Dallas vs. Houston: A Tale of Two Transit Cities


Houston and Dallas.  Both in Texas, roughly 4 hours apart on Interstate 45, two cities with a deep not-unlike-Southern-culture car-eccentric environment, with a few pickup trucks in the mix.  OK, maybe not a few…many hundreds.  Nevertheless, in both the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex and in metropolitan Houston, the car is king and urban and suburban sprawl play a major part into the shaping of both cities.  Houston is a much larger city in terms of population than Dallas, but Dallas is larger in size geographically.  Houston Metro serves most of Harris County, and Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) serves Dallas and 12 other member cities in Dallas County.

Yet, Dallas transit-wise is much different than Houston, with more light rail lines (at 90 miles it is the largest light rail network in the U.S.) than Houston, although Houston’s light rail is more of a modern twist to an old idea, with low-floor light rail cars that nearly set the standard for future light rail systems in the U.S.

Dallas started their light rail system in 1996, with a 20-mile starter light rail system which ran out to Westmoreland and Ledbetter in South Oak Cliff and up to Mockingbird in Uptown Dallas.  Since then, the system nearly doubled in size in 2002 when it reached Plano, Richardson, and Garland and then doubled again in 2010 with extensions to Irving, Carrollton, Farmers Branch and southeast Dallas.  Soon, the light rail system will reach Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport and the University of North Texas near Camp Wisdom.  All of the bus routes that served these member cities prior to the light rail were rerouted and converted to crosstown routes (400-series routes) or rail feeder routes (500-series routes) to complement the light rail extensions and to reduce the need for higher frequencies and articulated buses, which they have used in the past.  Connections are made at Union and Victory to the Trinity Railway Express, a commuter rail line which travels between Dallas and Fort Worth and a number of places in between, including Irving, Grapevine, and Richland Hills.  With increasing traffic on I-30 and I-35E/I-35W, the transit system is showing signs of growth and increased economic activity by way of hundreds of homes near light rail stations being built and thousands of jobs created.

Houston’s light rail started in 2002 with the Main Street line which ran from the University of Houston Downtown Campus to the Texas Medical Center District and to Fannin South Park and Ride.  No expansion occurred until just last year with the extension to Houston Community College and Northline Transit Center, and soon there shall be two new lines to connect with the now Red Line, the Green and Purple lines, which will take riders to the East End and Southeast Houston, respectively.  Well, if you understood the history of the light rail in its first 5-10 years of operation, you can sort of see why.  Let’s just say, it wasn’t called the “Wham Bam Tram” for nothing.  On average, due to Houstonians not being as accustomed to light rail operations on roadways as other cities, there was an accident in the system every 3.5 days.

Want proof?

There’s your proof?

Here’s some more:  Destroyed in Seconds clip

Now, can that be attributed to lack of light rail safety awareness?  Maybe.  Lack of planning?  Maybe.  The fact that the entire Metro light rail system is street-running?  In other words, no running on private track in someone’s backyard or through someone’s park-and-ride lots?  Possibly.  Even though Houston was notorious for having the worst drivers in the country, Metro still presses on to build out their dream light rail system for its city.  An ambition 5-line plan with service to The East End, the Southeast, the University Corridor, the Greenway, and Uptown.  Originally, due to the light rail horror stories and Metro’s lack of sufficient funding, they were to go ahead and draw out an alternative, extensive Bus Rapid Transit system to make buses faster and easier to use.  It was voted on more recently to go ahead with the light rail master plan instead.  My rides on the MetroRail Red Line were pretty smooth and were pretty packed, especially around the rush hours, and traffic was compliant with rail crossing and street-running driving rules.

If you really look at Dallas and Houston and their geographical makeup, they are pretty much the same, in terms of land usage, property placement, zoning, and the amount of sprawl and highways to accommodate the sprawl.  What differs is a few minor things:

  1. Dallas drivers aren’t as hostile on the highways and local roads as Houston drivers
  2. The DART light rail has significantly more private right-of-way operations than Houston (DART’s private ROW running is approximately 90% of their system, compared to Houston’s 10% private ROW)
  3. DART’s light rail system appears to be more designed for congestion relief along the major highways for long distances; Houston’s light rail appears to be more street-oriented and focused on serving more densely developed business corridors rather than serve as highway relief, which is well accommodated by their extensive Park-and-Ride commuter express bus network.
  4. DART’s light rail is meant to serve larger amounts of riders in areas where their Express buses are lacking; Houston’s light rail better serves Downtown, Midtown, and the Texas Medical Center districts.

