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September 6, 2012
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Two weeks on the bus

What I learned about commuters, local riders, DART and the disconnect

By Chad Taylor

Why don’t people use the bus in Des Moines? When that question was first posed to me, the assumption seemed simple — because Des Moines isn’t that kind of city.

But the facts prove otherwise. According to totals from the last fiscal year, DART (Des Moines Area Regional Transit) posted an annual ridership of 4.6 million. This puts the Des Moines metro area on par with cities like Tallahassee, Fla. (4.8 million) and Omaha, Neb. (4.2 million). In other words — despite a common misconception to the contrary — people are riding the bus, and they are doing so at a rate that generally exceeds that of cities of a similar size. They’re just doing so in a very specific manner.

DART’s map representing an internal census of current weekday ridership. Routes are being altered to better service existing riders.

While most large cities have comprehensive, expansive public transportation systems designed to make it easy for citizens to get to almost any destination they choose quickly and efficiently, DART runs on a different plan. DART isn’t inefficient for cross-town travelers because it sucks. It’s inefficient for cross-town travelers because it’s designed to do one thing really well: get people downtown.

“The uninformed naively assume that mass transit is primarily for those who have no other means of getting around,” said Desiree Effner of Des Moines. “But such is not the case. Mass transit exists primarily for 8-5 commuters.”

Effner and her husband moved to Des Moines from Oregon last March. Having dealt with the public transportation system in Portland, the Effners were familiar with how a citywide transportation system can run. When they arrived in Des Moines, they were surprised by a transportation system that Desiree sees as overly commuter-centric.

“People wanting to go to a store or doctor a couple miles away have to travel all the way downtown just to get a bus back out to where they need to go,” she said. “A quick, 20-minute errand for a private vehicle owner becomes a two- to three-hour trip for a bus rider.”

She added that while DART focuses more on streamlining its commuter-centric lines — making trips downtown faster and more efficient — it does so at the cost of the low-income, elderly and disabled riders who rely on the bus to get to the store.

“When you have to depend on (the bus), you see these things,” she urged.

Let’s say you live in West Des Moines and work for Principal. Three express routes leave from West Des Moines that will get you downtown in less than 45 minutes. Returning home is the same deal. The commuter express routes are fast, efficient, clean and safe. In fact, riding any route — express or local — to get downtown is a relatively painless affair. The ride from the newly-remodeled Franklin Avenue Library to Walnut Street takes about 16 minutes.

Gunnar Olson addresses a room full of DART users at a Central Library open house meeting on May 22. Photo by Amber Williams

However, if you’re trying to get from one point in the outlying areas, such as Beaverdale, to another point in an outlying area (one of the malls, for example), you’re in for a long wait and a lot of frustration because you must ride downtown to transfer. One of the inherent difficulties of a “hub and spoke” routing system, such as the one employed by DART, is in getting busses to be at the same place at the same time. If you are heading down to Walnut Street to catch a transfer out to the fairgrounds or Jordan Creek Towncenter, you’re very likely to find yourself standing downtown, waiting for a second bus to arrive — sometimes for as long as 45 minutes.

Ditching the drive for DART

In an effort to better understand what taking the bus in Des Moines was like, I parked my car for two weeks and did as much of my daily traveling as possible via DART. Before I even began, it was apparent that much of the support system I’d come to expect from my experience in other cities — such as when I lived in Seattle, Wash. — was not in place here. The DART website, for example, has no trip planner function for plotting multiple-route trips across town. Additionally, if you’re standing at a stop waiting for a bus and don’t have a schedule on you, the only way to know when the next bus is set to arrive is to call customer service. Finding route information is much easier in Seattle, because each and every stop has the relevant information posted right there on the pole marker, regardless of whether the stop is serviced by five routes or just one.

Once I started riding the bus, DART’s deficiencies as a means of accomplishing most daily tasks became even more apparent. In most cases, the bus rides were quick, and the buses were clean, safe and driven capably. However, in each instance, transfer times, waits between buses at a single location and inadequate scheduling bogged things down. A trip to the bank — one bus, no transfers — took 58 minutes, not including the time it took to actually complete my transaction once I was there. It took a reasonable 15 minutes to arrive at Principal Park from Beaverdale for an I-Cubs game, after which I found myself needing a cab because the last bus back home had left an hour prior.

Perhaps the strongest example of the commuter/local rider difference was on the third day of my experiment when I decided to see what it would be like if I lived somewhere in the city and was employed at Jordan Creek Towncenter. As mentioned earlier, someone living in West Des Moines and working downtown can park at the Towncenter, catch an express bus in the morning and be to work in 45 minutes. To simulate a worker in the other direction, I caught the No. 5 bus at 44th Street and Franklin Avenue at 9 a.m. From there, I transferred to the No. 11 that took me out to Jordan Creek by way of Ingersoll Avenue.

Just as every time before, the trip downtown was a quick 14 minutes. Once there, however, I found that my No. 5 missed the westbound No. 11 by four minutes, and I had to wait for the next one which was expected to arrive in 45 minutes. After cooling my heels at Burger King for the better part of an hour, I boarded the No. 11 and began the trek out to West Des Moines. When it was all said and done, my trip from 44th and Franklin — 20 minutes by car — took one hour and 52 minutes.

DART answers back

Chad Taylor experienced a 45-minute wait at some bus stops in the metro. Photo by Darren Tromblay

In his role as DART’s Public Information Officer, Gunnar Olson knows that his employer isn’t perfect.

“DART is good,” he said, sitting over a stack of papers at Java Joes one morning. “But it needs to be better.”

