that you could possibly fill, for less than a sack of chicken nuggets, that is what suburbia is for (not that I am terribly inclined to preserve that institution). If you want a downtown befitting the nation’s seventh-biggest metropolis, then face it – we need less parking, not more. We need public transit that will displace drivers, and we need to start filling those gaps in with the kind of institutions that make a community: mixed-income housing, grocery stores, pharmacies, movie theaters, offices for start-ups, meeting spaces.

I feel a bit bad laying into poor Marlo, who after all was telling the reporter why she’d like a streetcar. But I think her words express the dilemma with pushing public transit on a car-addicted populace: that those inclined to see inconvenience will never set foot on a bus, a train or a charming little trolley. Part of me is afraid the trolley will never be built. Part of me is afraid it will, and then cruise the streets near-empty, except for a few transit geeks like me.

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