09 June 2012

Public Transportation in Dallas (No, Seriously)

I’m not making this up, you know: The DART train.

Growing up in Dallas, I suffered as keenly from the lack of a drivers license as from my virginity: I could not be considered anything but a child until I had gotten one and lost the other, and in some ways the two conditions were linked. Wheels meant independence and freedom. Dallas possessed many attractions in those days, including opera, art galleries, and repertory cinemas, but in order to reach any of them, I had to hitch a ride with a friend — or, even more shamingly, with a friend’s mother.

In those days, there was no public transportation system to speak of, by which I mean that the scrawny system in place wasn’t much, and also that nice people didn’t speak of it. Buses were dilapidated, stopped only at out-of-the-way places, and took forever to reach their destinations — or so we were told, in whispers, by people who had braved the ride.

Now, returning to the city, I discover what once would have been unimaginable: a perfectly brilliant light-rail system that is swift, clean, reasonably priced, and wonderfully efficient — and evidently not much used. Even at rush hour, I had no trouble finding a seat while getting where I wanted to go. Using it instead of a rental car or the kindness of my friends (or their mothers), I even have traversed the suburbs and arrived in that fabled no-man’s land, Downtown Dallas, a place I hardly ever saw when I was growing up.

Take the A Train: Denton’s commuter line.

Oh, the twists of fate! The DART train stops just a few blocks from my parents’ last home, in Carrollton, and it connects to the Denton A train, which stops not far from my godsons’ home. It’s almost painful to think how much easier my visits might have been, when the boys were younger, if only the rail system had been in place then. The money I saved on rental cars might have put them both through college.

And how much easier my boyhood explorations of Dallas might have been, too! Not least because the DART trains boast one tremendous advantage: they run much more frequently, and longer hours, than does the Denton rail, which appears to have been designed exclusively for 9-to-5 commuters and not (for example) for midday shoppers or for tourists. The DART trains go places I actually want to go, and it’s somewhat astonishing to look out and see — for instance — the “grocery store” outpost of Herrera’s Mexican restaurant, just steps from the DART Inwood station.*

Continue along this same line, and you wind up in the West End, a newish development of ancient buildings in Downtown Dallas, with all manner of defunct warehouses and office buildings remodeled as cute little restaurants, pubs, and clubs. Downtown Dallas features any number of beautiful skyscrapers and quiet little parks, few of which existed when I was a boy, but generally the area confirms the old joke about other big cities: that they’d be so much nicer if there were no people. The streets are deserted, like something out of a Twilight Zone episode.

Further out is Deep Ellum, a neighborhood that features nothing but music clubs and tattoo parlors. Here, too, development didn’t begin until long after I left town, and my few visits to the area were marked by extreme frustration over the lack of parking. That’s not a problem when you take the DART train, though the “Deep Ellum” station is actually a couple of blocks away from the authentic quarter, which in itself is quite spread out and decidedly not conceived with pedestrian traffic in mind. Still, there’s virtually no more excuse now to be the uncool sort of person who doesn’t hang out in Deep Ellum.

Since Dallas weather tends to be frigid in winter and blistering in summer — and since spring and autumn are more theory than seasons here — you may not be willing to endure the walks from station to landmark around town, though hardy urbanite that I’ve become, I don’t mind a bit. One of these days, I’m going to try the link to Fort Worth’s transit system, too.

Presumably, as Dallasites accustom themselves to the advantages of the rail system, they’ll use it more and make improvements, too. It would be nice not to have to go all the way downtown just to transfer to a given line, for example, and it would be very nice if the Denton trains ran more often, so that (for example) you might go out for the evening and not be stranded in Dallas.

But the very attempt at mass public transit in any part of Texas must be applauded. For those with limited budgets or no drivers license, there’s no calculating the benefits of liberty and mobility in a state that scoffs at the vastest suburban sprawl. And never mind the trouble I’d have enjoyed getting into, when I was a boy, if only I’d had this resource available.

Really, never mind. I’m sure I’d have lost my virginity eventually. I regret nothing.

All aboard for adventure!

*NOTE: When Godson #1 was a baby, we used to take him to the “grocery store” Herrera’s, where the total lack of décor and the limitless patience of the staff proved invaluable, since little Will invariably flung 98 percent of his own dinner and a substantial percentage of ours all over the restaurant. We used to leave extravagant tips as a means of apologizing for the cleanup that Will necessitated; it’s a wonder he ate enough to sustain himself. Now that he’s looking forward to his sophomore year at The University of Texas at Austin, we have to come up with other excuses and explanations for his conduct at the table.

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