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Car-dependent Dallas Seeks New, Sustainable Transportation Options
by Bradley B. • April 30, 2019

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Transportation Trends in Dallas, Texas

In many cities across the United States, it’s difficult to live without a car. Fortunately, a burgeoning world of new mobility options—from ride-hailing to car sharing—are giving rise to more pleasant, sustainable approaches to transportation. Of course, it’s not equally easy for every city to become walkable and less car-dependent. Consider Dallas, Texas—a city of 1.4 million people and a maze of elevated highways.

Governing.com reported that between 2015 and 2016 the number of households without a car decreased in Dallas from 10.2 to 9.1 percent. In fact, based on the percentage of trips by car, Dallas is one of the two most car-dependent major metropolitan areas in the United States, as reported by The Guardian.

It’s not that Dallas is immune from emerging global transportation trends, such as electric cars, shared mobility, and new forms of vehicle ownership. But the city is dominated by large highways, including the infamous stretch of elevated highway known as Interstate 345 that connects two major highways. It also splinters downtown Dallas from the Deep Ellum neighborhood known for entertainment venues, cocktail bars, and Tex-Mex eateries.

There’s also the Mix Master highway exchange that was considered one of the most congested roadways in Texas. The so-called Horseshoe Project improved the traffic flow of the Mix Master. And campaigns are underway to tear down 345 and replace it with public spaces and parks. But change takes time.

Rethinking Public Transit

Ironically, a century ago Dallas had an extensive network of streetcars. Three thriving streetcar companies operated in the city—with more than 300 cars effectively transporting local residents. The idea was to connect the city with growing suburbs. But with the rise of the automobile in the 1950s, the tracks were dismantled—literally paving the way for sprawl and increased use of private cars.

Today, the Center for Neighborhood Technology estimates that more than 42 percent of Dallas households are underserved by public transit. Moreover, it’s a highly un-walkable city. Besides being ungodly hot in many months of the year, the lack of sidewalks in many neighborhoods and the elevated highways are inhospitable to pedestrians.

These problems persist despite a steady effort by Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) to expand light rail. The system of nearly 100 miles has made some gains in popularity and can be credited with a boom in residential living in downtown Dallas. Nonetheless, most people in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area don’t have easy access to the light-rail system.

Similarly, the 800 miles’ worth of bicycle routes maintained by the city is a welcome alternative. But it’s hardly put a dent in the city’s reliance on the automobile.

It’s particularly problematic for low-income families, which seldom live near public transit. In families where more than one person needs to get work at the same time, it can require putting two or more cars in the driveway. That’s a non-trivial expense, especially when you consider fuel, insurance, and maintenance costs—as much as one-third of household income.

Use an App

The bottom line is that most Dallas residents need a car for many types of trips. Uber and Lyft—both operating in the city—can be a godsend. But it’s unlikely to be an economical solution to replace the 10,000-plus miles of trips that we commonly take in a car. Even though AAA determined that Dallas residents pay the lowest ride-hailing rates among America’s 20 busiest cities, completely relying on Uber and Lyft can cost about $17,000 a year.

That’s nearly three times the estimated cost of owning a small sedan. “For those who travel a very limited number of miles annually, or have mobility issues that prevent them from driving a personal vehicle, ride-hailing can be a viable and important option,” said John Nielsen, AAA’s managing director of automotive engineering and repair. “But for everyone else, the car is still king.”

As the Dallas Observer wryly explained in 2014: “We’re not a city that likes to build anything that would be easily accessible by non-cars. Sidewalks are an afterthought. Pedestrians are treated with suspicion. Cyclists are reviled by both drivers and pedestrians.”

Access Rather than Dependence

As with many cities across the country, downtown neighborhoods with high walkability are coveted by Millennials. That can bring economic revitalization to downtown areas, spurring development of new businesses.

However, city planners in North Texas have not supported the economic potential of greater urban density and other alternatives to private cars. The proposed $135 billion Mobility 2045 Plan for North Texas allocates about 58 percent of the money to pave highways and city streets. In other words, more of the same. According to the Texas Tribune, less than 3 percent of the $42.9 billion in federal and state transportation money in the plan goes to support pedestrians and bicyclists. Less than 1 percent will be applied to public transit.

Between now and 2045, the broader North Texas region is expected to grow from 7.2 million to 11.2 million people. Unfortunately, the growth in population will expand suburban Collin and Denton counties, which will likely see expanded highways and toll roads. Meanwhile, Dallas County—which represented 46 percent of the region’s population in 1990—is expected to fall to about 30 percent by 2045. The trend suggests greater migration away from downtown areas.

Fortunately, it’s not an all-or-nothing proposition for Dallas residents wanting to maintain their access to transportation while reducing their dependence on the car (and the heavy associated costs). Alternatives such as car sharing and monthly car subscriptions are available in Dallas. These services include Zipcar for cars by the hour, Getaround for peer-to-peer car sharing by the day – and Canvas, which provides all-inclusive monthly subscriptions to automobiles.

Taking small, positive steps to reduce the cost of vehicle ownership is possible today—without necessarily waiting for entirely new modes of mobility to fully emerge in cities like Dallas.