Exactly how it gets better is where the debate lies. Among DART’s short- and intermediate-term plans are efforts to address some of the secondary concerns noted. For example: A trip planner has just finished its testing period and should be integrated into the website soon; DART is also readying changes to bus stops that will include route information, and there’s a smart phone app in development that will track buses in real time; and, of course, DART’s new, state-of-the-art main station will soon become operational downtown.

Bus riders in certain neighborhoods should also know that DART is either reducing or outright eliminating non-peak service to several routes throughout the metro starting in November. Among the routes affected are the Nos. 5, 11 and 3, which collectively service the Franklin Avenue library, Drake neighborhood and Merle Hay Mall, as well as any Hoover High School and Meredith Middle School students living on the No. 5 line.

Sitting in the coffee shop, Olson showed me a map of the current bus routes, all pockmarked with small green circles, each one representing where a bus rider got on or off.

“This is one of the early parts of a study we conducted where we had people on buses actually counting passengers. It was an all-encompassing type of survey,” he said, drawing my attention to the No. 5.

“The vast majority of ridership (on the route) is between 42nd and downtown,” he said, pointing to a portion of the route that’s nearly solid green. “Nothing against the people in Windsor Heights — that’s where I live — but the ridership up here isn’t as great.”

He pointed out the No. 11 line.

“Route 11 is going to be a peak-only service from here to here,” he said, again indicating an area from 42nd Street to downtown. “In fact, the original proposal was to cut (the line) altogether. But we heard from people, and the decision was made that there was enough ridership to justify (keeping) it, but not all day.”

Critics aren’t convinced

That justification is at the heart of DART’s decision-making process. Just like any other entity, be it non-profit, public works or private business, DART only has so much money to work with. In fiscal year 2012, that budget was $22 million, and each bus that goes through a whole route nearly empty is money that could be spent making a more popular route faster or more efficient.

“(DART) is a taxpayer-subsidized service,” Olson said, noting that roughly 60 percent of DART’s budget comes from state and federal monies. “So we owe it to everyone to use that money efficiently. If one person is going to an obscure (stop), how long do you run that bus?”

Ehren D. Stover-Wright, Ph.D., of the Iowa Institute for Community Alliances, sees the issue not as one of efficient monetary application but of social contract. He argues that DART is receiving state tax money, so it should be obligated to service as many of the city’s taxpayers as possible rather than simply making the popular routes better and the slower routes go away.

“These changes to the local routes signify that DART has given up on the idea of Des Moines ever being a world-class city,” Stover-Wright argued. “Major cities have buses that not only supply commuters but enable people to get to other public services like libraries.”

If the issue is strictly one of money spent, Stover-Wright offers a unique solution.

“Most city officials have cars provided to them by the city or county government, but if all government officials found they did not have publicly-funded private cars, but instead they had unlimited bus passes, suddenly our public transportation would be a much higher priority,” he asserted. “I’ll bet there would be a sudden abundance of political will to get routes and schedules that meet the needs of the populous. And if those fleets of cars were sold and their maintenance costs returned to the coffers, there would be the finances to fund it.”

The other issue that DART’s critics have with the current plan is more abstract. They suggest that the route changes have been made with an eye toward current ridership and without considering that more people may ride the bus if comprehensive routes were provided. One way to do that would be to switch from Des Moines’ current hub-and-spoke routing to a grid-style system similar to larger cities. It’s an argument, however, that Olson says is not only unfounded but impractical.

“Des Moines isn’t ready for a grid system,” he said, adding that DART’s decisions have been made after an intense internal census of route traffic and public need surveys.

“What we heard from people time and again through questionnaires and surveys over the past two years was ‘more frequency.’ So we are greatly reducing wait times on several routes,” he said.

It should be noted again that the things DART does well, it does very well. Downtown commuters can choose not to drive a car to work and will likely still make it on time. In the two weeks that I gave up my vehicle, I found the buses to be reliable methods of getting downtown, regardless of time of day or where I started. Knowing what I know now, with my car keys back in my pocket and my monthly pass expired, I’ll probably continue to use the bus for many trips downtown if for no other reason than to avoid the plights of parking.

But the hub-and-spoke system carries with it some basic, inherent flaws. DART has plans in place to experiment with a more hybrid-style operation in coming years, which will allow for some lines to transfer passengers at locations besides the downtown hub, but most riders will still be forced to take a ride that is sometimes miles out of their way.

What I’m left with now is a feeling of conflict. It’s easy to understand the position DART is in: There’s only so much money in the budget, and expanding service in hopes of attracting more daily riders is an expensive gamble at the cost of current wait times; but at the same time, isn’t it the obligation of a city’s public transit programs to provide for as much of the public as possible? DART operates largely on public funds, and a service that leaves public libraries, public schools, community colleges and universities under-serviced, or not serviced at all, is failing the people who — while perhaps in the minority — need it the most.

I don’t know what the “right” answer is — or if there is any one answer that’s best. DART’s employees and its critics seem to disagree on the fundamental question of what DART’s main purpose is or whether the routes should focus more on providing greater service to more of the city or better service to the routes that are already generating income.

What everyone seems to agree upon, however, is that the upcoming changes are permanent.

Referring to the adjustments to the Nos. 3, 5 and 11 lines, Effner said, “We’ve lived in enough cities to know that when you take something away, you don’t give it back.”

And by the sounds of it, she’s probably right.

“Look at the numbers again,” Olson said. “There’s just not the ridership there to support putting those lines back.” CV

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