DART having started their light rail almost a decade before Houston’s surely made an impact on the driving habits of Dallas area drivers, but what makes DART different is that a) most Dallas area residents already have experience with active rail crossings due to the heavy freight presence, b) most of DART’s rail system follows highways or runs through woods or tunnels, and c) there is very little interaction between DART trains and passenger cars on roads where they do interact.  Houston is different, although their new extensions of the system fail to provide any right-of-way protection as seen in Dallas.  Even though there are far fewer train-car accidents in Houston, I don’t know what to think about the repercussions of new light rail service on the Green and Purple lines if they are going with primarily street-running.  Not to say that there isn’t any (in fact, part of the Purple Line involves a rail trail to be converted for light rail usage), but I worry about the ramifications of running on the street for more track miles.

With that said, even with my short time recently in both cities (Houston I visited for the first time, Dallas saw my third visit), I realized that between the two cities, the access to transportation is vastly different in mindset and in right-of-way layout.  I will try to go back to Houston at a later date to further explore the Park-and-Ride routes and the local bus service in new light rail territory, but for now, I would say that transit-wise, Dallas has the advantage.

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3 Responses to Dallas vs. Houston: A Tale of Two Transit Cities

  1. Paul K McGregor says:

    I worked in both Dallas and Houston when both of their rail lines started up and you have described the differences pefectly. Dallas purchased a ton of railroad right-of-way from Santa Fe so that is why a lot more of their system is grade separated. DART even controls rail lines far from their service area. Another reason for the difference is how DART and Metro are structured. DART is made up of member cities and the rail line developed more like an interurban system to link these various cities together. With the exception of a few smaller suburban cities, Metro is pretty much made up of the City of Houston so the rail lines will tend to be more streetcar lines to serve urban destinations.
    I am also hoping that the new DART streetcar line that is currently under construction between downtown Dallas and Oak Cliff will expand further through the north Oak Cliff area and even through West Dallas. These areas could benefit from a streetcar type system.

    • C. Walton says:

      I couldn’t have said it any better. As for the Santa Fe ROW comment, that actually makes a lot of sense, esp. when you look at what DART and the “T” are pursuing to get the Cotton Belt Line going in about 10 years. As far as building DART Rail as an “Interurban” railway, that makes total sense.

      • Mister Nifty says:

        Why is everyone pretending that there is something to compare between the light rail systems in Dallas and in Houston? Light rail to both IAH and to Hobby airports is just a far off dream. When Metro does finally get serious, they will have to build two lines to connect downtown to both airports. And through what neighborhoods will Metro run those lines to the airport? Again, this is all about contrast. A total of five medical centers are going to be hooked up by six rail lines to downtown Dallas when the trolley line is completed to Oak Cliff. That is a station at Baylor Medical Center, one at the Veterans Medical Center, one at the Presbyterian Medical Center, a trolley going to Methodist in Oak Cliff, and two stations with one a commuter and the other a light rail one going to Southwestern Medical district.
        Another contrast, unlike Houston, Dart didn’t waste its time building the DART lines to places that were already working well. For example, the straight stretch of Main Street and Fanin cutting through the Museum district between downtown Houston and the Texas Medical Center were already working. In Dallas, Dart by-passed North Oak Cliff by purchasing and building an old line which first travels through the Cedars neighborhood south of downtown before turning to head east on a bridge over the Trinity River into Oak Cliff. In this way, Dart connected downtown with the zoo. In other words, while north Oak Cliff is really booming today being ready made with the Bishops Arts District and Jefferson Blvd., the Dart line to Oak Cliff actually travels a mile further out from there helping to revive the classic neighborhoods of Wynnwood and Edgefield.

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