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